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Dear Me #2 — Live Your Best Life Overseas


by Karis Zeller

September 20, 2020

Dear Younger Karis,

Something very exciting and life changing is going to happen in your future. Those family trips that you took as a child are going to open doors for you that you might never have believed were possible.

When you came home to the US from Sweden at twelve years old with a Swedish accent, it woke a travel bug in you. But I’m writing here to offer you some wisdom for those future years when things will seem uncertain in your travels.

Wherever you go, make friends with the locals. Yes, it’s easier to make friends with people who you can relate to, like your fellow Americans, but ultimately, you will learn the culture and the language and understand the country much better if you make friends with the locals.

Try to learn the language of the country you live in. It is a privilege to be a native English speaker, but it is your duty to learn the language of your adopted country. All business needs to be carried out in the local language, and you need these skills in order to survive. Some languages will be easier than others, and some might take a lifetime to master, but you must always be open to learning.

Making friends with locals means that you can learn language nuances and slang. For example, in Kenya, you aren’t really going to learn Swahili, but you’re going to be pretty good at Sheng, the local lingo. “How are you” in Sheng (uko poa) will get you much farther than Swahili (habari yako). And the only way you learn Sheng is by speaking with locals. There are no books on how to learn Sheng!

In Germany, speaking with the locals will help you get over your fears and shyness and not worry about making mistakes anymore. Germans, although brusque, can be helpful. You will never forget that a coffee is masculine because the barista will correct you if you order in the wrong gender. And your students will gently correct you when you say “Mit mich?” by responding, “Ja, mit dir?”

You will learn that any attempt at a local’s language will earn you respect, even if you speak it badly, or hardly at all. Most people appreciate it when you try—so keep trying and don’t give up!

Making friends with locals means that you will see another side to the cities and countries that you visit. You will learn what cream tea is in England, how the settlements work in Palestine, and what it’s like to drive in Africa, where you must always drive offensively and defensively at the same time in order to survive.

Making friends with expats is going to be difficult. Expats are constantly on the move. Some stay for years and then suddenly go back to their home country. Others flit in and out of countries like they are just dipping in their toes. Some expats become immigrants, and they settle down and become almost like the locals. Don’t be afraid to make friends with expats, because they are often a friendly face in what can feel like an intimidating world, especially when you are new.

Making friends with Americans will feel like a relief after all the years of trying to make friends in other countries. Some countries are exceptionally difficult to make friends in, and others are exceptionally easy. You will always be able to find an American somewhere, and it will feel wonderful to be able to talk with them about how things are back home and moan over language problems or foods that you miss.

As strange as it might seem, try to keep some of your Americanness. This country gave you a wonderful upbringing. Your family lives there, and there is so much that is also great about America. Be proud to be American, even when the times seem difficult for this great country. It was founded on opportunity, freedom, and justice, and many of these values are hard to find elsewhere.

Above all, bring that American sense of hope and opportunity everywhere you go. You will have a wonderful way to do so through your music. Show the Kenyans that you live with that they can do anything they set their minds to and that they don’t need approval to do so. Show your German music students that there is more to music than music lessons. Show the world that there is a way that music can create a movement for social change. Music is the truest universal language, and it will be your open door to anywhere you want to go in this big, beautiful world.

Future Karis


Editor’s Note: Karis let us know that her letter to her young self was inspired by one that her grandfather sent her as she headed to Kenya to take a job at a British-run international school. He called it “How to Live with the British.” You can follow Karis’s journeys on Instagram @dontdreamjusttravel and read more of her stories on her blog, Don’t Dream, Just Travel.

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