Leave work for a year to go live on a remote island? How a TED Talk inspired me to take a mid-career sabbatical

inspiring! it’s been too long..

TED Blog

Winston Chen's son, then TK-years-old, walks across a beach on a stormy day. Photo: Winston Chen Winston Chen left his job at a software company in Boston and moved his family to the island of Rødøy, population 108, for a year. Here, Chen’s son walks across a deserted beach on a stormy day. Photo: Winston Chen

By Winston Chen

Odysseus…Gauguin…Robinson Crusoe…and me?

Many people dream of the ultimate escape: throwing all the baggage of civilization away and taking off to live on a remote island. But few people—particularly professional couples with young kids—actually go through with it. And yet, that’s just what my family did: we left Boston, and my reliable job at a software company, to go live on a tiny island north of the Arctic Circle for a year, unsure of what exactly we’d do there or what we would face upon our return.

[ted_talkteaser id=649]The seed of this idea was planted three years before, when a friend made me watch a TED Talk by…

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Career: What is it and who said so?

How do we define a career?

I’m coming to a point in my so-called career where I feel I have to secure some kind of stable position with a good company for at least a few years, minimum.  Hopefully this will be a position full of all the perks and benefits one would want.  Maybe I could even start an IRA.  Maybe I’ll meet someone nice, settle down, and have the little yellow house with the white picket fence and 2.5 kids I’ve always dreamed about.

But who are we kidding?

In this economy (catch-phrase of the decade), you just can’t plan for that kind of life anymore.  I mean, plan all you want, but it’s just not a common plan that actually unfolds like it’s supposed to.  I had always thought that was the life I was supposed to end up with but now I realize it’s not so easy.  Especially considering my choice of career.  

As an ESL teacher, I’m really only guaranteed a full-time job teaching when I’m overseas.  In the US, I’m lucky to find a job that gives me more than 30 hours per week.  I’m even luckier if I can find one with benefits.  But, that’s the nature of teaching ESL domestically.  Doesn’t mean it’s not a real job or that I can’t make a career out of it.  

And yet, I’m being told by some that I need to start thinking seriously about what I’m going to do with my life.  I’ve got a Master’s in Comparative Education, my passion is teaching, and I’m getting paid to do it (albeit not much).  I am enjoying my current job here in California and I intend to stay for a good while.  But if, in the future, I decide to go abroad again, I don’t see that as a problem.  Sure, maybe I’ll have a partner and maybe a kid or two by then (wishful thinking), but why should that stop me from sharing the world with my family?

I’m tired of people telling me I have to choose between travel or career, family or living abroad, this or that, blah blah or blah blah blah.  Who says I have to choose?  Why can’t I just combine these things?  Yes, yes, I understand that priorities change when you have children and money gets tight and so on and so forth… but it’s not impossible.  There are plenty of people around the world who make it work.  It’s currently my theory that most people are just too afraid to try.

Having a family really means a lot to me but I know I’m not in a position to start one at this point in time.  I want to be able to provide for my family and I realize I’m probably going to have to make a lot of sacrifices in the future for the sake of my family.  That said, I feel that if I had the chance to take my family with me and experience the world together, it would do them so much more good than being cooped up in one town forever and not traveling at all.  I’ve found a way to travel and make a living, and I know it could be doable with a partner/family too.  I don’t see why doing what you love can’t be your career.  And I definitely think that raising a family while living/working abroad is still an option.


Being American


I’m pretty liberal about most things but this is something that actually concerns me. Seriously, what’s wrong with us? No one seems to care anymore about being American anymore. I mean, after Bush, I think a lot of Americans became disheartened, understandably–and we do have a pretty bad reputation as tourists outside the country. But why shouldn’t we stand when the flag goes by? You know, despite all our failures, and all our flaws, we’re a pretty amazing country. The things we have accomplished at such a young age… the colorfulness of each state.. we’ve got all types of people, land, cultures, foods, and we co-exist so well despite our differences.

When I left the US over 2 years ago, I was dying to get out and see the world. I was tired of all the problems we had in the US and I was almost embarrassed to tell anyone I met that I was American. But I’ve found that every country has its problems, and no one is perfect, whether you’re Japanese, English, German, French, Spanish, or whatever. Some countries (like Germany) don’t really fly the national flag because to them, patriotism is a reminder of past wars. Okay, I get it. But truthfully, it’s in the past. Who we are today is where we come from, but it’s also where we’re going. (The key word being ‘we’). We define what it means to be American, so being proud of your nationality shouldn’t be likened to fascism, nor should it be dismissed as unimportant. It doesn’t matter which country we come from. It’s who we are and that’s that. It’s just like being born with the body you have. Sure, some people decide to change their bodies through plastic surgery. You can change your nationality too. But if you aren’t willing to go that far, then you ought to be grateful for what you do have. You’ve gotta work with what you’ve got and be proud of it. Mind you, proud doesn’t necessarily mean pompous.

