“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Just over a year ago, Jammie and I sat down with her dad and two brothers to give them the news that we had both handed in our resignations and were leaving on a 12-month service and travel trip around the world. It easily ranks as one of my most-dreaded conversations EVER (As a Swede in a Filipino family, there has been a steep learning curve on what to say and how to say it – see my last post for some of my lessons learned)… Here’s how we did it:
I practiced on my parents first – Since my own parents raised me all over the world, I decided to break the news to them first. They were pretty good about it although there was definitely a little resistance to the idea of giving up good jobs for travel and freelancing. The Swedish “hands off” approach to parenting adult kids made the conversation fairly easy. Having done it once, I geared up for round 2…
Timing, timing, timing – Since Jammie’s parents lived 8 hours away from us (as opposed to on a different continent like my parents), we decided that we were goings to tell them in person. Luckily, we had a reason to drive down to them (A LARGE family wedding). We waited until about two hours after the wedding before dropping the bomb.
Group Dynamics – We gathered Jammie’s dad and two brothers around the table in the formal dining room that hardly ever gets used, took a deep breath and went for it. “We have some big news…” Everyone tensed up…. “We’ve done a lot of thinking and planning and…” Yikes, this was harder than our practice sessions in the car on the drive down… “We have handed in our job resignations and we are going to be traveling around the world and doing service projects for a year.” THERE! We said it!!
Charts and Projections – I pivoted quickly to the prep we’d done for the move. I knew that a Filipino dad was going to be very no-nonsense about practicalities, i.e. just how did we plan on surviving? So we talked about finances – how we’d saved up and found other ways to make money. We talked about why we were doing this – the year was supposed to be an idea and relationship harvest for the future. We wanted to make international connections for future career moves.
Prepared Answers – I’d done a lot of prepping for how to respond to family concerns and objections. And sure enough, there were some (although, not a lot, surprisingly): I had info on what the cost of living would be in the countries we were visiting. I had planned a lot to make sure that career-wise, this trip would enhance my marketability rather than hurt my resume and I made sure everyone heard this.
Being real – We talked about risk. The cities we were visiting were generally safer than your average American city. Jammie’s dad made Jammie promise she wasn’t going to do any crazy exploring of back alleys on her own.
Wrap-up – As the conversation wound down we thanked everyone. Amazingly, everyone gave us their blessing. We got out without too much lingering. All things considered, things had gone well and we breathed a sigh of relief.
Final word – We were actually surprised by how easy most of our “we’re leaving” conversations turned out to be. If you are planning on breaking big news to family, I think my big takeaway would be: be prepared but don’t over-think it. It is hard to predict how it will go but don’t delay the talk because of imagined disastrous outcomes. The most important thing thing is that you actually have the conversation.
This post ran for the first time on February 21st, 2012 and since I’m gearing up to post on how to talk to family about your travel plans, I thought I’d get us in the mood by this list of Filipino family “not-to-says”. Enjoy!
Alright, I’ve been married to a Filipina American for almost a year now so between that and the six years I lived in the Philippines, I thought it might be time for some more posts on Filipino culture and how best to relate to it. This post is specifically for those contemplating dating a Filipino, shopping around on Filipino dating sites or getting married to a Filipino woman or man. Here’s a list of things you never say to your prospective Filipino parents-in-law:
1) “This food smells weird” – The aromas are going to be different from what you are used to – especially when it comes to the fish. Filipino recipes are tough to navigate for a lot of people at first. They will grow on you though. So keep your initial reluctance to yourself.
2) “I hate karaoke” – Think karaoke is of the devil? Tough. You are going to need to sing and you may as well get in the spirit quick. Filipino culture was not made for the bashful – my Filipino wife has assured me of as much. So if you want to appeal to the Filipina heart then throw caution to the wind and belt out a few tunes.
3) “I am on a diet” – Huh? What’s that?
4) Point out that they used “she” to reference a “he” – There are no pronouns in Tagalog, the Filipino language. Prepare for some confusion when family gathers to gossip (I mean talk) about multiple people. “He” will not be used, “she” will be used for everything. Smile, nod, work things out from the context. And if you still don’t get it, ask your Filipino significant other later.
5) “I don’t like big gatherings” – Well, whether you do or not, rest assured that 50 relatives are still coming and expect to be fed. Get to steppin’. Real life Filipino gatherings crave energy and being present.
6) “Why are there beans in my dessert?” – Because you are eating halo-halo, a Filipino delicacy involving shaved ice, tons of sugar, beans and other assorted sweetness.
