We knew there was a good chance of this happening when we decided to move to Bangkok for 2014. And sure enough, yesterday the Thai military made quick work of dissolving parliament, taking rival political leaders into custody, suspending the constitution and taking power. When I tried to get into one of my favorite malls to check out a bookstore, I was told they were closed early due to a 10 p.m. curfew.
I hurried back home, stopping by a supermarket that was packed with emergency shoppers trying to beat curfew. I got home just before 10 p.m. to the news that the military had taken over all television, including cable. Every channel was tuned to the same military broadcast playing occasional announcements interspersed with patriotic music.
Jammie and I looked out of our 16th-floor apartment window and saw increasingly deserted streets. Twitter was buzzing with updates. Commuters were stuck on buses trying to get home. All airports were operating as usual. There were rumors that social media would be next on the chopping block. Some even thought Internet access would be completely shut down.
I started reading news analysis. The consensus seemed to be that as concerning as it was to experience a coup, the overthrow had been almost clinically efficient and completely bloodless. The coup meant that there was less risk of a violent clash between rival political groups; tension had been brewing between them since October of last year (short story: Urban elites had been protesting to overthrow a government led by a a democratically-elected prime minister facing corruption charges.)
I slept badly and woke up about an hour before curfew was lifted for the day at 5 a.m. Nothing dramatically new. I waited until sunrise before venturing out into an almost comic reminder that Thailand was very accustomed to coups (this was coup #19 since absolute monarchy ended in 1932). The mood was sleepy; people were more interested in the newspapers than usual, but overall the reaction seemed to be, “Here we go again.”
Markets came to life, traffic roared along the streets and everyone got back to business as usual. The last coup in 2006 led to the military eventually handing power back to the people. That was clearly the expectation for the outcome this time around as well.
As for us, we are taking it one step at a time. Local expats in the know have a cautiously optimistic outlook. Many have seen this before and have a “This too shall pass” attitude. As for us, we’ll give it some time. Our red line is social media/the Internet. If they go, we’ll go.
The Bernhardts – living a life of adventure a long, long way from home
Are you putting off the experience of living and working abroad because you have kids? Children are often the reason people give for not traveling and living internationally. People seem to be very fond of telling Jammie and I that as soon as we kids we may as well pack our bags and head back to the US. We’ve never quite agreed with that assessment but since we don’t have kids we’ve had precious little to say in return. Until now. To find out more about raising a family overseas I have started interviewing people that are doing just that. For this post, I reached out to some good friends of ours, Daniel and Marlise Bernhardt to give me their perspective as parents who have chosen to raise a family far from home. Here are my questions about their very international lives and Marlise’s answers:
Describe yourselves in 140 characters or less
We’re a married couple from Argentina living in Thailand. Daniel is managing a food factory, and I’m staying home with our son (expecting our second baby).
How did you grow up?
When I was six my parents went to Lesotho, Africa, to work in a mission hospital. We lived there for seven years before returning to Argentina, so most of my childhood memories are set in Africa.
Daniel’s dad was a pastor in Argentina. At that time, this meant being transferred every couple years or so to a new area. So he did 12 years of schooling in 8 different schools and 5 different provinces!
How did the two of you meet?
On the Internet! Daniel was living and working in Buenos Aires and I was doing some volunteer teaching in Thailand. I was a bit lonely and got into this denominational website to socialize, and well, I met “this guy” who was actually interested in my adventures and misadventures in Thailand. We soon found out we knew a lot of people around us, but just not each other – I knew some of his cousins and even his brother – and some of my friends had had Daniel’s dad as a pastor. It took us a while to actually start dating because I was afraid of getting into a relationship with someone I barely knew (even though everyone around me who knew him kept saying he was great!), but things worked out really well!
Why did you decide to move to Thailand?
When we started dating I moved to Buenos Aires to be closer to Daniel. Then, just as we were planning our wedding, we received an invitation to return to the university where I’d volunteered in Thailand. Daniel had flown to visit me while I still worked there, so the admin had gotten to know him personally. They happened to need lecturers for the Business and the ESL (English as a Second Language) Departments – and we both fit that profile. Then two and a half years later, Daniel was offered his current job, which allows me to be a stay-at-home mom.
Looking back, it’s surprising we made the move at all. We were both enjoying our jobs and our friends back in Buenos Aires, and the move to Thailand made no sense at all – not socially, nor financially. But something pulled us to go there – in my case, I had always dreamt of having an overseas experience with my husband, and this was our opportunity. In Daniel’s case, he’d always wanted to work abroad. He was willing to go even if it meant switching from corporate work to teaching for a while. We were free to travel then – no kids, no debt, our parents were healthy – if we didn’t go then, we knew we’d settle down in Argentina and live there forever and that moving abroad after that would become increasingly difficult. We could always come back after a couple of years and re-settle. So we took the leap, and we’re glad we did.
Thai sightseeing… unbeatable…
How do you like it in Thailand?
Thailand is a great country to live in! It’s safe, and salaries go a looong way here. There are so many beautiful (and affordable) places to visit, such an interesting variety of food, and it’s exciting to learn about a culture and language that is so different from our own. We’ve faced our cultural challenges and sometimes still do, but we love Thailand.
The village (i.e. gated community) we live in now is purely Thai, so we’re forced to learn more Thai to communicate with our neighbors, since very few can speak English. I’m glad we’re being pushed into language learning though – it’s helping us understand Thais so much more and it makes our stay much more pleasurable. A whole world has opened to us since we began learning Thai.
Maybe the hardest part about living here is being away from our family and friends. Thai people are warm, helpful, polite and friendly, but somehow making deep friendships is a huge challenge when you face cultural and linguistic barriers. In Argentina we were surrounded by warm friendships and loving family – and that is what we miss the most.
What we hadn’t expected was how living abroad would bring us even closer together. We went from being in a place where each of us had our own social circle to suddenly being just the two of us!
Looking back, we have no regrets about our move out of home – we feel it’s the best decision we’ve made together (besides getting married, of course!).
Parenting in tropical Paradise…
You are parents – how does it feel to raise a child overseas?
