In 2019, I traveled to 12 countries across the globe. I started in Da Nang, Vietnam, where I spent New Year’s Day, then backpacked across Eastern Europe for the summer, returning to Southeast Asia in September. I visited south Vietnam, spent three weeks in Cambodia, another three weeks in Bali, Indonesia, 10 days in New Zealand, coming back to live in Da Nang with my girlfriend, who I’d met in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
At the start of the year I was teaching English online from the US, with a six-month contract. That job initiated a major change for me: to hop on a plane and head for Beijing’s time zone. That way, I knew I’d be in sync with my students’ learning hours, instead of waking up at 5 or 6 AM on the East Coast of America to work.
I had always been interested in traveling and had seen a great deal of the U.S. by taking cross-country buses touring as a sound man for a Beatles impersonation group. In essence, my work life led me to travel, as it had for my father before me. Traveling was in my DNA. There was no way to escape it.
Working as a freelance copy editor online had allowed me to have an apartment -- and a way of life -- in South Philadelphia. But I longed for the traveling life.
I’d read about English teachers who had left their homes, entering into programs abroad to get certified to teach in foreign countries. Initially, that was my plan. I wanted something that permitted me a little more freedom to explore different cultures abroad.
Da Nang, Vietnam was a place I had read about when researching my possible future life. Online, I saw expats walking along the beach, filming themselves with big smiles, telling the world that they had made the best decision of their lives. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be free!
In the process of researching what it took to be an ESL teacher, I found that most actually worked online. This was a new discovery for me, and it’s how I found the small community of English teachers in Da Nang. There, I could teach from an inexpensive apartment, right near the beach.
Arriving abroad, I was surprised to discover how friendly most people were. The Vietnamese people were so warm and kind, even in the rainy months and the blistering heat. Cambodia was like that, too. I remember being full of wonder, exploring the main city square in Phnom Penh, an open expanse of cars and traffic underneath the reddish-orange hue of the sunset.
In Da Nang, eating pho for $2 a bowl and being able to walk to the beach for a swim in 70-degree water, blue and green and crystal clear, was like living in a dreamworld. The white sand beaches and the friendly people made me feel alive. And free.
Vietnamese people would come up to me on the beach, just to say hello and practice their English with me. And it was the same when I traveled to Turkey for a month with my Chinese girlfriend. The Turkish people I met on the streets of Antalya simply wanted to talk, to have tea or coffee and to practice their English. I had never really encountered anybody in the U.S. who wanted to have a friendly conversation with a stranger. This intrigued me to no end.
There were certain moments, though, especially in Berlin, Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest, where the cultural divide felt especially pronounced. I tend to dress rather casually, and before backpacking through Eastern Europe, I’d been in Southeast Asia for six months. Needless to say, my wardrobe had whittled down to the bare necessities. By the time I got to Budapest I was at the end of my laundry cycle, and I definitely got some stern looks from the locals. In Prague and Bratislava, too, I felt people staring at me -- and not out of curiosity.
If I could offer any advice about traveling abroad, it’s to be ready for anything. Cultural differences manifest in the smallest ways, and you will learn to understand them by staying open-minded in all situations, even something as simple as running out of clean clothes in a strange, distant place. Ultimately, I got over the fact that some people weren’t going to like me. And I embraced those who did. This approach helped me to be more comfortable in my shoes. Or flip flops, in my case. Getting out of my comfort zone has made me so much better at handling stressful situations.
More importantly, I encountered the overwhelming kindness of strangers. For example, while staying in Da Nang, my rented scooter broke down, leaving me and my girlfriend stranded at the beach. We walked home, leaving the bike where it was. The next day, when I went to retrieve it, Vietnamese locals approached, trying to help me get the bike started. One woman even helped me call the rental place, and the owner came within minutes, giving me a lift and offering me a new bike, free of charge. I was touched by all the locals who had reached out to help me when I needed it.
I am still traveling abroad, as a freelance copy editor and writer. But I learned a lot about myself while visiting 12 countries in the best year of my life. All the memories and moments will last a lifetime.
Looking back on everything, if I could’ve changed one thing, it would be to lighten up and have more fun. Money comes and goes, so there’s no point worrying about it.
The desire to explore the world is one that can never be extinguished. So long as you have the will and capacity to dream. Anything’s possible. Especially if you believe it to be true.
My future plans are to keep traveling and working as a freelancer. I'm still based in Da Nang, and might soon go to China. I work as a copy editor for an educational website and just recently I finished a two-week project with an online teaching company based out of China. I'd like to continue these jobs, as they help fund my life as a traveling writer.
Traveling abroad has opened up a lot of possibilities for me as a writer and a "digital nomad". I've been able to observe different cultures and to live in different places which have helped me to better understand my place in the world. I've also been able to meet many different people which has given me more confidence as a writer and human being. Living abroad can be challenging at times, but I've been able to embrace it and it's definitely something that's made me much more confident.
Bryan’s story provides an excellent example of how time abroad can contribute to personal growth, change your career aspirations and develop strength of character. Bryan is a committed globe-trotter, and, having spent more than a year traveling, he is now a seasoned pro at cross-cultural communication in Asia and beyond. His story demonstrates the potential of online work for those interested in seeing the world. To further immerse into local culture abroad, we suggest getting involved in local groups, volunteering or interning. The online gig economy is a fantastic way to fund international travel, but getting involved in long-term face-to-face projects abroad will bring unexpected career opportunities and an increased understanding of the “deep culture” abroad.
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- What Expats Say: Adaptation, Work & Pragmatism provides a few great tips and insights from pragmatic expats who’ve managed to adapt in creative ways.
- Becoming a Digital Nomad offers a quick look at the digital nomad career path that Bryan has set out on.
- How to Professionalize Your Working Holiday is all about professionalizing casual work or tourist experiences abroad.