The point is this: Whether you like it or not, or whether you agree or not with anything I’ve said so far, we’re American and we’re damn good at being American. So why shouldn’t we be proud? Why shouldn’t we stand for our dear little flag when it goes by? It stands for us… the least we can do is stand for it too.

**I know this is an old photo, probably taken in the 70s or 80s, but it doesn’t make it any less true. People today still don’t stand for the flag.

Over time…

The following is a draft I wrote in November of 2009. I never posted it because I was planning on writing more.. and then I just never got around to it. This is as far as I got:

I am soon coming up on my six month mark of being in Japan. I’ve done a lot of things since I’ve been here: traveled across half the country, been in a major earthquake, been in a major typhoon, moved apartments, had a bike/car accident, ended my engagement, met someone else, broke up with them, got harassed by them, went to Disneyland, went to a hot spring, rode the bullet train, stayed in a capsule hotel, ate raw chicken (as sashimi), got my first gray hair… it’s been a whirlwind experience. Sometimes I get lost on trains and can’t get back on track–no pun intended–for at least another 2 hours. That can be extremely frustrating when you can’t read or speak the language. Sometimes I buy a pastry at the bakery thinking it would make a nice dessert and it turns out to be savory. Sometimes I buy a shirt that’s a size L and it turns out to be like a size S. These instances usually make me smirk a little because that’s the experience of a gaijin living in Japan. These are the things that will make me strut though life not letting the petty stuff bother me.

I just got my ticket yesterday to go back home to California and I’m looking forward to going home.

I’ve been in London for 10 months now. My time here is almost up (I leave in September). I felt so proud of myself for living in Japan and going through everything that I did. I’m still proud of it, but I have to say I haven’t exactly been “strutting” through life since then. Coming to England gave me a different type of culture shock I wasn’t expecting. I’ve already written about this in an earlier entry. It’s been about 6 months since my last entry and I’ve only come to find that I am becoming more and more set in my ways. The good news is that I mostly realize it. Stress has been building up with my coursework and when I do catch a break, I let loose completely. But now I am trying to find that happy balance between working and playing. I’m beginning to take my time with things. London, as with all major metropoli, is a fast-paced city. I’ve experienced this before. I am, as I was hoping I would before, toughening up. But I don’t necessarily like what I’ve toughened up into. So I’m stopping. Just because you live in a fast-paced city doesn’t mean you have to live a fast-paced life.

I’m currently working on my dissertation and, after that’s finished, I’m moving back to the United States. It’s time I came home. So, this blog probably won’t see another entry from me for a while. But when it does, we’ll see how I’ve changed again.

Men Who Explain Things

“Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t. Not yet, but according to the actuarial tables, I may have another 40-something years to live, more or less, so it could happen. Though I’m not holding my breath.”

After reading that article, my good friend Jesse (likeaphoenixignition) wrote:

Really interesting article, but I take a little issue with where she takes it.

I think she’s probably right that this sort of authoritative talking-out-of-one’s-ass is a largely gendered behavior, which is to say that, broadly, it’s a Thing Men Do.

But she then leaps from there to the assumption that men only do this to women, which couldn’t be more wrong in my experience.

I certainly understand why she would interpret such behavior as paternalism. And there’s absolutely an assertion of power that’s inherent in this form of communication. But it’s not something that’s reserved for use towards women, not at all. At it’s basest, I suppose it’s how we guys vie for lead dog status amongst each other.

I guess the point is, we’re not trying to dominate women; we’re trying to dominate EVERYONE, indiscriminately.

If that’s better or worse, I’m not sure

…to which i have this to say:
I’m with you on this one, Jesse. She makes some good points and she definitely has her opinions which you can tell have been reinforced in her due to her life experiences… But you’re right about Men Explaining Things to not just women, but men too. It’s not so much about ‘keeping the woman down’ but more so just a man’s nature to feel he is an authority on some subject, regardless of who he is talking to. I don’t hold it against men (anymore) that they are this way.

At the same time, women in this day and age have a fierce tendency to self-righteously feel they are being subjugated or victimised, especially by men. And while sometimes we actually are being subjugated or victimised, it’s unfair to assume that all men treat us this way and only this way. Yeesh, I should write my own article on Women Who Disdain Men.

