Does Going Abroad Make You More Affectionate?

In case you didn’t know, I have booked my flight to Colombia. I am officially going on my first extended time abroad in January.

This week I have been reflecting on what will happen when I go abroad. What will I learn? Who will I meet? Will I change significantly? How will I deal with these changes?

I am generally an over-thinker to begin with… But I really see this as the first step in a long-term plan to spend a significant amount of time living abroad. And one of the things I am aware of from reading the writings of other travelers is that traveling opens your eyes up to new worlds.

I relish this possibility, because I am always wondering how much of my personality and beliefs stem from the culture and environment I was raised in… Perhaps especially in ways I don’t even realize. (Do you wonder this too? 🙂 )

I wonder if my habits and ways of relating are not merely the result of choices and decisions I’ve made over the years, but rather they are heavily (perhaps mostly?) the product of simply living in the culture I grew up in: America. Upper-middle class. “Christian.”

I generally take pride in being an independent thinker… but what if I am more shaped by my environment than I care to admit?

Let’s take one aspect of relating that I have acquired thus far: affection.

I grew up in a context where in general physical contact and affection were present, but they were not easy and free-flowing. I would hug family members and good friends, but in terms of greeting everyone else the hugs (if there were any) were very short and “polite”, and perhaps even “distant.” (I trust you know the difference between a full, joy-filled embrace and a short, “distant” or “polite” hug.)

Admittedly, hugging is normally a two-way street… So I was involved in giving these brief, shallow hugs as much as I was involved in receiving them. Even today I don’t find myself giving or receiving big, full, affectionate hugs.

Now, perhaps everyone’s experience of hugs in America varies, but this was just my experience– including professionally, by the way, when in teacher training they tell you to “never touch a child.”

In other words, the message was that we simply cannot trust anyone who shows physical affection.

It doesn’t matter if the kid you intend on showing affection to doesn’t have two loving parents at home, or that they are going through a tough time in their lives, or that you are just happy to see them… In America, the parents might sue you if you so much as unexpectedly tap a student on the shoulder. So, be aware that when you hug someone you could be doing something wrong, even if you are just showing them kindness. Make sure you do not embrace any student in any way.

It’s this kind of apprehension about affection that permeated my educational upbringing as well as my professional life in America. Somehow, we have become so skeptical of each other. We forget we are brothers and sisters in our humanity… Do I exaggerate?

I really wonder how this has affected me…

When I go to Colombia in a few months, I am hoping to be fully immersed in a culture of natural, expressive physical affection.

I would like to give and receive a lot of full, joyous hugs. I would like to have genuine, unpretentious introductions. I wouldn’t mind Colombians putting their arm around me and calling me “gringo” with a smile on their face. In greeting women I don’t know, I would like to kiss them on the cheek, and them to kiss me on the cheek.

I know, I know… I could do this in America… but generally it’s not a part of the culture… it is not normally the way people greet.

Anyways, this is what I hear of Colombians… They are genuine, kind, and affectionate. And I am looking forward to seeing how this will affect me. Will this increase in affection help me to break down old walls? Will it help me relax more and be myself? Will it really change me significantly so that I am a more kind and loving person?

I wonder… Because what if it does?

If it does change me for the better, then I might not want to come back to the United States. If it does break down old walls, why would I come back to an environment which taught me to put them up? If it does make me more relaxed, why would I come back to a hyper-tense, less-affectionate American context? (I just wonder if travel will be so life changing that I might not recognize myself!)

If you have experienced a significant change for the better while travelling, I would be very happy if you shared it with me.

Do you find it more difficult to go back to your old “closed” life in your home country once you have been “opened” during your travels?

  • Jonny

    Do you find it more difficult to go back to your old “closed” life in your home country once you have been “opened” during your travels?

