How To Give Back When Traveling Or Living Abroad

Since living in China for work back in 2010, I've constantly been concerned about how I can give back more or equal to what I take. You see, living and working abroad isn't easy; it often requires the guidance of many friendly, generous locals (and knowledgeable expats), making me super conscious of my demand on their time and the assistance they've provided me. From helping me to secure botanical collection permits to giving me a free place to live or simply pointing me in the direction of an English-speaking doctor, the people I've met abroad have impacted my life probably more than they know. As someone who is fiercely independent, it not only feels strange to receive such help (and sometimes ask for it), but it also challenges me to think of ways to give back to the people who have helped me and communities that I've joined.

With that on my mind for more than 7 years, I've found quite a few ways to give back where I can and when I can. Though I certainly have room for improvement, I wanted to share 9 ways you can help the communities that you travel to or live in, because really, the world needs some good right now.

prayer flags at Lugu Lake, China


9 Ways to Give Back

1) Shop local

So here's an easy one that both travelers and expats can easily practice. Shopping local for anything from vegetables to handmade jewelry is a great way to directly support local communities across the globe. It is definitely a bonus if you can support a business that is giving back to the community or charities as well!

If you need some ideas for great local shops, I've included some of my favorites places below:

Lithuania: Crooked Nose and Coffee Stories, Coffee 1, Taste Map Coffee, Pop Up Events

Yunnan, China: Salvador's, Mandarin Books, street markets, tea shops

Laos: Saoban Village, Phimphone Market

2) Offer a free class, seminar, or workshop

Everyone has a specific skill or specialty they can share. How about teaching someone your native language, helping them set up LinkedIn, or leading a photography walk. Though perhaps this option is more difficult for a rapid trip, if you are in country for along period of time, you might consider sharing your knowledge in a structured format.

3) Engage in cultural exchange

You know that I love cultural exchange and do my best to practice it in some way wherever I am. So, practice some of the ideas I've shared previously even if you are in a country for a short time.

Naxi ethnic minority artwork

4) Recycle

Off-set your carbon footprint and help the planet by recycling when living abroad or traveling. Sure this one sounds easy, but sometimes finding recycling bins can be a real challenge, so you might actually need to take some time to figure out how recycling works.

5) Pack a reusable water bottle and bag

In addition to recycling, do one better for the environment by bringing along a reusable water bottle (or coffee cup) and shopping bag. One of my favorite travel essentials is actually a shopping bag from Envirosac*, which I bring along on every trip to use for groceries or an extra carry-on.

6) Donate

I don't make a ton of extra money to donate loads of money to causes close to my heart, but I can donate gently used clothing, shoes, toys, and books to those in need. In both Lithuania and Italy, I've also run into food donation days at grocery stores. Any and all ways you can donate do help!

7) Be kind

When we travel, we are acting as ambassadors for our home country. Respecting the cultural norms where you are traveling or living is equally as important (at least in my mind) as being polite, kind, and clarifying stereotypes.

8) Return the favor

You know how I mentioned I was invited to live with local friends in China? Those friends took me in, taught me a ton, helped connect me to colleagues, and wouldn't let me contribute to rent. Though I feel that I'll never be able to fully repay their kindness, I can certainly keep trying by hosting them when they visit, taking them out to eat, and editing academic papers.

9) Learn some language and culture

Though I struggle with learning languages, I try really hard to learn as much as I can while living abroad. Culture, however, is my main focus when I'm abroad since I'm utterly fascinated by myths, stories, food, drinks, and plants. Both learning a language and digging into culture take time, but can also be valuable ways to give back as you are showing interest in cultural immersion.

What other ways can you give back while traveling or living abroad?