I never really wanted to travel.
For most of my life, I had no interest in leaving my hometown, and even vacations were not that enticing. In college, my then-girlfriend (now wife) went to Vietnam to study abroad. Later, she visited China twice and loved it. A few years after we finished college, even though I didn't have a passport and had never even flown in a plane, she somehow convinced me to move to Shanghai indefinitely.
The first year was a bit magical: new food, new sights and new experiences. I started to halfheartedly study Mandarin that year. The second year was rough. I was missing everything familiar and safe. Since I was only working part-time, I had nothing but time to try and set up my own woodworking studio and meet new people. I wasn’t used to this amount of free time and struggled to find motivation. But the third year, something clicked. I invested myself in Mandarin lessons, and I pushed myself to take on projects, building a life abroad. Now I find myself encouraging others to travel as much as possible.
You don’t need to move abroad to reap the benefits of new experiences. Stepping away from your comfort zone pushes you to become more flexible and to adapt. When we first moved abroad, I didn’t eat lunch most days because I hated going into restaurants alone. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to read the menu or order correctly. By the end of the third year, I was trying new restaurants as often as possible and making bad jokes with the owners in my broken Chinese.
I’m still far from fluent, but even with my basic grasp of this new language, I began to discover new aspects of my personality. I feel like when I’m speaking Chinese, I’m more confident and more assertive--even if I’m using a child’s vocabulary! I also feel that working in an unfamiliar place helped me gain skills that I wouldn’t have gained if I had stayed in my comfort zone. For my job in China, I would travel to factories around Shanghai to inspect products. When I first got started, I could hardly sleep the night before a trip. My heart would be beating so fast on inspections that I would be out of breath. I could hardly focus on what I was doing. By the third year, I was traveling a few hundred miles away from Shanghai, two to three times a week to visit new factories, and I loved it. Everything about this job was my worst nightmare, but I pushed myself and grew in confidence. Being back home in Baltimore, it's hard to imagine a scenario as uncertain as boarding a flight to a new city where I don’t know if anyone will speak English.
Working abroad pushed me to be more confident in business situations. But the most important thing I’ve learned is that in order to live in this world, you need to step outside of yourself. Especially in this political climate, a close-minded view can do more harm than good. You need to see how others live, how others work. We need to see people from other walks of life as humans with families and dreams, so that we can work towards achieving those dreams without stomping on someone else’s.
Joe studied Fine Arts at Towson University, concentrating in Sculpture. He spent the last three years living abroad in Shanghai and has just moved back to his home town. Currently, Joe is a custom furniture-maker in Baltimore City. Using sharp clean lines and contrasting woods, Joe utilizes traditional joinery to create pieces that will stand the test of time. You can browse and purchase one of his stunning, unique pieces here.