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.

Thoughts?

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…

Our Life Track. (Part I)

A little over a month ago, I submitted an application to a graduate program in England to get my Masters in education. I only applied to one school because this is really the only program I want to go to. And I suppose it’s not the end of the world if I don’t get into grad school right. this. second. It did feel that way the first time I applied to college, what with my parents not giving me much of a choice and all. But this time around, it’s my choice to go to grad school if I want and when I want. Anyway, since I applied to just the one school, I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure and anxiety about whether I’ll get in or not. And I know I’m doing this to myself. No one else seems to be as concerned about this as I am. Not even my parents.

I know I’m not alone in my struggle to better my future, though, because a good friend and coworker of mine here in Japan is feeling the same urge I feel to get a move on. We’re both in our mid-twenties, we’re both pretty smart kids, and we have open minds and a taste for adventure. We’ve also both discussed how we feel envious of our friends back in the States who are already working jobs with great pay, or they’re married with kids, or they’re living in New York like she and I both want to someday…. Did I miss something? Did I get off track? How come they already get to be where I want to be right now? Why am I not there?

Is this what they call the quarter life crisis?

I’m nearing 25, I have no money, I work at a company with hardly any in-house mobility, and I get easily frustrated and many times feel like an idiot because I live in a country where I can barely speak the language and most definitely can’t read anything. I also know I won’t meet my future life partner while I’m here. My parents had already been married for 4 years and were supporting each other by the time they were my age. My brothers were supporting themselves too by 25. What’s my problem?

Is it really fair to compare myself to them? Or to anyone?

I told my friend, a few evenings ago while drinking cinzanos and sharing her balcony, that even though it seems like those other people we know are so much further ahead than us, it’s not really the case. I tried to justify it by the fact that we are in Japan. Not many of them would be willing to come here and live like this. Because let me tell you: it ain’t easy. I mean, yes, we can afford to go out and have fun and experience a million new things, but gaining experience like this takes its toll on you. Frustration, illiteracy, confusion, translation, isolation, cabin fever, body size. Heaven forbid you get sick in Japan. Which is what I am right now. Again. I’ve never learned so much about home remedies on the internet in my life. I digress.

(to be continued…)

Gaijin Geisha

Well… I just read an interesting article. Fiona Graham, from Australia, is the first foreigner geisha in the history of Japan. Being in Japan as a foreigner myself, I found this to be somewhat intriguing. I’m sure if I had read this article a year ago, I wouldn’t have understood exactly why she would put herself through the rigorous training and, I would think, potentially ostracizing position of trying to become a geisha. My first thought probably would have been, “Okay.. well, to each, their own.” But I’ve been in Japan for half a year now and I see the beauty of the Japanese as a distinctive and remarkable culture. I’m sure Sayuki (Graham’s geisha name), feels the same way a hundred fold since, after all, she’s lived in Japan for a good chunk of her life and is a doctor of anthropology as well.

Apparently, Sayuki’s original intent going into geisha training was to produce an academic and anthropological documentary. However, it seems now that she is happy being a geisha and intends to continue as one indefinitely. I say bravo! Good for her. She may not be paving the way for tons of gaikokujin females to enter the ranks of the elite geisha, but she is doing something amazing and she’s doing it her own way.

Ganbatte, Sayuki, and rock on!

<<>>

I was just informed that Fiona Graham was not the FIRST gaijin geisha, but rather, Liza Dalby was. That’s what I get for not researching thoroughly. Hah. Either way, whoever the first foreign geisha was, my opinion still stands. Good for you, ladies!

Osaka Bang!

This is such an excellent example of what I like to call the study of people. Sure, you could say that’s sociology or anthropology, but I just think “the study of people” sounds much less academic and just more fun and appropriate when applied in small doses like this. Heheh.

Land of the Rising Sun

Well, I have some very exciting news:

I am moving to Japan to teach English for a year!