    Most definitely. Recently I spent time travelling around Thailand, the States and India and have found that I see life through very different eyes now that I have returned back to the UK for a while. Travel expands your mind more than anything else you could probably do, sort of have a baby. (Travel is cheaper)

    • Ryan

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment, Jonny! I am really looking forward to extended travel and experiencing more of the world… In what ways do you have “different eyes”, specifically, as the result of your travels? Do you have certain attitudes now that you didn’t have before?

  • Dear Ryan,
    This is an interesting post! I find that many aspect of foreign places do seem to rub off on me, but over time, I revert back to my old ways again… one specific example is that I am naturally a morning person, but you’ll find in Colombia and many parts of the world that there are thriving night cultures. I can adjust in those places and hope to carry that same momentum for staying out late when I come home, and somehow it fades over time…

    I think you will find Colombians very warm people, which is always a nice thing!

    • Ryan

      Mary- This is interesting. So: many changes you experience from going abroad fade away with time… I wish this weren’t the case, but it’s probably the reality… I wonder if I can be selective and just pick the changes that are positive so I keep them? Ha!

      Thanks for stopping by, Mary! So you’ve been to Colombia??

  • Ryan,

    Interesting that you have these thoughts before you leave. I imagine most people think about how a trip will change them but not really in the affectionate way. I think this is due to our “apprehension about affection” that is among us here.

    I imagine there are two types of communities that you will come in contact with. The first is your fellow travelers. People you meet in hostels, restaurants, or other popular places. There tends to be an instant camaraderie – everyone looks out for everybody else because nobody really has anybody else. It’s instant friendship and in my travels I would find myself meeting friends in a hostel in the afternoon and by nighttime 10 of us – strangers from the ends of the earth – were singing songs and drinking wine out of a box out on the street corner (Melbourne, AUS).

    What many travelers do not have the opportunity to engage in is the local community. Travel is typically time limited and due to hitting the popular places, there is usually no time to meet the locals. Unless the traveler is doing study abroad or working, this is usually the case. (In Orlando I think nearly half of the 2 million people there at any time are not residents. That’s a poor ratio to meet an Orlando-ite. Most people come away only having met a person dressed up like a mouse [who’s probably a non-orlando native] and have that experience as to who people in Orlando are like.) With your extended time in Colombia, I hope you can meet the locals and discover more of a glimpse of what the local culture truly is.

    To echo Jonny and Mary R, the the fading upon returning home is hard to counter. What is worth the most in your travels (adventure, sunsets, showers, tea time) is worth the least back home (replaced by work, bills, and babies). I think this is attributed more to the “travel” aspect whether it’s to Colombia or the Everglades. Sometimes travelers mistake the experience of travel for the experience of location.

    Good on ya-

    • Ryan

      An epic comment, Michael. Thanks for taking the time to share.

      The fading upon returning home is something I am not looking forward to. I remember feeling it every time I’ve returned from Canada… and especially when I returned from China. I remember having the feeling like I really wanted to hold onto what I experienced, but that it was slipping away as I get immersed back into America. Remembering the kids we met in China has on occasion brought me to tears.

      Why is this? Why is it that we experience life so much overseas but then return to mediocrity of experience back home? I recognize there is a place for “home” but is there not a permanent place for “travel experiences” in our lives? Maybe one day it will be understood as part of life that one needs to travel.

      Or perhaps there is a paradox of longing for depth vs. longing for newness that haunts us, and we don’t know what to do about it.

  • Ryan, I have found people in Colombia to be exceedingly affectionate, especially in Cali where everyone calls each other “mi amor” and “mami.” Mami means honey. Cali is a little Rio-like in that way, in that everyone is so promiscuously affectionate, but it is quite sweet. I became more affectionate with other gringos too and hope to bring back at least some of this to the States with me.

    • Ryan

      Hey Sasha! Thanks for the comment. I also read your post about Colombians calling just to “saludar”… I think the friendliness of the culture is just great. I hope to pick up some of this and make it permanent, but unfortunately some travelers have told me it wears off when you return… but then again, who says you have to return?? 🙂