Taking chances here and there

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).


This could have been me.

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.


Silly tiles distracted me from the icky toilet in Cheonan, Korea.

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.


Always here, always now

To be able to be unhurried when hurried;
To be able not to slack off when relaxed;
To be able not to be frightened
And at a loss for what to do,
When frightened and at a loss;
This is the learning that returns us
To our natural state and transforms our lives.
[Liu Wemin, 16th Century]

Found while reading  dhamma footsteps 

I see these words as a great guide as I move forward in my new job, in my resettlement into Portland. I am wary that I will, indeed, slip back into the hurried state that I was accustomed to, that I witness every day in others. Taking time to stretch, walk, write, connect – these are important to me. The balance of relaxation with obligation is an ideal I will continue to strive towards. I felt this most when I lived in Toronto and Cheonan; working hard, yet still able to appreciate my surroundings and where life was taking me.


Taking a walk break in Toronto

In these two places I found a welcoming balance of routine and novelty; of unhurried and mandates; of relaxation and production. These were places where I went outside every day and experienced the community mindfully. Sometimes I threw myself into the bustle of humanity, while other times I would find a more secluded place and just sit. Refreshed, I would return to my computer and produce, create, or do whatever was needed. Rarely did I feel like I had to do something; I looked forward to the tasks that lay in front of me.


A park in Cheonan, South Korea. An escape from the large buildings in the background.


During these times, in these places, I was able to live in the experience of now. Appreciate that every moment is now without that meaning pressure, an impending deadline. Now simply is, and always will, be.

Space: Less is More

I wrote this post almost a month ago, but have been running around getting ready to head to Oman in a couple of days. Now that I have left my house, reduced my possessions to a large suitcase and a carry-on, I feel more relaxed than I have since I came back to the US. Less stuff, less concerns. Just a simplified life which feels wonderful.

First night in the house alone in a really long time. First night alone in a long time, really. It feels fine and all, but it doesn’t feel like home, even though I pay the mortgage. I’m in the downstairs bedroom and what remains of my furniture is arranged haphazardly in the living room, ready to be carted off to the basement. More likely a storage unit where it will remain for a year – or more – while I continue my travels.

My house March 2014

My super fancy storage unit. I moved here in 2001.

This is by far the most space I have experienced in a long time. Dave and I shared two different places, each about 250 square feet for two months at a time. Before that I lived in a one-room cottage at my cousin’s house in Auckland (I guess that was sort of being alone, but not really: an in between state of independence and cohabitation. Before that I shared a 1000 square foot condo with my aunt and uncle. Reviewing this timeline, I believe the last time I slept alone was in Taos; I even shared a hotel room when I went to a conference last October in Dallas.


The cottage in Auckland.

The issue of space has been the most difficult for me to adjust to since coming back to the US. It took me a good four times before I was able to marginally cope going to a grocery store. They are so big and there are so many choices. The first time I went in, I felt my heart race, my brain grow confused. Yet I managed to grab a bar of soap, some shampoo and conditioner, along with a loaf of bread and hummus to sustain me – all within 10 minutes. It would have been sooner if I wasn’t paralyzed by the number of hair products.

The second time I went shopping was the exact opposite. I believe it took me almost an hour and a half just to buy some basic things for a 4th of July BBQ. I felt lost going up and down the aisles. I stared at the different kinds of sausages and pretty much froze when it came time to come up with salad fixings.  I don’t even remember the third time. Then I went to Trader Joes and somehow it was semi-OK again.  I know people complain about the tight corners and narrow aisles there so maybe that’s why I fared better.

So now I exist in half of my house and it’s still too big. The upstairs is empty, waiting for the carpet installers to turn this place into a bonafide rental. The bottom half is not even totally useable, with the living-room-as-storage-unit pretty much just a pass through. That leaves me with the tiny bathroom, the bedroom, and the huge kitchen. I used to love it – still do to some extent – but now I see it more as wasteful. I hope the people who live here will appreciate the space and have many hands creating feasts. Me? While I don’t quite long for the kitchen I had in Korea (that was a bit extreme), I am looking forward to my next home being substantially smaller than this one. And, once again, it will be shared. The way homes are meant to be.

How do you want to be when you grow up?

“When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.”

