In hindsight, growing up in white, middle-class suburbia in 1980s America was kind of like being brainwashed. I grew up believing that having money was an objective to strive for and that life was a ruthless competition. I worked hard in school and got a good job because that was what was expected of me. That was the path that was supposed to bring me happiness, except I followed that path, and I wasn’t happy.
At 23, I was already living the corporate rat race, working nearly 60 hours a week for a huge multinational conglomerate in Washington, D.C., and I felt too young for the lifestyle I was leading. In the course of my two years there, Washington had turned me from a naive political science graduate with aspirations of single-handedly changing a failing political system into a jaded, disenchanted old lady.
The tipping point came while I was sitting at home one Sunday evening. I felt a mounting sense of dread at the prospect of having to go to work the next day, and I started strategizing about how to stage my own kidnapping in order to get a few days off. That’s when I realized that I had been betrayed. I had believed every word of the American dream – work hard, make money, be happy – but it wasn’t so. Something had to change.
I had friends who were working hard to prepare for early retirement, and even though I had no idea what else I could do, there was no way I was waiting that long to enjoy life.
One of the obvious alternatives pointed out to me, constantly and mostly by men, was to find a husband. That may have been the logical next step to most people, but after I read The Grown-Up’s Guide to Running Away From Home by Rosanne Knorr, I was convinced I needed to move away. I had traveled extensively on family vacations throughout my childhood and had recently returned from a work-related trip to Honduras. I thought about those experiences and dreamed of seeing the world, learning a language and being immersed in different cultures.
I had believed every word of the American dream – work hard, make money, be happy – but it wasn’t so. Something had to change.
It seemed that I needed to do something radical to find the happiness I hadn’t found via the “American dream,” and what could be more radical than leaving behind my country to live in another?
It was a pivotal moment in my life. I knew that if I brushed the idea under the rug and pretended it wasn’t there, I would end up regretting it, so I leaned into it.
After deciding to talk to everyone I could about my need to leave the country, I realized that I knew a lot of people who knew people who have done exactly what I wanted to do. One of those stories helped me choose a destination. A friend of a friend had moved to the Virgin Islands and was making more money taking tourists out snorkeling than he did working at his office job. That was it: If the Caribbean wasn’t a symbol of happiness, I didn’t know what was!
I didn’t hesitate to give my two weeks resignation letter to my boss after that conversation, and I reduced my belongings to merely a backpack. I went from owning a closet full of designer pantsuits to getting by on two pairs of shorts, three T-shirts and a pair of Tevas. I chose Guadeloupe, a French overseas territory in the West Indies, because I wanted to live in a non-English-speaking country, but knew there wouldn’t be a complete language barrier since I learned French in high school.
A few short months after giving my notice, I was sitting on a plane, looking out the window at the palm trees and sugar cane fields as we landed. It was the most liberating experience of my life because, finally, I was doing something for myself that I chose. My friends and family supported my decision mostly because they all thought that I just needed a year of travel to “get it out of my system.” But a year abroad turned into 20, and I never went back.
From Guadeloupe I traveled around the Caribbean and Latin America before settling in Europe. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has always been mine. On more than one occasion I questioned moving back to the U.S., but why I never did can only be explained by a combination of changing ideals – mine and the country’s – that to this day have not been reconciled.
Living abroad helped me see that life is not a race or a competition. The people I met abroad showed me how to find pleasure in leisurely lunches and long conversations. While I had always felt my life in the States was like a hierarchical ladder, with work being on the top rung, my life abroad felt more like a circle ― work was important but so were friends, hobbies and personal happiness. My lifestyle abroad felt more natural and focused on enjoying the present moment rather than a constant struggle to achieve “success” at some undetermined time in the future.
On more than one occasion I questioned moving back to the U.S., but why I never did can only be explained by a combination of changing ideals – mine and the country’s – that to this day have not been reconciled.
I grew up believing that the United States was the greatest country on Earth. In school I read that we were founded by pioneers with grand democratic ideals. We were the instigators of change, the protectors of justice and the leaders of the free world. It never occurred to me that the nature of us flaunting ourselves as No. 1 meant everyone else was second best. And when I experienced firsthand that “second best” was actually a whole lot better than what I was taught to believe, I felt a profound sense of betrayal.
The U.S. is not the same country today that it was when I left it 20 years ago. I didn’t live in the America that’s scared to send its children to school for fear that they’ll be massacred by an adolescent with access to assault weapons. When I went back for a visit in the spring of 2017, I was horrified to learn that my high school in upstate New York has become a kind of gated community – no unauthorized visitors are allowed on the premises. Students need to pass through metal detectors to get inside and are patted down as if they are about to board a plane. My former elementary school is now littered with security cameras. It deeply saddens me that my teacher friends have to worry that they may need to start bringing guns into their classrooms for self-defense. It feels like the situation has gotten out of control and that America has spiraled into a gun-slinging Westworld.
Living in Europe has afforded me a luxury I never thought would matter – gun control. There’s nothing better than knowing that no one I know owns a gun. In the south of France, where I live, it is absolutely impossible to walk into a store, buy a gun and ammo, and leave with them in the same day. And beyond all of that, the military-grade weapons you can buy anywhere in the U.S. are illegal for ordinary citizens to purchase.
Of course gun control is not the only benefit I enjoy living in Europe. I certainly could say more about the work-life balance provided by the 35-hour workweek, the five weeks of paid vacation I enjoy each year, the two years paid unemployment benefits I would receive should I lose my job, my access to free health care, paid maternity leave, affordable child care, free education from age 3 through to university or the state-provided retirement pension I will receive at age 65.
Living abroad is not a choice for everyone, and I’m certainly not advocating that people massively immigrate elsewhere. However, it should be cause for reflection: Why is everyone taught to seek something better for their future rather than enjoy the present? Why is the U.S. government unwilling to fix issues around mental health, gun control and education, when those things will clearly improve the lives of its citizens? How many people have to die before something is done? Why is health and well-being for all not a national priority?
I love America but I hate what it is becoming. I’m sad that I cannot share the protection and benefits I enjoy daily with my American loved ones who are as deserving of them as I am. So while I chose to leave it, if others don’t want to, I now try to encourage them to fight for change.
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