7) “What kind of a name is Bong?” – Ask this question respectfully, a former president’s son was named Bong and it’s quite a common Filipino name.
8) “Can I leave now?” – Um, no. We just got here (four hours ago).
9) “Who is Pacquiao?” – You have now asked for a beating.
10) “Rice again?“ – Are you kidding? It is like the Filipino oxygen.
There’s more of course so feel free to add to the list in the comments.
This is a post I couldn’t have written in my early 20s. I simply did not know what I know now. Instead, I’m writing with a little more perspective, 10 years later. It’s a post that may have gotten me fired back in my 9-5 days. Some will find it irresponsible. But I can honestly say I’ve found more happiness and better work from internalizing these ideas:
You see, after 10 years spent setting myself up for a good job, getting it, being well-paid to work that job and the next and the next for years, deciding it was time to really grow, quitting, traveling the world for a year, finding a lot more opportunity, talking to others that had seized that opportunity, reconfiguring a lot about myself and then reconstructing my own professional path, I’ve realized that…
Anyone can tell you to be cautious, play carefully and, above all, burn no bridges. It’s solid advice. But there’s a new reality that is even more fundamental. It has nothing to do with burning bridges. It’s the new reality of sinking ships.
For just as when in the 16th century, Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés* commanded his soldiers to sink the ships they had taken to arrive in Veracruz (to avoid retreat), we have arrived at the shores of a New Reality in the 21st century and the ships people boarded to professional and financial success in the past, are starting to sink under the weight of monumental corporate screw-ups, shifts in the global economy, damage inflicted by disruptive new technologies and the innovative thoughts of new generations in regards to work culture. There is no way back to the good old days. The only way is forward.
A good step forward would be to identify the sinking ships. Here are seven biggies (click on the links for more info on each of these sinking ships, there’s a wealth of info that shifted my thinking over the years and that helped me make some big changes):
Sinking Ship #1 – The traditional career track – If you are interviewing for a job today, there’s a pretty good chance that you are not interviewing for the same reason the boss did 20 years ago. The boss wanted the job for a safe, secure track to retirement. The world has changed. For starters, “the track” is disappearing. Security now comes from breadth of experience, not hunkering down with one company and hoping for the best. Also, as much as bosses will demand loyalty, the recent recession has clearly shown us that they will lay you off before taking a cut to their own salary. We all know this, let’s not pretend otherwise by limiting ourselves to one source of income.
Sinking Ship #2 – Job security – I’ve never been fired but I was laid off once. Fortunately it wasn’t a big deal because it was a summer job and I was in college. But the memory of it burns bright even now. I walked in to my office building one Monday morning and before I could even get to the elevator, the CFO of the company stopped me in the hall and said, “Bjorn, we need to talk.” He proceeded to tell me that because business was down, I had been laid off along with 30% of the sales force. “I’m sorry we didn’t get the letter out to you in time.” They let me work a half-day more because I insisted I had billable work and then BAM – I was out. To the millions that were laid off over the last several years, this story of fickle job security is painfully familiar. And the consequences of this sinking ship are devastating.
Sinking Ship #3 – Landlocked living – I have personally been inspired by the response of some very brave people to Sinking Ship #1 and #2. Instead of worried pacing in front of the water cooler and angry conversations in the lunch room, they’ve hunted down opportunities that are less obvious and less convenient: overseas options. Rather than telling you their stories, here are some links. Let them tell you for themselves. These are all people that crafted their own financial and professional futures out of international opportunities. These include young people and older people, singles, marrieds, families with kids, etc. Think hard before you decide whether or not this is for you.
Sinking Ship #4 – Fresh Faced Entitlement – I had a great boss for my first job out of college. She told me that most 20 somethings entering the workplace (including me), had no idea how they came across and should therefore shut up in meetings and only offer their thoughts when asked to. It was brutal and, frankly, embarrassing because it was the opposite of what I had been doing. But I learned a lot. I realized that, along with a lot of my fellow recent grads, I thought that past accomplishments in college or internships, entitled me to a good job where I was automatically respected and heard. Oh, how the young are deceived!
Of course, this kind of young entitlement thinking is nothing new. What is new, is the harshness of the hiring environment. Due to the economic downturn, it has been extremely difficult to land a good job even with years of experience. New grads with a mere diploma are even worse off – they are on a sinking ship – not exactly a place for entitlement…
Sinking Ship #5 – Old Exec Entitlement – But entitlement is not just the curse of the young. It also applies to complacent managers and execs. I remember chatting with an exec who was mentoring me at one job. I know he meant to be encouraging and positive. But his words achieved the exact opposite effect: “You know, Bjorn, guys like you and I are lucky. As long as we don’t rock the boat and we do a decent job, we are set in this company for life!” The complacency and the deep seated entitlement of the beckoning Old Boys Club made me sick to my stomach.
