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Home is Grad School, Abroad is Kindergarten

I’ve spent the last two months or so traveling around the United States, and I enjoyed every moment of it (yes, even the stressful, no-sleep-for-days-and-living-on-caffeine moments).

I learned an amazing amount about the US and the people living in it.

I’ve now been to almost all of the states in the union (still looking at a double-handful that I need to check out in the near-future) and met a ridiculous number of the readers, other bloggers, and random awesome people that are scattered all over the country. I feel privileged to have been able to make their acquaintance and check out their hoods (thanks everybody!).

Though I learn a lot traveling around in the States, I always learn a whole lot more much faster when traveling in a new country.

I think of it as the difference between being a Graduate student and a Kindergartner.

When you’re in your own country, you have a lot of background in the subject of the history, geography, sociology, and psychology of the area, whether you think you do or not. Just by existing that long in one place you take in a lot of information, and if you’ve been doing this for a number of years you’re bound to have a huge depth of knowledge, even if it feels like you are simply going about your everyday existence.

When you learn something new, it’s generally some advanced-level stuff.

When you’re in another country on the other hand, almost everything is new and shiny and unfamiliar. Look at that! And that! And that! They have cars like that here? What’s that thing they’re eating? How do I use the toilet?

A short jaunt to the corner convenience store can be a massive education. A stroll to the library an even bigger one. And trying to negotiate pricing and benefits when finding a place to live? Don’t even get me started.

This is a big part of why I love traveling to places I’ve never been. The ratio of effort and time to what I learn is incredibly favorable.

I still enjoy taking on some advanced level American education from time to time, but it’s nice to have millions of little, easy victories to perk myself up with when I’m thinking about how many years it took me to find out that there are two distinct types of barbecue in North Carolina (Eastern Style and Lexington Style) and that in Santa Fe residents are legally obligated to build their houses in that wild adobe style.

I required 25 years of background knowledge about the US before I thought to ask about such things.

On the other hand, I landed in Bangkok yesterday, and I figured out how to use the train today (and successfully identified all the currency). Whip out the coloring books and Legos, because I’m back to basics.

I’m thrilled about my return to Kindergarten. I’ll be sure to tell you what I learn, and how I do on my report card.

Update: January 26, 2017

This is still so true: I feel like the deluge of learning overseas is almost all simple stuff that everyone else understands already, while the things I learn in the US, which is more familiar terrain, requires vastly more effort, but is also far more advanced.

That said, I’ve found the same can be true of fields outside one’s realm of previous experience, not just locations. I’ve been learning to cook, of late, and every time I learn a new technique or recipe, things that I feel like everyone in the world already accomplished long ago, I get that same childish feeling of accomplishment I would get as a child after completing a puzzle or successfully tying my shoelaces. A different sort of victory, but still valuable.