From US Citizen to Global Citizen

Melissa Presti
July 12, 2020

Life Before World Travel

Predictable would be the one word I would use to describe my life before I left everything behind to travel the world. I had earned a 4-year college degree, started a dream career in New York City, and I was going through the seasonal motions of vacations, relationships, and lazy weekends. These were the things and circumstances I was always conditioned to want for myself, and maybe you can relate.

In the U.S. in 2020, our lives look a lot different than our ancestors who first came - in pursuit of the American dream or otherwise, but the indicators of success still look the same. We may not even realize we’ve been following a blueprint to ensure that we continue the legacy of the American dream: education, career, homeownership, marriage, and children of the next generation. These have become the benchmarks of that success. But have we actually failed if we don’t achieve them all?

We tend to compare our successes and then judge those who have fallen short - regardless of their station in life. We also tend to measure our worth by the value of our possessions. So it’s easy to see why we would look at celebrities and social media accounts and determine that our lives basically suck by comparison. We don’t feel rich enough or pretty enough or successful enough. We definitely aren’t well-traveled enough.

We want the lifestyle that seems so far out of reach, and so we sit around, questioning the unfairness of it all. If only we had been born into different families, under different circumstances and socioeconomic status. If only we could afford these luxuries, THEN we’d be happy. If only…

Travel is about to turn that all upside down.

As a U.S. citizen, all that we’ve known about our country and our identity will be absolutely shattered once we travel outside these borders. That’s not to say we’ll become anti-American or develop any kind of animosity towards the land that raised us. But I would be lying if I said you would return unchanged (and spoiler alert: world travel is WAY more affordable than we’re taught to believe).

Becoming a citizen of the world doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen on your first vacation out of the country or the short trips you take here and there with the limited time we’re granted off from work. It comes from slow travel. The kind that takes months to grow from the experiences that are gradually building your global identity.

What I’ve learned from 4 years of travel

When I first came home back to the U.S. after 5 months of travel around Southeast Asia and Europe, the impact didn’t quite hit me upon landing. I think every traveler has mixed feelings when a trip comes to an end - on one hand, you’re not ready to end your incredible journey, but on the other hand, you’re looking forward to seeing friends and family and integrating back into your social life. 

It didn’t take long until I started to feel a giant hole in my heart as if something had been physically removed from my body. I had no idea that travel wasn’t something I was adding to my life, it was actually filling an empty place inside me. There were a lot of moments during my Edumadic trip where I was living so far outside my comfort zone that it became my new normal. I was constantly testing my adaptability to each new environment and set of challenges, I was discovering the adrenaline rush from choosing bravery over fear when I tried new things, and I was overcoming social anxiety among a group of people I didn’t know and in countries where I knew no one. 

I had become a better and more authentic version of myself, and I feared losing that person if I stopped traveling (I know I still fear that). 

When I first decided to embark on long-term travel, I had a few goals in mind.

  1. I wanted to meet new people who would challenge my world views.
  2. I wanted to revel in the beauty of each new landscape that only seemed to exist in books and on TV and social media.
  3. I wanted to do something that scared me every single day.
  4. I wanted to build a better relationship with myself.
  5. I wanted to leave a positive impact on the people and places I left behind.

I checked off all of those goals, in very deep and personal ways, and I don’t know if I could ever accurately describe it to anyone. I had to reconcile a lot of what I learned against everything I had previously known. 

We throw around the phrase “first world problems” a lot but it lost its humor after I spent so much time in developing countries without a lot of the creature comforts from home that I was used to. And I didn’t suffer or complain because of it - I actually thrived without the constant need to buy new and shiny things. My perception of what it meant to truly have a happy and fulfilling life was quickly changing. I would see and interact with locals who had a fraction of the things I had back home and they were happier than me

The locals and fellow travelers I met from all over the world also didn’t express a ton of interest in America. I received many happy exclamations when I said where I was from, but I didn’t meet too many people who were longing for the day they could live out the American dream. We discussed politics, healthcare, and education, and I learned where America came up short in parts of those conversations. 

I also noticed that I dropped any sense of defense during these discussions because these were teaching moments for me to see what someone else sees when they look at my country. 

The U.S. is not a perfect place that has everything figured out, not by a long shot. I know that because I still have a mountain of student loan debt, I’m living on the edge without proper healthcare, and it’s my personal belief that this pandemic has been politically mishandled. 

Where I have become defensive is when I hear my American friends and family perpetuating the idea that the world outside the U.S. is dangerous, or generalizing an entire culture by a few anecdotal things they’ve heard, not experienced themselves. It’s easy to be an armchair expert and fear the worst than to give yourself the opportunity to shift that perspective. I’ve learned that my street smarts and instincts serve me well in any country, and I’ve had more people go out of their way to help me and shown me kindness than I’ve ever experienced anywhere. These are the important experiences that will break down the barriers of prejudice and replace them with tolerance.

It’s my hope that other first-time travelers, as well as seasoned digital nomads, remain open to the possibility of change. Stepping into new cultures is always going to present us with a different way of doing things, and to assume that your native country does everything the right way will only prevent you from making significant personal growth. We are capable of so much more than any limiting beliefs we possess pre-travel.

Now that I’ve been a digital nomad for the last 4 years, there really is no going back to the bubble I lived in before! We’re meant to continue evolving as humans the more we interact with others and learn about the world around us. Extensive travel is the quickest way to begin a profound transformation - I’ve never met someone who has come back from world travel completely unchanged!