I guess having been raised overseas myself, I never had a problem with it! Especially in a country like Thailand, which is a great place to be with a baby or toddler. Thais love small children and are very helpful and understanding. We were pleasantly surprised to notice that right after our baby was born here in Bangkok. We live in a safe place, and our son gets to listen to three languages and taste food we didn’t get to try until we came here as adults. We feel that an overseas experience is very positive for any child – what was once strange for us is simply normal for him; he’s not limited to just one culture and one way of doing things. I feel that offering our children an enlarged worldview along with bilingualism or multilingualism is a huge gift we can give them.
In Thailand there are plenty of products, good hospitals and anything you might need to comfortably raise a child here.
What are the main challenges of having kids overseas and how are you tackling them?
I guess being so far away from the grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Both Daniel and I are quite close to our extended family, and we’d like our children to grow up with that same sense of belonging. We keep in touch often through Skype with our parents and siblings, and we go to Argentina once a year to visit for a month (hey, so many people see their relatives even less often than that!). We also look at family pictures with our son and say their names. As our son grows, we will have to find other ways to connect him to family.
With having extended family so far away, I often miss the support and help I’d get with the baby if my mom, mother-in-law or sisters-in-law lived nearby. If I’m sick, we need to pay someone to come and help me instead of just calling a close friend or relative. All our “date nights” are with our baby – good thing he loves restaurants and is fun to be with!
The other challenge is cultural identity. We’re still just beginning, but we often talk about how we will help our children forge some type of cultural identity. Even if they won’t totally identify with our culture, we want them to feel comfortable with it and a part of it, because that’s where their family comes from. As a Third Culture Kid (TCK) myself, I understand that if you’ve grown up overseas, it’s inevitable to be a bit of a hybrid. Yet somehow, I do feel more Argentinean than anything else and I do find value in feeling a connection to my roots. I hope we can offer the same to our children, even though they will be TCK’s themselves.
As our kids grow, there will probably be social challenges too – but we’re not there yet, so we’ll cross that bridge when we get there!
What do you think your son is learning from this kind of childhood that he would not had you stayed at home?
I kind of answered this in a previous question, but I’ll add one more thing: open-mindedness. I’m not saying that someone who’s never traveled is not open-minded, but traveling and living abroad are natural ways of opening yourself up to new experiences. I feel sad when someone has to be coaxed into trying a Mexican burrito, or refuses to take a bite of ruccula, just because it’s something they don’t usually eat. I want my children to not judge a person because they’re using a spoon or their hands instead of a fork – and to think that it’s normal for there to be different approaches to doing the same thing; that people have different accents or sometimes use expressions we don’t use, but are still trying to say something that as humans we can relate to. This open-mindedness can be so positive for building relationships with different kinds of people, and also for any other area in life.
We also believe that by choosing to live abroad, we’re helping our children break an invisible mental barrier that would give them greater freedom. They won’t be initially limited to only one country or culture. By exposing them to a multi-cultural setting, they will learn that there are other options, that if they want, the world can be their home. We believe that the advantages of being bi-cultural or multicultural far outweigh the disadvantages.
What would you say to young families that would love to travel but feel they can’t because of their children?
I won’t lie – it’s not as easy as traveling without kids, but it can still be very rewarding. Jet lag is harder to recover from when you’re forced to stay awake because your baby won’t sleep, and you probably won’t be able to sight-see as many places as you would without kids, because let’s face it, kids do slow us down. But that’s ok since we do have so much fun with him! Depending on the needs of your kids, you might need to plan around nap times, choose kid-friendly places – you know, that kind of thing. But this doesn’t mean that traveling with kids is terrible. We enjoy traveling with our son. We don’t let our kid become an obstacle to traveling, unless there are safety concerns. Last year on our way to Argentina we had a stopover in Austria and it was precious. Yes, there were limits to how much we could do, but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. Our son, one year old at that time, got to experience using shoes and thick jackets and a blanket for the first time! That was a struggle!
With regard to safety issues, what I recommend the most is getting in touch with people who’ve actually been or are in the country; they’ll know which places to recommend and what you should avoid. Embassies can tell you whether your family might need any vaccines. Most of the time, the news presents things as way worse than they really are, and people often get twisted ideas that make them more scared than they should be. Of course you need to be careful, of course you need to be informed – but get your information from people who actually know the place.
It helps to pack light when with kids – makes things so much easier. (Sometimes we still find that we’ve packed a thing too many!) Our son is usually more interested in us or the trip than in toys, for example. And we’ve found that if we really, really end up needing something, it’s usually available at our destination (this might not be the case for specific brands of healthy snacks or medicine, though).
If you’re thinking of a long-term overseas move, I’d say it’s different with babies/ toddlers than with school-age kids. Babies or toddlers will usually happily follow their parents and won’t have much input on the matter, but older kids will need more preparation, encouragement and emotional support for a move like that. But it can be done. When we moved to Lesotho I was six years old: old enough to miss my grandparents, cousins, and even a dog we had to leave behind. But my mom was very supportive and helped me through my grief, and now as I look back, the move to Lesotho was one of the best things my parents could have done for our family. A period of grief is healthy and normal when you make a move like this; don’t let it stop you – just do learn ways to help yourself and your kids through it. There are books that will help you with this.
How does the future look? Do you plan to keep traveling and living in different countries?
A few years ago we would make plans and schemes… Then we were invited to Thailand, and things turned out so differently than what we’d imagined – but in a good way. So right now, we know that we won’t live in Thailand forever, but we’re not sure where we will go next. We trust that God will open doors at the right time. But yes, we do see ourselves living in yet another country. And if it’s back to Argentina, we’ll be OK with that too.
What happens when your son reaches school age?
If we’re still in Thailand by then, I’d like to homeschool him, at least for the first few years. I know plenty of families who homeschool or have homeschooled and for them it’s usually been a positive experience. There are International schools here, but they’re quite expensive and their school days are very long. We’ll see where we are when that time comes, and what the possibilities are.
Outside our apartment building in Bangkok, a million miles away from the old life…
Are you enjoying “paying your dues” at your job?