A short thought.

Are we really unique?

Well as Oscar Wilde once said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Just to reinforce the point, the best I can give you is a quote from someone else. Even with looks and physical appearance factored in (hello doppelgängers), it’s true… each individual one of us isn’t really all that unique. But as depressing as that may sound to an American brought up on believing that everyone is supposed to be a special little snowflake, individualism isn’t the only or necessarily best way.

If, when you sit people-watching, you say you just think of all the countless people who you’ll never know, that’s okay. Maybe we’re not so unique on purpose. There’s no way to meet everyone in the world, so maybe we’re all a bit alike for that very reason.. the more you learn about people, the more you know people.

When it all comes down to it, though, what does it really matter how unique we are or aren’t? As long as we try to be good people and are happy with ourselves…


I realise my last post made me seem rather depressed. I tried to include some good things in the post to dispel this impression, but that didn’t seem to work. So here’s the bright cheery side of things in its very own post: London ain’t so bad! It wasn’t London that was even bothering me to begin with but more so the rigid, rusty creakiness with which I was adjusting to my new environment. Two months seems to be my breaking point and I’ve since come to accept this city the way it is. I feel much more comfortable getting around and getting things done here. No more hand-holding for me!

Now Christmas is upon us and for the first time in my life, I’m not going home. Also for the first time, I haven’t written a Christmas list. Save for this, I think what I’d really like this year is to have my first ‘white Christmas’. And that’s the kind of present no one can promise you. If it really does snow on Christmas, then maybe that will be a sign of good things. I’m going to get myself a little tree, some ornaments, lights, and watch Christmas movies all day. I’ll have dinner at a friend’s home, so I certainly won’t be alone the entire time. But I am going to take advantage of this holiday season (alone and away from everyone I know) to make a special present that cannot be bought. (OOo I feel my creative senses tingling!) I’m not loaded with money, so the present will probably be all-inclusive. But money isn’t what Christmas is about anyway, right? It’s not about spending caps, or present leverage. I honestly don’t expect a present from anyone. All I care about is my own ability to give and the look on someone’s face when they open a present. That’s definitely the best part of Christmas. So I sincerely hope you all like my present. Of course, you’ll have to wait until Christmas for it.

Until then, I’d like to stop talking about myself for once and open this up to the rest of you. If you’d like to (and you should because there’s a surprise in it), I invite you to respond in the comments section with your answer (long or short) to the following question: What does Christmas mean to you? Be as imaginative as you like, but please answer by December 24th.

Frustrations Alight

So it’s been almost two months since I first arrived in London. It’s been busy. And frustrating.

It’s strange being a foreigner in a land where things seem so similar to your own homeland. I thought it would be easier to move here. In Japan, it was understandable to encounter different ways of doing things. Everything was different there. That’s not to say I didn’t expect London to be different–I did. But I suppose that something about suddenly being able to read the signs and communicate with people messed with my impressions of the place. “How hard could it be?” I thought.

But I found there were things I took for granted in both the US and Japan that really annoyed me here in the UK. For example, pedestrians do not have the right of way and in some places, you have to pay anywhere from 50p to 3 quid to use a “public” toilet. I guess I was under the impression that going to the toilet was a basic human right, not a privilege. Using the underground on weekends is a nightmare due to the fact that London is trying to upgrade everything for the 2012 Olympics. But they do all their planned engineering on weekends? They should be doing it at night, like the Japanese do. But what do I know? I’m not a civil engineer. I’ll just have to put up with tube disruptions every weekend until 2012. And I’m not exaggerating.

Frustrations aside, I’ve had some good experiences here. I like that debit cards have a chip in them instead of a swipe bar. I like the variety of beer and Thai and Indian food you can get here. I really like the friends I’ve made, although most of them aren’t even British. I like the grocery stores and all the different ingredients I could buy should I ever want to make that crazy European recipe I couldn’t make in the US.

I’m trying really hard to get around my frustrations because I seem to be the only one around here who has them. And I’ve already offended a Brit by complaining. It wasn’t my intention to offend, but I needed to vent and getting it thrown right back at me was a bit of a wake-up call. Things aren’t so bad. Things could always get worse. I realise this. I need to toughen up again. I was a lot tougher back when I was living in New York. San Diego calmed me down, but I felt stuck. Then I got lost in San Francisco. Found myself in San Diego but got stuck again. Then really opened up in Japan. But I think I softened up a lot there. Everyone is so nice and passive. London is the opposite. People don’t care here. You’re on your own.