— Hunter S. Thompson

buddha trees

Giant Buddha in Cheonan, South Korea, the day before his birthday



Just Another Wednesday Night in Korea

We went out for groceries after Dave got off work, just after 9PM. Our gas had been turned off due to lack of bill paying and the lack of any sort of warning notice. It had been a week since either of us had had a warm shower, and I couldn’t cook my comforting soup. At least we had the rice cooker.

On our way home from buying cabbage, rice, and garlic, I insisted on chimac (pronounced chee-mac), short for chicken and makju, aka beer. I will have to write about this wonderful combination later, but for now let’s just say that it makes me incredibly happy.

I figured we would go to our usual place – the place around the corner from our apartment. But Dave had other ideas; he wanted to go to our local pub. While it does have chicken, and it does serve beer, thus technically allowing us to partake in chimac, it also serves other foods — thus disqualifying our outing from going out for chimac in my eyes. Also, the pub is more known for its “beercino” than its food; beercino, I kid you not, is beer on tap upon which fake, tasteless foam is added from a separate tap to make it appear more frothy. Ah, Korea.


That beer foam is indeed fake.

I sipped my beercino and looked around the place. It was pretty packed. Most of the people there were part of a large party. Several tables were pushed together so that about 10 or so  — all but one were men — could all sit together. They looked and sounded like they were having a great time.

All except for one person. One young man was literally passed out at the table. Another victim of Korean drinking culture. You see, in South Korea, drinking comes with a lot of rules to go with its lots of drinking. First rule: the eldest dictates how much is consumed by pretty much everyone during the evening. And this party, as we found out, happened to be to celebrate the retirement of an Air Force engineer. In other words, the man of honor was also the eldest and therefore the one calling the shots in all sense of that phrase. The drinking culture here states that the eldest pays. However, those younger must keep pace with the host’s desire to consume. And on this particular night, the retired Air Force guy was making a night out of it (note: it was Wednesday). So, as he went, so did the others. Empty bottles of soju and makju cluttered the tables. Shot glasses were also strewn about.

Second rule: it’s rude to leave a glass empty; it shows a lack of generosity on the part of your drinking partners. Therefore, you always have something to drink in your glass. Third rule: It’s considered rude not to drink what’s in your glass, because if you don’t, then you are not appreciating your company’s generosity. So the drunken Catch-22 begins. You will always have something in your glass because someone put it there to be generous. You have to drink it in order to show appreciation for said generosity – and that goes double if the person supplying the drinks is an elder and/or superior (see First rule). So now you have to empty your glass which then needs to be filled again…

…which leaves you with a 20-something guy passed out at a table. A victim of several too many somacs (soju + makju often done as a “one shot” – think sake bomb for those of you familiar with that concept). After the party cleared out, it took two co-workers to pick the guy up and dump him in a cab. He was out cold.

This whole ritual is super weird to me. First of all, (and this can be considered a Fourth rule of sorts) Koreans commonly get shit-faced with their co-workers; it’s a form of bonding and will happen every time the boss/a company elder wants it to happen, and the event is over when the boss/company elder says it is – your family is not consequential here; you drink if your work dictates that you drink. This is NOT something I am used to. Having a beverage with a colleague after work, sure. But doing it to this excess on this time table? Nope.

In sum, Koreans drink A TON over here in both number of times and quantity of booze consumed during that time. Enough that there is a term, “soju flower,” for the alcohol-induced kimchi vomit piles often seen on the street in the mornings.

It makes me wonder: Is the term “alcoholic” subjective? In the United States, alcohol dependence is determined to be biological in origin and also has its place in the DSM – the diagnostic manual of psychological disorders. But how do those concepts of alcoholism fit into a culture that basically mandates drinking and doesn’t easily allow you to set your own limits (note: There are ways to abstain, but they involve deception as opposed to an honest expression of a lack of desire to drink)? It’s hard to really differentiate between heavy drinking and when a person NEEDS to drink. I have a feeling though the former is celebrated here, the latter is not (at least one guy agrees with me on this point). The fact remains, public drunkenness is a common sight here and the tolerance for alcohol-induced behavior is more accepted here than it is where I come from. Is that a good thing? I have no idea. It seems wrong to me, but it’s impossible for me to separate my beliefs from my culture.