You know what I’m talking about: the conventional wisdom that perseverance and dedication in a job or other sub-optimal life situation will eventually pay off. The belief that keeping your head down, saying “yes” to the boss and shuffling through the mundane day-to-day will somehow lead to something better some day.
I used to be a big believer in paying my dues. I did really well in school. I was valedictorian in high school. I was an honor student in college. I graduated magna cum laude. I scored a well-paid job, moved on to an even better paid job within the same company and networked like crazy to the point where I had a reliable set of supporters and allies in the right places. I worked long hours. I was consumed with work. Even my time off was spent thinking about work. Work took over my life. By the time I was five years in to my career, I was miserable, stressed, suffering from sleep disorders, gaining weight and wondering where I had gone wrong.
I had to get to the bottom of this. What was I missing? After working so hard and spending years paying my dues, why did life suck so bad?
To answer the question I started recruiting highly successful mentors. I befriended CEOs, wealthy entrepreneurs, savvy investors, local politicians and a handful of very successful doctors and lawyers. I ate lunch with them, met with them in coffee shops, I joined their clubs and associations, I visited their businesses, went to their churches and hung out with their families. I asked them how they had gotten to where they were and what advice they had for me.
Gradually, as mutual trust developed and they started to open up, a common theme began to emerge: these ultra successful individuals had gotten to where they were by breaking a lot of the rules that the masses around them followed. They had rejected common career goals. They had fired bad bosses. They had dared to dream dreams that some would call unrealistic and even arrogant. They had decided that “normal living” simply was not enough. They had decided that, no matter what it took, they would break out of the regular rat race. They would take the big risks and work their tails off for a higher calling. They were going to win and no only that, they were going to be victorious on their own terms. They challenged me to do the same.
My closest mentors started to get really personal with me. ”Bjorn, you’ve got to get out of here!” a lot of them said. ”If you stay here and just do what is comfortable, you will miss your calling and you will regret it for the rest of your life. Don’t sell out!”
As the chorus of voices telling me to make a change grew louder and more insistent, I had to start listening. I had to confront my fears about what it would mean to make a major change in my life. I started to believe, as my mentors did, that more than ever in world history, we live in an age where we can and we MUST pave our own way. There is nothing wrong with dedication. It is essential. But why dedicate yourself to a bland job at a boring company? Why dedicate your own finite days to an unworthy cause? To someone else’s game? Why not focus on exploiting your full potential?
In the fall of 2012, a switch flipped in my thinking. It was do or die time. I had to make a change.
As I’ve shared many times before on CultureMutt, my wife and I quit our jobs to live, work and volunteer internationally. That was 15 months ago. I have never once regretted my decision to leave my old life behind. In fact, I am happier than ever that I made it. Paying your dues just doesn’t work if you are paying into a bankrupt system.
Paying your dues can be destructive
Here’s what all my mentors said, in one way or another: there is something soul-sucking about surrender to the system that most of us default into: The supposedly safe 9-5 of the average job where you trudge along year in, year out until you can retire. You cannot be yourself. No matter how much you may want to deny it, you are completely scripted. Your advancement and your every move is, ultimately, decided by someone else. As you live in this kind of system it gradually wears on you. You become less assertive. You believe in yourself less. You forget what it is like to lead. You become strangely dependent. It is horrible. It is like living a perpetually bad dream.
Conventional work is stationary, the future is global
Especially if you are a young person, starting out in today’s work environment, you cannot bet on the world staying as it is. Having a safe, provincial mentality and only thinking about professional development in one company, town or even country is a recipe for desperation because there is less and less guarantee that these traditional structures will stand the test of time. If you are unwilling to be flexible, to take risks to go where the work is (or create your own work as freelancer or entrepreneur), your “safe” choices today could mean unemployment tomorrow.
Paving your own way means you have to take ownership
There is something almost magical that takes place when you stop marching to the beat of someone else’s drum and instead have to think for yourself and create your own future: you take ownership on a whole different level. I know this with my own work. I have never EVER been more focused or enthusiastic about work than I am now that I feel I can determine my own destiny. It is incredibly freeing.
Over to you
Do you feel like I did in the fall of 2012? Like you are trapped and need to get out? Rather than paying your dues to the conventional rat race, how about switching things around and paying into your own future instead? I am not talking about being selfish. I am talking about consciously investing in your own future so that you can ultimately give more. Only you know what this enhanced future could look like. Only you know what is really on your heart. Only you know what the dream really is. I am not telling you that you should spend your life the way I have for the last 15 months. But what I am saying is that breaking out is absolutely worth the effort. Do not stay put if you know deep inside that life can be better. You deserve more.
Ignore the media hype. Bangkok is not that bad. Jammie and I landed a few days ago and our suspicions were confirmed: not much was different from when we left in December. As mentioned in my last post, we had postponed our plans to move back to Thailand because of the media hype about the violence and political protesting aimed at overthrowing the current government. From news reports it was sounding awful – explosions, deaths, shootings, fearful uncertainty. The reality, we are quickly noticing, is far less dramatic.
Business as usual
Some of the biggest changes I’ve noticed so far have been the renovations to my favorite super market, the completion of the pedestrian bridge over the insanely busy intersection next to the high-rise we live in and some major excitement about the fact that Justin Timberlake is coming to town. So much for revolution.
I’m not denying that some horrible things have happened – even this week there was a lethal clash as police were clearing protest sites. And yes, there have been several other deaths and many injured. As I have said a number of times on CultureMutt, Bangkok is no stranger to political trouble. Here’s the thing though: the vast majority of Bangkok is continuing on as usual – the bursts of violence have happened at protest sites. If you employ some basic common sense and avoid these places (just like you would avoid any bad area of town at home), you are safe. Day-to-day life for most people, including Jammie and I, is basically the same as always. The picture the media paints of chaotic unrest simply is not an accurate reflection of reality for Bangkok in general.
My biggest lesson learned so far in 2014
For me, this confirms a personal belief that has been gaining strength over the 15 months or so since I quit my stateside job to pursue my dream of international travel and work: risks are less scary once you take them. This is perfectly illustrated by our situation in Bangkok: as much as the media depends on hyping the unrest here to fatten their profit margins, when we actually took the risk and flew over, we were greeted with the same smiles, politeness, incredible food and sunny weather as always.
