Once in a while someone will tell you that you don’t fit in. A boss might say you are a square peg in a round hole. A peer group might decide that your pursuit of a dream is making them feel inadequate. People at church may look at you funny. Family might disapprove. One way or another people will tell you to fall in line. It’s uncomfortable. Nobody is denying that. But you get to decide how to react. Don’t throw away good advice. But if it’s your dreams that make you a misfit, take the critiques as compliments. You stand out for a reason.
1). Save $3 a day. In a year you’ll have enough for a round trip ticket plus lodging & food for a decent international vacation. 2). Find a job as an English teacher. Here are countries that pay decently: South Korea, Japan, China, Thailand 3). Start an online business. You can do that from anywhere. (This is the model I currently use) 4). Become a freelancer. Same thing. You take your work with you. 5) Accompany a rich older person who needs assistance/translation and is happy to pay for the help. 6). Budget airlines & couchsurfing 7). Get hired as an expat professional (chances are good your current lifestyle will dramatically improve if you take this option as you represent the rare commodity of someone who is foreign educated and trained. You will likely be compensated well.) 8). Crowdsource your trip (hint: if your travel qualifies as a do-gooding where you are going to help others, donors will give) 9). Credit card (OK no, don’t choose this option:)
Don’t miss out on this amazing opportunity to improve your life. If you are lucky, you might only pay half a million dollars for it. And don’t worry, you can take 30 years to pay it off. The weight of the financial responsibility will faithfully drag you to work every day. What it buys will require constant repair. This risk will perform worse than several other longterm “investments” and possibly bring you to financial ruin and social humiliation when the next housing bubble bursts. Go on, get that mortgage.
The first time I heard it I was totally blown away. Thailand, the county I had relocated to had less than 1% unemployment. Pretty much everyone that wanted a job had one. The job market was literally humming.
Coming from a Western employment context where people were spending months and years searching for jobs and thousands of those that had them were making unhealthy choices to keep them, I was offered multiple job opportunities as soon as I arrived in Southeast Asia. Never had it been more clear to me that travel and flexibility in where you choose to live can create excellent opportunities in life.
If you live in the United States it is easy to feel like this is as good as it gets. We’ve been conditioned to think that way. We are supposed to have the greatest opportunities, to make the most money, to have the best prospects in life. That’s how this is supposed to work. I spent at least 10 years believing this. I stayed in a suboptimal job situation because I believed that I had to make my American dream work. When I finally found the guts to realize that this kind of thinking was holding me back, it was as though the floodgates of real opportunity had opened.
The fact is that although I still live in the US for 1-3 month stints here and there, I don’t miss the scarcity mentality that has somehow supplanted the optimism that is traditionally associated with America. I am still inspired by the traditional American dream. I just think you now have to travel internationally to properly pursue it.
There’s a danger in taking a break from a blog for several months right after announcing that the country your are living in has just experienced a military coup: people start assuming the worst. So here’s the update: We didn’t die. We traveled: Singapore, Manila, General Santos (Southern Philippines), Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Honolulu and Reno. I also got busy with the biggest project I’ve taken on since I quit my job back in the Fall of 2012. I’ve repented of my ways though and am recommitting to posting. Expect shorter yet more frequent posts. Can’t wait to catch up!
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.