When I was in middle school, I wanted to be a truck driver. Out on the open road like BJ and the Bear, without a care in the world except my haul. Then, my career plans changed – I wanted to be a van painter, traveling around the US turning people’s vehicles into pure magic through scenes depicting wolves, cougars, stallions, and other majestic creatures. I remember seeing a magazine article that featured someone who actually lived in their van (yes, there were shag carpets and lots of colors inside) and I thought that was the best way to live (apparently I wasn’t too concerned about showering and using the toilet back then). Kudos to my parents who just smiled and nodded as I planned my future – if they ever panicked on the inside, they didn’t show it, nor did they shut down my dreams.
For whatever reason, I really didn’t see these two wishes as a part of me that remains – until I read a blog post from a friend who is currently traveling a good chunk of the world on a motorcycle. She opened her story with “As a kid I wanted to be a truck driver so that I could be always on the road…” And that was it. My early life plans, although different, were about wanting to live freely, not being tied to a particular place. Wanting to experience new places, people, moments. I can even throw in my 4th-grade goal of being an archaeologist into the mix (thank you King Tut exhibit) – a job with travel as a primary focus. Until today, I honestly saw all these ideas as simply trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, and just figured those jobs were the coolest I could come up with at the time (read more on my thoughts on the career decisions and paths of youth, here). Turns out, truck driver, van painter, and archaeologist have more in common than I realized. And even though I am trying to settle back into the US, the open road keeps calling (photo credit).
A recent blog post from the Wall Street Journal helps me in my struggle to understand what draws me away: Away from security and loved ones. Away from establishing myself. Away from, what seems to be on some level, common sense. Here’s a quote from that blog explaining why expats are so drawn to their lives away from “home:” “Across all walks of expat life, many foreigners are united in their hesitation to “go back,” a description that often means more than just going home and implies returning to a previous state.”
Yes! That’s a huge part of it for me. There are many ways in which I’ve changed after traveling for two years. I like those changes. I don’t want to go back to the way I was before I left. But I feel myself slipping into that familiar role, into those same reactions to things I worked hard to shed. It’s all well and good to come back to my favorite cocktail at my favorite bar, or an Al Pastor taco – but coming back to certain aspects of my “previous state” is NOT something to savor. I accept the things that I did when I did them, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do them again. Yet, in some ways, that is exactly what I am doing. And I’m not sure what to do about it beyond being mindful, noticing, and trying to practice self-compassion.
Another point in this WSJ post is about how living as an expat allows more opportunities to take chances, fail, try something else, and learn from the experience. The environment of another country can be so different that somehow it can “soften fears of failure. Foreigners are sometimes granted unspoken permission to try things that might be discouraged in their home countries. The combination can lead expats to take more risks…the expat life always offers another chance to make it all different…you can make amends with the mistakes you’ve done or miscalculations and start anew.”
By no means did I live without fear when I was overseas; there were experiences I passed up because I was nervous. I didn’t eat ALL the foods (sorry boiled chicken feet, but I couldn’t get passed your clammy texture and doughy beige color), and I didn’t push hard to have a camping experience while overseas (then again, I barely camp in the US). And I found it difficult to travel alone, so I know there were things I didn’t do in New Zealand and Australia that I could have done had I been a little more brave. But there were a lot of things that I DID do that I wouldn’t have done before: I went skydiving. I ventured into – and used – toilets too scary to recount here. I figured out how to do day-to-day stuff that before I would be too nervous to try because I might have screwed it up. I tried anyway. And sometimes I did screw up. But, as the quote above implies, that’s OK to do. In fact, in many ways it’s sort of encouraged. Try, screw up, learn, rinse, repeat.
In theory and in practice, I could take that mindset and apply it in the US. But somehow it’s more difficult. I can’t explain why yet. Yet there are things I want to do and try, but for whatever reason I can’t. It seems weird to say I need the safety of living in a strange place to have the courage to take chances. Maybe it’s because every day there are so many little challenges when you live abroad – a trip to the grocery store is an adventure. Trying to get a key made becomes a story in and of itself. Taking these little chances as part of daily living builds up confidence to take bigger ones.
Now I am in back familiar territory, looking for the unknown in the everyday. The challenge here may just be the search for challenge. Or maybe I can take up van painting after all.