So often we sit on our dreams and goals and do nothing because of nebulous, ill-defined and often unfounded fear. My biggest lessons learned in 2014 so far is that this tendency is a huge pity. Don’t give in to it.
“People are gathering in the streets everywhere awaiting your arrival,” joked a Bangkok-based expat friend in a Facebook conversation asking me when Jammie and I were arriving coming back into town.
Protests and grenades
The gatherings my friend was referring too are no joke. The attempts to overthrow the government had already started around the time we flew out of Bangkok to return California for the holidays in December of last year. Since then they have picked up steam. “There have been a few hotheads firing and shoving grenades at protesters so, you need to keep your senses about you when wanting to go somewhere and do things,” said my friend.
Our empty Bangkok apartment
For about two and a half months now, we’ve been paying rent for our apartment in Bangkok that has been unoccupied. We had intended to only spend December in Los Angeles. The unpredictable nature of the protests had kept us in Los Angeles to try to wait them out.
Here’s the background: Protestors consisting of mostly urban Thais are trying to get rid of the current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra claiming she is being controlled by her brother, ousted former PM, Thaksin Shinawatra who lives in exile. Since the start of it all there have been several deaths and scores of people injured in the protests.
What to do?
It was hard to know how to react. The government scheduled an election and later declared a state of emergency in Bangkok. The election took place on February 2, 2014 and because they were disrupted by protestors, they will need to be held again. There is not much of an end in sight. The flow of tourists into Bangkok has slowed. Many foreigners are staying away.
Putting it all in perspective
Having said that, Bangkok has seen a lot of political turmoil over the years. No tourists have been hurt yet since this round of protests began. So a lot of the local and expat population is continuing with life pretty much as usual, confident this too shall pass.
Part of the confusion comes from the the tone of these protests. As the people that are protesting are generally well-to-do urbanites, protest sites have take on a kind of carnival-like atmosphere, complete with celebrity sittings, pop concerts, food vendors and hawkers. The airports are open as usual. And the fiercest protests seem to be over.
Our decision… and our Plan B
We have finally bought our ticket to return and will be flying in early next week. This is certainly an interesting start to the year but we are determined to follow through with our plan to live for a year in Bangkok. We do have a Plan B though – if things get too bad we’ll head for another regional capital – Manila or Kuala Lumpur.
Overseas living teaches you a lot about flexibility. As my expat friend said: “am sticking around man … no plans to leave yet, but it’s always at the back of my mind”.
Most people living in Southern California don’t leave. Most people don’t marry Kiwis (people from New Zealand) – there’s not enough of them, for starters! Most people don’t take up jumping out of airplanes or into canyons for fun. Most people wouldn’t raise a baby half-way around the world. In short, most people do not completely reinvent their lives. My friend Tiffany Hodgson is not most people. She has done all the above and more. Inspired by her life philosophy and very adventurous lifestyle I was really happy when she agreed to be interviewed.
Here’s the Q&A:
How did marrying a non-American influence your life decisions about where to live and work?
Russell, my husband, was born and raised in New Zealand and although he has done a lot of traveling and living abroad, he was pretty set on raising a family in NZ. We looked into getting him a visa for the US so I could start working as physician assistant when I graduated but the process is rigorous and expensive. Russ was also just starting to follow his dream of owning and running a canyoning company here so we decided to take the risk in hopes I would get work here.
Tiffany and Russell – two of a kind…
What kind of risk?
There was good chance I wasn’t going to be able to use my very expensive degree to work as a physician assistant here. PAs were non-existent in New Zealand four years ago. No one knew what they were but there was talk at government level of trialing them here because of the doctor shortage. Soon after I arrived, Russ had work in Wellington (the Capital) and so I rode the 6 hours with him down there, found my way into the city with all the government buildings and knocked on the Ministry of Health’s door to let them know I was a PA living in NZ and keen to help in any way possible. I had this pipe-dream before I moved here that I would help set up the trial and become one of the first PAs here. Long story short- that’s what happened.
Did you have family push-back on your decision to make the jump and leave the US?
Of course my parents were a bit sad but they couldn’t really say much because in their early 20s they left their families in Michigan and moved to Alaska. I know that’s not international but it might as well have been in the 1970s without Skype and mobile phones. They live in Hawaii now so that’s just a hop over the ocean to NZ.
How do you answer friends and family that question your decision to move abroad?
My grandparents think I pretty much moved to the moon and it’s impossible to come visit me but thanks to Skype and Google-voice we keep in touch more than when I lived Stateside. Not many friends or family have questioned my move. Most have heard that New Zealand is lovely and if they have been here, they usually agree that this is a great place to live. I could understand if I had moved to a war-torn country or a South American jungle, that I might get questioned or worried about…but New Zealand is pretty harmless.
Tiffany exploring her new home…
What advice do you have for young professionals who are frustrated in their stateside lives and are thinking about moving abroad?
Do it! I won’t say the world is a “big place” but it’s a diverse place and just because you were born in one country, doesn’t mean that’s where you belong. I went to 4 different universities for my degrees in the US and only felt like one of them was home. It was the same with traveling. When I visited New Zealand 10 years ago, I knew I wanted to live here someday. It just felt right.
I took a year off from college after my freshman year to volunteer in Australia. It was amazing but but when I hopped over to NZ, it was love at first sight. I think a lot of us get the travel bug but sometimes we feel we aren’t even living in the right place. Up until three years ago I always had the urge to travel and move- that itch you can’t shake. It would settle for a while with each flight, holiday, or move but it would come back. Since I have been here, I can’t say the itch to travel is gone but I don’t want to live anywhere else.
What’s the most surprising thing about living in NZ?
It’s a melting pot of different cultures and nationalities. I think NZ is primarily thought to have Maori and European New Zealanders here but there are a lot of Chinese, Indians, Fijians, Samoans, Tongans, South Africans, Sri Lankans, etc.