But even this is changing. Thinner margins, higher demands for efficiency and the harsh winds of change mean that, in many industries, you won’t be an exec for long if you don’t understand the new world of tighter legislation, online metrics, data driven advertising and the online product platforms that are rendering dinosaur execs that rely on hunch and “years of experience in this field”, retired or job hunting.
Sinking Ship #6 – Gatekeepers – If you want to succeed as a writer, a programmer, an artist or pretty much any entrepreneurially-focused venture that required gate keepers (editors/purchasers/CEOs/producers) to pick you out of the clamoring crowd in the past, you are in luck. Self-publishing, while not new, is far more prevalent and possible today. It is changing industries and making it possible to circumvent big, boring companies. Online platforms mean you can sell your own software, your own music, your own product while entirely dodging the bureaucratic hoops or the horrible odds of being signed by a gatekeeper. Of course, this doesn’t mean that your job as an aspiring creator is any easier but it does make it more democratic as success is more dependent on your ability to hustle than on favor from on high. Let those gatekeepers sink, we won’t miss them!
Sinking Ship #7 – Fearful Obedience – “What do you expect from a supervisor?” It’s a classic interview question. And, given our new environment of sinking ships and its accompanying threats and opportunities, you can give a political answer while knowing in your heart that the real answer is “I expect a fair shake and some coaching. But not a lot more. I am genuinely grateful for anything you can teach me but I don’t see you as a path to riches or promotion. Your career ladder probably won’t be standing when I’m your age. This is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just… reality. So while I want to grow professionally, I’ll take ownership of my future whether its here or somewhere else. I don’t necessarily need to climb a breaking ladder…. especially not on a sinking ship.”
As I said at the start, these thoughts are going to be labeled irresponsible by some. I know that. It’s OK. If I were boss, on the verge of retiring and just wanted to be put out to pasture with minimal fuss, I wouldn’t like all this disruptive chatter either. But most of us aren’t that lucky. We’ve got to face facts. Real irresponsibility in this new reality is to ignore the sinking ships.
*Cortes was a horrible imperialistic mass murderer. I am not holding him up as a hero.
Do your finances worry you? Do you feel trapped? Like you have to put up with a horrible lifestyle because you can’t afford to leave a job? Do you not even have a job?
Meet my friend Julie Tillotson. She recently told me the story of how she and her husband, Ben, pulled off what many in the United States and elsewhere consider financially impossible by thinking and acting internationally. Her story should inspire us all to realize that there are always better options out there if we are willing to be adventurous.
Below are my interview questions and her answers:
1) What was it that triggered your decision to move to South Korea?
Financial insecurity and restlessness. Having repatriated to the US after completing university and getting married in the UK, Ben and I were searching for jobs and living with my parents (Thanks Mom and Dad!). After filling out 60+ job applications, we only managed to get part-time temp jobs with zero benefits. Wanting to be self-sufficient and passionately wanting to travel, EFL (English as a foreign language) jobs in Korea offered that and more: free plane tickets, free housing, medical insurance, pension and full time work experience.
2) How much do you make per year?
My salary has been between 20,000-35,000USD* per year depending on the job and exchange rates.
*These figures do not include housing, pension or other benefits that vary from job to job.
3) How much is it possible to save per month?
Between 800-1000USD on a reasonable starting salary, more if you are super motivated.
4) Please elaborate on the school and other debt that you were able to pay off as well as the money you were able to save.
Unfortunately, I had a credit card run up to 20,000USD from school bills and emergency use while unemployed. It took 11 months for us to pay it off by each contributing 800-1000USD per month. Over the next 3 years we saved a total of 80,000USD. We used the money to do MA degrees in the UK without needing student loans.
5) What is your advice to people that are considering going to Asia to find work and financial stability?
A. Research! Customs, culture, and work environment are always more different than most expect. Familiar concepts such as contracts, employee/employer relationships, and set work responsibilities can be shockingly different to the unprepared.
B. Documents first! It’s up to you and only you to have your work visa documents in order. With criminal background checks it can be a waiting game, so don’t delay!
C. Quality photography! It’s standard procedure to include a photo for job applications in Asia. Professional appearance is highly valued in Asia.
6) What are the main risks in making a move similar to yours?
Stress and illness. An international move, unfamiliar job, culture shock and contact with new bacteria and virus’ is a recipe for catching colds and flu.