I’m not sure I can be as tough and cutthroat as I was in New York. I’m not quite as crazy as I used to be. But something will have to change. I wonder what London will turn me into….

Foreign Transitions

I forgot what it was like to see lots of white people all at once. I’ve been in Asia long enough now that when I saw that porcelain girl with blond hair, blue eyes, and golden eyelashes at the airport, I couldn’t get over how light she was. I kept staring at her. I’m sure I creeped her out a little. And now I’ve suddenly found myself in the odd situation of being a foreigner amongst foreigners.

Having grown up in America, I’ve seen people of all colors, shapes, and sizes and I’ve heard countless different accents. Before I moved to Japan, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live in a homogenous society. Now, on the day I leave Japan for good, I feel …weird. As I write this, I’m currently riding out a 9-hour layover in Beijing, China. It’s still a pretty homogenous environment, but hanging out in the International Terminal means I get to see loads of foreign people and it’s fascinating.

What makes this even stranger for me is the fact that in 10 days, I’ll be in the UK to start a Masters program. Again, I’ll be in a foreign land but this time, I’ll look just like everyone there. Honestly, I can’t say how this is going to affect me.

You see, in Japan, I stuck out like a sore thumb. But most people never guessed I was American. Actually, they thought I was Brazilian. And even a couple people mistook me for (can you believe it?) a Japanese person! Either way, I knew I’d get noticed, and noticed I was. But will anybody notice me in London? Maybe for the funny way I speak, but otherwise, I expect little attention. And yet, the whole time I’m there, I’ll know I’m just another foreigner. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Sure, the clothes that fit and the menus in English will certainly be nice for a change. But when I really think about the mentality I’m going to have to get accustomed to, be it the Londoners’ or mine, I have no idea what to expect.

I’m excited to find out, though. :)

Speak Globish?

Is the English language getting stronger or falling apart?

I just read an interesting Newsweek article that one of my students brought to class for me. It’s about English becoming the lingua franca of the world and how it no longer belongs to England or America, but to the world at large. This new form of English is thus appropriately coined Globish.

See the article here: All the World Speaks Globish

I must admit–I have mixed feelings about this. I do think it’s wonderful that the world is finding a common means of communication. It’s part of why I’m teaching English in Japan. It’s not that I think everyone should speak English–not at all–but I do believe in the potential and opportunity to be gained by the world being able to communicate in one language. The fact that it’s English is convenient for me but I’m also apprehensive that mother tongues will be lost–especially the mother tongue that is English.

This article acknowledges that, “native speakers still cling fiercely to their mother tongues, as they should.” But, what of the English language? Already, English seems to be butchered and neglected by its own native speakers. It seems to me that unless one majors in some form of communication in college, be it Literature, Journalism, or so on, one will only have a meager grasp of grammar and a limited vocabulary. Having taught English as a second language for one year, I’ve realised how little I truly know about the language. The scary thing is that my studies and career revolve around knowing the English language through and through. Most Americans I know who never spent a lot of time studying the English language constantly make mistakes that I can only cringe at as though they were nails on a chalkboard. If I correct these persons, they look at me like I’m crazy and ask me why it even matters. The fact that anyone has to ask why grammar matters is just deplorable, if you ask me.

At the same time, I can say that having a serious lack of grammar is admissible if you’re still successfully communicating. There’s a point in my lesson everyday where my students have to practice a dialogue. First, they read it out loud, and then I have them do it again while standing and leaving the books on their desks. I want them to practice making eye contact and using intonation. Most of my students think this means they have to memorise the conversation before class but this is all wrong. I have to remind them that I don’t want them to remember every single word; I just want them to understand the situation and act it out. If that means they end up changing some words or using a different sentence altogether, so be it. The point is for them to communicate with each other in a natural way, using body language and intonation. They can use whatever words they know as long as they are communicating the right ideas and understanding each other.

It doesn’t take more than a semester of linguistics to know that language is a living thing and constantly changes. New words and phrases are invented all the time. Definitions get switched around from word to word as though they were pieces of furniture at a feng shui convention. I suppose I feel this is a necessary evil if we want to keep up with the changing world. Or perhaps it is just result of a changing world. But I still think it’s important that we hold on to the language whence our modern words came. There are histories and knowledge to be had from our predecessors’ parlance. We shouldn’t underestimate that.

The bottom line? Speaking Globish is a fine skill to have as long as we remember our mother tongue, English. Otherwise, I’m afraid we may lose one of the world’s most dynamic and wonderfully colourful languages.