Another thing is college degrees aren’t valued here the way they are in the US. When Russ and I were dating, I asked once if it bothered him that I have a masters degree and he didn’t go to college. He laughed at me. Once I moved here I realized that the most successful people I knew hadn’t gone to college (a lot are farmers and entrepreneurs like Russ). University degrees aren’t mandatory to have a high status in this society.
What is expected here is an OE (overseas experience). Most people will leave New Zealand sometime after high school and live overseas for the minimum of a year. Russ did his OE in Italy and Turkey. You don’t have be 18 to do it either. We have a lot of married friends in their late 20s and mid 30s that have gone for 2+ years to travel and live overseas. They leave good-paying full time jobs here to go experience another country. I think it’s amazing!
How does work in NZ compare to work in the US? If possible, be specific about your own career and then branch out to broader comparisons between the overall work environment in NZ compared to the US.
As a PA working in general practice I would say there are countless differences between working in the US medical field vs. NZ. The biggest being you can’t sue doctors or PAs here, so liability insurance is a lot cheaper, plus we can focus on treating the patient rather than piles of paper work required to cover ourselves in case there was a lawsuit. The work environment feels more laid-back here. Docs don’t wear white coats (even in the hospitals) and most prefer to be addressed by their first name.
New Zealand as a whole, values humility, hard work, and a sense of humor. One of the biggest things I notice here is the feeling of equality in the work place. The receptionists, cleaners, managers, middle-men, etc. all inter-mingle in conversation, social life, sports, and work. People don’t complain as much. They have the mentality of, “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” or just “harden up”. I’ve never met a group of women as tough as Kiwi women and it’s rare to see a Kiwi male at my medical clinic unless he has been dragged there by his wife or is near death.
How do salaries in NZ compare to pay for your work in the US? (Don’t worry, I am not asking for figures here, just a comparison… )
I think most salaries here look the same on paper compared to the US but once you do the conversion, we would be making less here. The NZ dollar has been getting stronger lately which makes paying my US loans a little less painful.
Where can you save more, NZ or the US?
Definitely the US. The cost of living here is high. Honestly, I don’t know how people below the poverty line get by. Because we are so far away from other countries and so much is imported, the prices go up. Also because we are small we don’t have a lot of competing companies to drive prices down. Monopolies are an easy thing to have here. I wanted to paint a few doors in our house and a small can of grey/blue paint cost me $64! When Russ took me to the grocery store for the first time, I was physically gasping at the prices.
In saying that, if you grew up here, a university degree doesn’t cost nearly as much as in the US and the government gives you student allowance to help pay for your education so it’s a lot easier to come out of school debt free or with very little debt.
I’m guessing Tiffany doesn’t miss LA…
How is your lifestyle in NZ different from what it was in the US? What are the key differences, if any.
When I left I was living near Los Angeles so moving to a small farm town on the north island of NZ was a massive culture shock. Of course we have cities here if you want an urban lifestyle but most of NZ is made up of rural landscape dotted with small towns. The lifestyle here is relaxed and most people place value on spending time with mates and being outdoors. The feel I get is what I imagine small town America felt like when my grandmother was a child. I’ve seen semi-truck drivers pull over to help a farmer chase his cows back in the paddock. “Kiwi Ingenuity” is a real thing and nearly all babies are delivered by midwives here. Most people have a veggie garden or know how to grow one (I’m still learning) and kids can still go barefoot to school. Public holidays are taken seriously. Most businesses are required to close (even the clinic I work at closes) and people take the time off with friends and family.
How do you feel as a mother raising a child overseas?
I love that we will raise our kids in New Zealand. For Russ and I, this is the ideal place to be with a family. The only down-side is being far away from my parents, sister and friends in the States. One day, I’ll persuade my parents to move here…it might take another grandchild but we’ll get them. In the meantime visiting friends and family gives us an excuse to travel.
Who says you can’t raise kids overseas??!
How do you travel with Alaska? What are the main challenges? How do you overcome them?
I’ve only just come back from visiting family and friends in Hawaii with Alaska (my daughter). It was my first trip alone with her as Russ had to stay for canyoning’s busy season. I was a bit worried beforehand but I found that so many strangers are helpful and understanding when you are traveling alone with an infant. The 9 hour overnight flight was the hardest. I was juggling her and making sure she was comfortable and able to sleep which meant I didn’t get any. Coming home was also a challenge. I took advantage of the cheaper prices in the States and ended up with two big full suitcases, a car seat, a backpack full of books and a baby strapped to my front. I’ve never been more thankful for those trolley-carts at the airport and the kindness of strangers. Even the guy behind the computer, scanning my bags, in Customs got up from his chair to re-load my enormous bags on the cart for me. Every baby is different so I can’t tell you how to travel with one but my one suggestion would be, try to go with two adults.
Alaska learning what it’s like on the trail…
What do you say to people that claim children put a stop to overseas living? (I get a lot of this feedback to CultureMutt posts so I would LOVE to hear your take on this.)
Children are adaptable, especially when they are younger, and they tend to mirror the attitude of their parents. So if you are open-minded and positive about going to new places, they are likely to be the same. Plus, just think about how much more well-rounded your world view is after you travel and if you expose your children to it, they are likely be more understanding, confident, well-rounded individuals. Take them to a country that doesn’t speak your native language and they will pick it up faster than you will. Isn’t that a dream for most parents, to have a multi-lingual child?
One of the PAs that is here for two years came over with her husband and two teenage boys. They had to get use to a whole new school system and culture but they are learning so much more about life and people than you can get in a classroom or staying in the same comfortable place. Have you ever talked with a kid that has traveled or lived overseas? Usually they are quite mature and confident for their age. What parent doesn’t want that?
This is how a life of adventure starts
What do you miss most about life back home?
You mean, What do I miss most about life in the United States? I consider NZ home now.
My close friends.
The variety of stores and products.
Central heating and air-conditioning.
Are you going to keep moving around the world?
I can see us living for a year or two overseas but we would always come back to New Zealand. We will definitely keep traveling and take Alaska to see other parts of the world but I think this will always be home.
Would you ever move back to the US?
No. Ha…that’s the short easy answer.
“I think this will always be home…”
What advice would you give someone that is reading this and wants to live a similar life?
