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.


I found the real Dubai

I look down and see the whole world below me. Traditional clothing spanning many continents. Workers pushing carpeted-covered carts full of bags of rice. Women pushing strollers. Tourists carrying backpacks and cameras. Shop owners standing outside scanning for customers. Cars honk and move slowly.


View from my hotel balcony during the day. I love the brick sidewalk

Across the way, balconies house dilapidated furniture, air-con units, and drying laundry. Pigeons, the universal sign of city life, perch temporarily before finding more suitable resting spots.


The apartments across the way

Call to prayer from at least three different mosques fills the air, creating a chaotic round of song. The underlay resembles a swarm of bees; the notes on top, a Gregorian chant. No one below seems to pay any mind.

I feel at peace among the buzz.

At night Deira becomes even more alive. The streets are packed. Several languages are spoken. Sellers increase their aggressiveness and try to lure you in to buy their textiles, cell phones, animated toys, and watches. Stores restock. Most of the women disappear, leaving men to dominate the streets. People continue to work. Restaurants — Pakistani, Senegalese, Egyptian, are all open late. This is a side of Dubai I enjoy  — a far cry from the last time I was here. Now I understand why people want to live in this city.


I’m not sure why I find this setting so comforting. It’s so easy to get lost in the moments here. It reminds me of Toronto in its vibrant diversity. There’s a rhythm about it that is soothing and energetic. I imagine the people down there living full lives. Difficult, possibly simple, but full.

Today is a day where I just wish I could wear what I want. Go outside with my knees bared, or perhaps not be too concerned that a little cleavage is showing. I want a different pair of shoes. I imagine boots, a short skirt, and a shirt that flatters my neckline – my round face and larger chest beg for a scoop- or V-neck, not the higher cuts that are needed here. I want to wear different jewelry than what I have in my small collection here (which has been my saving grace – the few accessories I have and have gotten since being here have made my wardrobe bearable). I still believe that a limited wardrobe is more freeing, it’s just that the one I have here, because of the culture, does not look that great on me – I have complained about this before, and I am sure I will do so again. My clothes are comfortable for sure, but long skirts on a short body are not a great idea; neither are high necks on a short torso.

I also long to wear leggings and all the fun outfits I got when I was in Toronto. Not totally fashion-forward, but about as modern as I will ever be – even though I bought the clothes over a year ago now, possibly planting them firmly into the category of “outdated” in the fast-moving fashion world. Still, they are clothes I chose because I felt good in them – many purchased from local designers and neighborhood boutiques. The cuts and combinations new to my usual choices. I’m not really sure how I would define my fashion style, but it started to grow in Toronto, and continued to make a few steps forward in Korea and Vietnam. Of course, my fashion growth came to a screeching halt and regression as soon as I hit Oman. And besides, it’s already in the 90s here; not exactly a place to bust out sweaters and fleece tights (yes, they make these and they are amazing).

smug waterfall

I long to wear my hoodie dress and BOOTS! As you can see, this photo was taken two X-messes ago (oops on the date stamp).


Maybe my desire to feel put together on the outside is because of how I feel on the inside. It’s time for another big transition at an undisclosed time. Most likely things will happen in four and a half months, but it could be sooner. And when that happens, everything will be different: my job, location, culture — everything. The feeling of being unsettled is thrilling, distracting, nerve-wracking,  joyous. I feel sad, powerful, anxious, hopeful. I’m not sure I belong back in the US, but I want to give it another try. I know that the decisions I make now are, as everything is, subject to change. That moving back to Portland does not signal a permanent or even long-term phase – but it could. When I imagine being in that physical location, it doesn’t feel great. But when I imagine being with my friends again, my heart grows and I feel at peace; I actually feel like I am being hugged. Here is OK, but it’s not a place to be long-term (at least not for me). Maybe no place is. I am still craving being elsewhere, just not sure where.

It’s much easier to find an outfit that makes me feel great. Even if I can’t wear it today.

Monarch flying

I took this photo in New Zealand (Feb 2014), another time of major change in my life. Could these transformations be an annual thing?



Home Cooking

For me, part of the fun of visiting a new place is trying out the local foods. And since I am living in South Korea for at least a few months, I’m not just eating out, but eating in a lot, which means cooking. In the two weeks I have been here so far (and also the 10 days I was here before I went to New Zealand), I’ve basically prepared one dish so far, with slight variations.

My dish is a basic soup. Our kitchen is super tiny so doing anything elaborate is out of the question; no oven, just a two burner stove and one pot. Here are the ingredients I tend to put in it — garlic, cabbage, green onions, two kinds of mushrooms (enoki and black cap), hot peppers, and some weird lettuce. Even at the spendy grocery store (which is laid out more like a Western store so I have gone there twice so far), local veggies are super cheap. For example, the green onions were $1.20, while the hot peppers were a dollar. Even the mushrooms are super cheap ($1.00-$1.50 depending on the kind).

So far, I get the veggies either at the local grocery store or at the traditional open market (I love it there), but it's further away.

So far, I get the veggies either at the local grocery store or at the traditional open market (I love it there), but it’s further away.

Add broth powder, red pepper paste, and sometimes noodles to make it more substantial and ta-da! Soup, using only a cutting board, knife, and one pot. When I am feeling extra fancy, I add sesame seeds. And in week two, as I grow more adventurous, I have also experimented with putting pickled radish shavings on top (I pretty much love anything pickled).

What I tend to eat for breakfast/lunch and sometimes dinner too, if we don't go out.

What I tend to eat for breakfast/lunch and sometimes dinner too, if we don’t go out.

I wonder how long it will take me to get tired of this.

Now before you think I am eating completely healthy over here, fear not — there will be posts on going out for chicken and beer (VERY popular here) and what a Dunkin’ Donuts is like. But for the most part, I do appreciate how the food here in general is healthier and more wholesome. I was going to say “simple” but it’s not simple — there are so many ingredients involved in most dishes here; it’s just that the food seems to be less processed overall, and also less sweet.

There’s not much cheese here either. That may prove to be a problem in the future.