7) How long do you plan on staying in Korea? Why?
Two to five years. My job, friends and a comfortable lifestyle keep me here for now. However, the declining birthrate in Korea will hit universities with all-time low student enrollment within 5 years, so university jobs will likely become more competitive.
8) If you were trying to sell someone on doing what you have done in Korea, what would you say?
As far as money goes, imagine what you can accomplish without paying for rent, car payment or gas. Korea has a growing economy where English teachers are in demand. Seoul is safe, has great public transportation, and there is always something fun to see or do in spare time.
9) What do you dislike most about living abroad?
Long gaps in seeing family and long-time friends.
10) What are your top relocation tips?
Don’t make assumptions about your host culture, take time to wrap your brain around things that initially seem strange to you.
Do make additional friends outside your workplace through volunteering, church, sports and clubs.
Do learn about local fresh produce and ingredients and create beautiful healthy meals at home.
Julie Tillotson is an American who has been living in Seoul, South Korea with her husband, Ben for the past 9 years. She currently works at Seokyeong University in the General Education program and loves exploring the city in her free time.
Do you like your life? Are you where you want to be right now? Are you living where you want to live? Is your job a good match for your interests? Are you fulfilled?
In the Fall of 2012 my answers to most if not all of the above questions were “no”. Then my wife Jammie and I made some drastic changes (we quit our jobs, traveled the world for a year and found new jobs that we liked better.) I can honestly say that my “no” answers have now switched to “yes”.
Some would say that the reason I can now say that is that I “followed my passion”. I don’t agree. “Follow your passion” can be horrible advice if it is used as an excuse to avoid hard work or the inevitable pain of growth in an area (even an area that you love).
At the recommendation of my uncle I just read a book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work Love. The author, Cal Newport, argues full-force against what he sees as a “follow your passion” epidemic where people obsess about pursing work and a life they are passionate about. Calport says people spend their lives hopping around and feeling unfulfilled because they never quite find their passion and they never invest in any job enough to gain the satisfaction of mastery. I think he makes a good point.
Although I definitely believe that you should lead a happy, meaningful life, I want to add some major caveats to the “follow your passion” conventional advice:
Do some careful planning – I get nervous when people hear our story and use it as a justification to think they should quit their job on the spot, throw caution to the wind and pursue what they supposedly love. I admire courage and going for what you really want but there are good and bad ways to pursue passion. Thinking that you can get by on passion alone is crazy. You need a plan. Jammie and I planned financially for our move for several years. As in we put aside money and laid the groundwork for more revenue streams. We also made sure that we had job opportunities that we could take when the time came for a longer term (1-2 years) relocation.
There’s nothing wrong with doing things just for the money - Unless it is unethical or your work makes your miserable, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being practical and doing things just for the money. My dad gave me excellent advice when I was about to head out to college and thinking about how to create an income stream for pocket money: “Just get a job. Nobody cares what job you have in college, just get something so you have spending money.”
So I sucked it up and took unglamorous jobs at the university cafeteria (one was particularly horrible and involved walking around in a huge freezer at 6:00 AM). It worked and I was able to finance what I really enjoyed: hanging out with friends and traveling. After a year of working in the food service I found better work as a news and PR writer for my remaining three years in school.
Be prepared to not like a lot of what you do – Even great work is work. And there are parts that are not fun whatsoever. Jammie and I love freelance writing, for example. We are good at it and we like the writing process. But a lot of the related tasks are less cool: finding the business, chasing late payments, writer’s block – I could go on and on. But this is part of it. I recognize that but I am not even vaguely tempted to try to go get my old job just back because there are parts of my new life that I don’t like. Reality is messy. It pays to understand that and have some patience.
Stop trying to find yourself – If you don’t feel like you are living a life that you are passionate about it is easy to freak out and wonder why you “don’t have direction”. One of the most common things driving the travel industry is people out there traveling the world and trying to “find themselves”. With all due respect to the “Eat, Pray, Love” crowd, that is a very flimsy mission. Recognize that life is fluid and that interests and passions evolve. Life is a process of discovery and there is absolutely no point spending your days mourning your lack of absolute certainty in life. If you are miserable about your life direction, start taking steps to correct course but realize that absolutely bliss is not going to manifest. I am much happier for having planned and executed a lifestyle reinvention but I certainly have my moments of doubt and soul searching.
I will always have more dragons to slay. There will always be course corrections to make when I misstep. I will always feel like there is something better just over the horizon. But I am not going to be anxious about the fact that I haven’t arrived. Nobody ever does. I just want to focus on taking the best “next step” possible.