Positive thinking is key. I could have easily gone down the path of “I’ll never get work as a PA in New Zealand. I’ll always be homesick and never make friends here. I won’t be happy because it’s different than what I’m use to.” Instead, I only imagine what I want my life to look like and then I try to go for it. So here I am, married to the man of my dreams that I pictured marrying 10 years ago, living in the country I want to live in and working in my profession that didn’t exist here 4 years ago. Haha…I’m embarrassed for making that statement. I would get slammed here for “self-nomming” (self nomination) because Kiwi’s don’t like a “noter” or someone who brags.
But I honestly believe you have to think that it is possible to have the things you dream of and keep those thoughts in the front of your mind. Also, if you believe in a higher power like I do, than I would say He makes all things possible if we ask Him…as long as we aren’t being the fence that’s holding us back.
Tiffany was born in Alaska and lived all over in the US before she moved to NZ. Russ and Tiffany live in Te awamutu on the North Island of Aotearoa (New Zealand). They co-own a canyoning company with another couple and run one of the most adventurous tours in the country near Auckland. You can check it out at www.canyonz.co.nz. Tiffany works part time as a PA in a family practice and the rest of the time she gets to be home with Alaska, her 6 month old daughter. Her days off are spent outdoors, exploring and enjoying all the natural beauty NZ has to offer.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Shanna gets an insider’s view of her host culture; here, she and a group of teens are pictured in traditional Colombian cumbia attire as part of a local foundation’s youth development program, December 2013
Jammie and I are huge fans of Shanna Crumley, the blogger behind this guest post. I mean, how could we not be? We first met her in Northern California when she was in college. Since then she has traveled the world, interned at the State Department and relocated to Colombia where she is volunteering as a Peace Corps volunteer. In this post she shares how she did it and what it’s like to live the international dream:
Conventional wisdom says that I should be paying off my student debt right now, working a stable job with good health insurance and settling into a lovely life. Better safe than sorry. Save for a rainy day. Find Mr. Right before your clock runs out (aka age 30, obviously).
Conventional wisdom DID NOT say:
–Take 5 years for two liberal arts degrees and rack up private school debt
–Spend every penny (and peso and euro) on mission trips, volunteer trips, road trips and internships
–Buy a one-way ticket to Argentina for a summer in the hopes of finding a volunteer position that pays in food (note: I was lucky enough to volunteer with ADRA Argentina as a videographer for three months, documenting community development projects)
–Move to Washington, DC, for three months to be an unpaid intern at the Department of State
–Stay in DC an extra five months as an unpaid intern at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
–Postpone grad school plans to spend 2 years as a Peace Corps volunteer in South America.
…and yet, here I am, sitting in a South American hammock, eating fresh papaya, studying for the GRE and writing a lesson plan on irregular verbs. Conventionality is overrated.
ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) Argentina youth volunteers making the most out of a finger painting activity, summer 2012
Can my passions make a difference in the world?
Let’s start with the fact that there’s lots of debate right now about Millenials following their passion, and whether that’s practical or sustainable. Suffice it to say that I believe in purposeful and passionate productivity!
I had to zoom out and ask myself three questions:
1. “What could I be passionate about?” I get excited about new ideas, research, sustainable development, international politics and community development. Like Gary Vaynerchuk puts it in Crush It!, there’s a niche for everything! What do you get excited about?
2. “What is the purpose?” or “How is that passion going to help make the world a better place and also keep me off of food stamps?” In my case, my passions combine into international affairs and development, two areas that have purpose and jobs. Luckily, these are areas that meet my skill set.
3. “How am I going to make my passion useful?” Whatever the passion is, you have a unique set of skills, talents, experiences and approaches to contribute effectively. I am working towards a career that contributes to sustainable development and policy, where my travel experience, extroverted personality and NPR addiction come in handy. What are your skills and talents? How can you make them useful to your passion?
With these career goals in mind, I needed to figure out how I could get the experience and network to be successful in my career–who were the best organizations working in these areas? What were their projects? What skills did they look for in job applicants? What were the best graduate schools for this field? Who is making a difference in the world?
I did what my generation does best: I Googled it.
Foreign affairs and budget meetings : U.S. State Department
After a lot of research, prayer, brainstorming and resume-revising, I chose foreign affairs. I decided to apply for a policy internship at the State Department, the U.S. government’s foreign affairs branch, to get a feel for the big picture of diplomacy and development.
It was a competitive and extensive application process, including six months for a security clearance and a move to DC. Finally, I was thrilled to land an internship in the Bureau of Populations, Refugees and Migration, where I spent four months seizing every opportunity to learn about diplomacy and foreign policy-making, pitch in on policy and budget projects, take notes on countless meetings and get coffee with as many directors, foreign service officers, policy planners and co-interns as I could!
My State Department internship was a pivotal experience in my life: I left Foggy Bottom more certain than ever that I want to work in international affairs and development.
Shanna’s living one of her dreams: to serve in the Peace Corps, founded by President Kennedy in 1961 to promote world peace and friendship.
Fundraising and NGO life: USCRI
Through my contacts at the State Department, I found a second internship, this one in fundraising & development at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigration. There, I was able to cultivate a certain skill set in fundraising and data management while continuing to work with refugee policy.
Working at an NGO headquarters was an eye opener. I got to see the differences in policies, budgets and priorities between the government and public sector.
Grassroots development and Shakira’s homeland: Peace Corps
A natural next step was to apply to be a Peace Corps Volunteer: to serve at the grassroots level, gain international work experience and meet like-minded adventurers. On a personal level, I had always wanted to serve at a grassroots level, working directly with a community, and living abroad was a natural step. Professionally, the Peace Corps offered a chance to get two years of valuable international work experience, as well as membership in the “Peace Corps family,” a network of thousands of active professionals.
The application process took about a year, which required a lot of patience and flexibility on my part. It’s a huge commitment, both because of the length of service and because of the conditions: the Peace Corps can send you anywhere, to do any job, anytime!
The hardest part of the waiting game was the utter ambiguity of not knowing when or where they would send me. I spent the wait working extra hours at a gelato shop, wrapping up my internships in DC and practicing deep breathing. When I finally received my formal invitation–Colombia!–I did a Shakira-worthy happy dance on the spot and packed my bags for the Colombian coast. We arrived last August, receiving training in teaching methodology, pedagogy, curriculum development and other scintillating topics. Finally, we received our site assignments and began our work: teaching high school English and working in community development (and surviving on lentils, oatmeal and Colombian arepas).
Qualities of a Successful Professional
Though I’m just beginning my career, there are a few defining professional qualities and character traits that I’ve noticed. The bright, engaging, driven and successful people were also the most patient, curious, committed and flexible. These are qualities that I strive towards.
1. Patience/flexibility–I hate to include these mantras, but they’re what gets you through the applications, the waiting time, the long days and the bureaucracy! Not to mention that in the Peace Corps, it gets you through the long bus rides and training sessions. As for flexibility, being open to any tasks, new ideas and changes of plans shows your employers that you’re adaptable and committed to the work.
2. Committed self-starter/perseverance–You have to drive your passion; nobody else is going to do the work for you. Stay extra hours; add extra finishing touches; show your dedication. Don’t get discouraged by the waiting game, the job search or the paperwork. Remind yourself why you’re on this journey.
3. Networking–This is a crucial skill! Once I “got my foot in the door” at the State Department, I made professional connections and friends that form an international network of advisers, references and perhaps future colleagues!
You don’t have to be a bubbly extrovert to be an effective networker; all it takes is a pocketful of conversation starters, a genuine interest in the other person and 90 seconds of courage to smile and shake their hand.
4. Say thank you and follow up–one of the best lessons my mother taught me was to always say thank you. Write a specific and gracious email; hand-write a thank you note; send a small gift. The important thing is that the person knows you appreciated their time and effort. This applies across the board, not just to new networking friends but also to colleagues and mentors. At the end of each job or internship, I made sure to hand-write cards with specific memories and things I appreciated, along with the person’s role in the experience.
Following up with someone is even easier, but still essential. People are happy to hand out business cards, but often the connection is your responsibility. Make sure to be timely, grammatically correct and professional! It’s the little things that count, right?
Passionate about the journey
Equipped with a purpose, passion and the above lessons, I feel better prepared to continue the journey of contributing my passion and skills to making the world a little bit better in some way. Conventional wisdom might disagree, but I think you and I have resources, talents and knowledge to invest in our world.
…And that brings me to my South American hammock. I’m five months into my two years of service and learning new lessons every day. After the Peace Corps, I don’t know what is next. It might be graduate school, teaching in Korea or going back to DC. But whatever it is, I promise you that it will involve a lot of traveling and passion and as little conventionality as possible! And another bowl of papaya.
Shanna Crumley is currently living on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where she spends her days brainstorming ways to make high school ESL more scintillating, learning to play tribal drums and testing the boundaries of her stomach’s tolerance to new and exciting foods. She is all about a life of adventure and service, which she blogs about over at www.pocketphilosophies.wordpress.com.
“This obviously isn’t about the money.” Late in the fall of 2012 my father-in-law was digesting the news that Jammie and I had quit our jobs to travel the world and volunteer.
“Nope,” I replied, faking a lot more confidence than I actually felt.
There was no denying it. At least for the next 12 months, this kind of a life decision was not going to be lucrative. It was going to be a huge drain on our resources.
Here are the thoughts that gave me some peace:
Money doesn’t matter until it does – There are times when money really does matter. If you can’t take care of the basic needs of you and your dependents, you have a problem. Food, shelter, healthcare, education, retirement, emergencies – these are all things we should plan for (and as I have explained in prior posts, we had.) Saying “money doesn’t matter” to someone that does not have a chance of meeting the above needs is entitled, heartless, irresponsible and rude. BUT, simply running on the hamster wheel of fear-based greed is not a smart alternative. If you do, you will continually want more and more and you will never think you have enough. Without realizing it, you will make horrible compromises (working a soul-crushing job, ignoring your family, developing a cold, corporate disregard for basic human decency) that will make you and those around just that little bit more pathetic.
Observing the rich is a great education – My job for years after college was in fundraising. Much of my work involved spending a lot of time around wealthy people. It was an interesting life. Some of my best, most trusted friends were millionaires. I learned a lot from these very rich people. Many were very happy. Money had not skewed their values or their respect for those around them. They lived carefully, enjoyed their wealth and helped others. I recruited several of them as mentors and have made a point of keeping in touch.
With other wealthy types, the opposite was true: money emboldened all the worst in human nature. They seemed to think they could say anything they wanted because of their wealth. They cut you off in conversation. They would openly patronize people. They yelled at anyone that challenged their views. They took an insecure pleasure in reminding you of their money and power. When the markets were down they panicked like little children.
I realized, after spending six years working with this slice of American society, that having money was very clearly not the factor that decided if you belonged to the happy first group or the wretched second one. At first glance, this looks like basic conventional wisdom: money cannot buy happiness or peace. Something deeper hit me on a personal level though. Even if I agreed that more money couldn’t buy me what I wanted, my life reflected a subconscious belief that it could. I made all kinds of life compromises to stay on the career and overall life track that I thought would bring the security and prosperity I craved. Simply put, the realization that I was fooling myself led to our year-long experiment and what has, over a year later, proven to be a far better life.
How much is enough?
Some will say that the reason Jammie and I were as unconcerned with the financial ramifications of our life decision was that (compared to the wealthy), we didn’t have much money in the first place. Maybe they are right. Maybe we should have continued living the traditional, default life. Maybe we will live to regret this. But after this first year’s experience and after talking to people double my age that made similar life decisions, I doubt it.
I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this one. I’m serious. Let’s get some debate going. I don’t expect you to agree with me.
This guest post comes via one of my personal heroes, Jeremy Weaver. His story has everything: another awesome guy called Bjorn (clearly, I list this first), guts, glory, exotic travel, intense moments of doubt, life-changing experiences, a HUGE decision, international relocation and YES, he gets the girl! It inspired me the moment I heard it, so it is with much excitement that I hand this post over to Jeremy:
It hit me. Sometime around the time I was filling out my secondary application for medical school during my senior year in college… it hit me. It felt less like a swift slap to the face and more like a creeping, slinking hollowness… perhaps akin to a small but persistent elephant sitting on my chest. We’ll call him Chester. I would be able to shake this persistent pachyderm for days, perhaps weeks at a time, but he would always return. Scramble up my leg, nestle down just below my left collarbone and take a nap. Deep breaths wouldn’t make him go away. Long runs wouldn’t shake him. Most of the time he was barely perceptible, but present nonetheless. Doubt.
Excitement and Doubt
The acceptance letter came. Rejoicing ensued. But halfhearted, fraught with thinly veiled concerns and flimsy self-assurances that this was the path I was destined to take. The letter was like a steroid injection to my ego and my newly muscled ego chased Chester away for a month or two. If medical school wants you, how can you say no to medical school. It’s a privilege, an honor even, to be one of the few and the proud… and it genuinely was. And yet, after the newness had worn off, Chester slowly slunk back to his customary perch. Doubt.
The crazy plan…
It was around Christmas break of this same senior year that my friend Bjorn Harboldt shared with me his seemingly laughable plan to travel from one end of the world to the other… in a year… quite literally. His plan was to start at the furthest southern city in South America Ushuaia in Cape Horn. Travel up through South America, Central America, and North America to Alaska. Find a way across the Pacific Ocean. Continue through Asia, up into and across Siberia to Eastern Europe. Down through Eastern Europe to the ancient shores of the Mediterranean. Cross that sea and traverse Africa to the farthest southwestern corner and the Cape of Good Hope. Quite ludicrous. Ostentatious even. A truly excessive bit of traveling.
“to live a year intentionally…”
At the mere mention of this trip Chester fled. My heart beat with a strong and assured thud at the thought of such an adventure. I did not have delusions that this trip would drastically change anything. I didn’t believe that I would “find” myself because I didn’t really feel lost. I didn’t believe that the trip even made “sense” in the traditional “sense” of the word. My parents and many friends thought that I had perhaps been given over to depravity of a most irresponsible, albeit innocent, sort. My thoughts were simply that this is what I wanted out of life. To broaden my perspective, to live adventure instead of only talking and dreaming about it, to follow the strong and clear thud of my heart, to live a year intentionally instead of following the prescribed plan, to take ownership of my actions.
Although I usually oscillate precariously over weighty decisions… It didn’t take me long to lay my cards on the table and tell Bjorn that I was “all in.”
Planning, saving, selling possessions, successfully attempting to get companies to give us equipment and unsuccessfully getting companies to give us money, getting medical school deferrals, graduating from college, packing, dreaming. It all happened so quickly. And then suddenly… we were getting off the plane in Chile with packs on our back, no reservations, and no real plan except to get to the Cape of Good Hope.
“It opened me up to options and ways of existing that my narrow mid-American worldview would never have even entertained.”
Traveling around the globe by any means possible…
I will not regale you with the details as they can be read at www.thewholeworldround.wordpress.com. Suffice it to say that that year of mad capped traveling opened me up to a more global way of thinking. It opened me up to options and ways of existing that my narrow mid-American worldview would never have even entertained. I met people who were living, really living. Not just talking about pedaling a bike from Istanbul to Vietnam, actually doing it. Not just talking about riding a motorcycle from Boston to the bottom of South America, actually doing it. Not just talking about opening up a little hostel in Thailand…. Actually doing it. I met a lot of dreamers… that were actively turning their dreams and interests into realities.
The open road… the ultimate education.
First year of medical school
Chester was mostly absent during this year of exploration. The next time he showed up was the summer after I returned from the trip. He stayed with me all the way through the first year of medical school. He grew into a full-blown tusker of doubt. Doubt about the path I had taken. All the while I created a million well-crafted reasons why I was on the right path. People around me re-enforced this thinking. My own ego re-enforced this thinking. The self-denial was spread thick. I almost dropped out at Thanksgiving break, at Christmas break, at spring break, but my carefully constructed rationalizations kept me around until the end of the year.
It was around this time that I met Lindsay. She is now my wife. I did some hardcore re-assessing during this summer between my first and second years of medical school. I went to an intensive, interactive self-improvement workshop. I read a lot. I prayed a lot. I began telling myself the truth. I did some very hard and very personal growth work. And then second year medical school began….
“I realized that my life was not going where I wanted it to go.”
Two weeks into it all came to a head. The thin veil was lifted. I stopped lying to myself. There were no more rationalizations. I realized that I was in a place I didn’t want to be in. I realized that my life was not going where I wanted it to go. As strange as it sounds, I realized I had gotten there by default. I had gotten there by letting life happen to me. I was not happy. So I made a very difficult decision… I quit medical school.
“…taking ownership for my future instead of just floating towards a sensible default.”
I wish I could say that my life purpose instantly crystallized and it has been all rainbows and sunbeams since I made that decision, but that wouldn’t be true. There was an instant flood of relief once the decision was made, but it has been difficult to let go. To picture myself in the future as something other than a medical doctor. To start taking ownership for my future instead of just floating towards a sensible default. To take steps toward living more wholeheartedly. At some point during this process I realized that Chester was shrinking. Taking ownership for my path in life was causing the change.
Lindsay was with me through the whole process of leaving medical school. She was with me through the doubts, the valleys, the indecision, the oscillating, and even the tears. Six months after dropping out of medical school we were engaged. Three months after that we were married. We had a lot of long talks and earnest prayers about what we wanted our life together to be like. Global development and humanitarian work was at the core of who we both were. We both love to travel. So we made the decision together before we even got married to do a Master’s in Global Community Development that would begin the fall after we got married. We decided to follow our interests and take ownership for our path. We decided to attempt to turn those interests into a sustainable livelihood. We decided to do this together.
I am writing this from Arusha, Tanzania. I am sitting next to my wife in a little bungalow on the grounds of the Colobus Lodge. We are in the second semester of our Master’s program. We are preparing to go to a rural World Vision project to work on building the capacity of the local office and community there. I can say with complete integrity that this Master’s program is the most fulfilling formal education I have ever had. We have some awesome prospects for international internships. I am seriously considering doing a PhD in International Development. The possibilities seem endless.