I was recently accepted for a position in Okazaki (Central Japan, near Nagoya) and I leave this coming June.  I know that this will be an extremely enlightening and exciting adventure because, besides the fact that I have never been anywhere in Asia, this will be such an inspiration to my writing.  My whole experience there will be one based on language.  The challenges of learning a new language, teaching a language to a new people whose language I don’t understand, and immersing myself within their culture is going to be an invaluable opportunity for me!

I plan to use this experience to grow as a person, of course, but also to make my blog grow.  I think I’ll be able to write some pretty interesting things once I get to Japan.  At the moment, I’m going through some books I got about Japan, the Japanese language, and the Japanese people.  Because of their long history of isolation, they have been able to preserve some of their oldest traditions and remain very unique in culture.  Unlike Western Europe and the United States, both of which have common backgrounds and melded histories, Japan is a singular entity and I expect to receive some major culture shock.  :)

Hooray!

Connectivity

Okay, okay, okay!  I know.  I’ve failed you and left you without anything to read for 4 (count ’em! 4) months.

I apologize.

In previous entry from yesterday, you’ll see a post I began writing two months ago and never finished.  The anxiety built up again and I put it off.  And then, I forgot about it.  So yesterday, when I oddly enough felt inspired to come over here and valiantly write a new entry, I was reminded of that poor little entry I wrote just 2 months ago.  I figured I should just publish what I had and then start with a new one.

So you know those memes we encounter online? Here’s a fun one that didn’t involve me spouting off information about myself in that oh so narcissistic way we all tend to do.  It’s called the Google Name Game.  Basically, google these and use the first entry.

1) Type in “[your name] needs” in Google search.
2) Type in “[your name] looks like” in Google search.
3) Type in “[your name] says” in Google search.
4) Type in “[your name] wants” in Google search.
5) Type in “[your name] does” in Google search.
6) Type in “[your name] hates” in Google search.
7) Type in “[your name] asks” in Google search.
8) Type in “[your name] likes ” in Google search.
9) Type in “[your name] eats ” in Google search.
10) Type in “[your name] wears ” in Google search.
11) Type in “[your name] was arrested for” in Google Search.
12) Type in “[your name] loves” in Google Search.

and here you go:

1. Emily needs a series of exemptions to Harvard’s administrative rules.
2. Emily looks like a very charming woman, with a natural beauty and a sparkling, unconstrained expression in her face.
3. Emily says that she and Richard are not getting back together.
4. Emily wants a pony, and she slings lemonade on the corner to get it.
5. Emily Does the Salmon Dance.
6. Emily Hates You 2.0
7. Emily asks Zander why he sold drugs.
8. Emily likes to wander the streets without much planning.
9. Emily Eats is proudly powered by WordPress.
10. Emily wears a cute outfit from Grandma while she plays in the house.
11. Emily was arrested for beating up a classmate!
12. Emily Loves Banana Custard!!

Funnily enough, about half of those are true.  I’ll let you guess which half.  The point of this meme, which I believe speaks volumes about society today, is that it’s a fun and interactive way of keeping up with each other without really keeping up with each other.  You know what I mean?  Allow me to explain:  Say one day you’re talking to a good friend and they mention someone from your past.  “Do you know Joe Schmoe?” they ask.  “Yeah I do.  Well, we’re friends on Facebook, anyway…” you start to trail off.  Joe, from your 7th grade science class, added you way back when and you have rarely, if ever, exchanged messages or comments.  But you’re friends on Facebook.

Every time this situation happens to me, I can’t help but stop and give myself a puzzled look, thinking, “How in the world did we come to this?”  I guess it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but back in the 1950s, for instance, did these acquaintances exist in such a way?  Maybe they did… “Yeah, I know Joe.  I’ve never talked to him, but we hang out at the same neighborhood bar.”

Maybe what I’m getting at here is the social phenomena of acquaintances and their interactions (or lack thereof).  What if you’re walking down the street or through the store and you see Facebook friend Joe Schmoe?  You’re not sure if he’s seen you yet, but if he does, what will you both do?  Will you smile and wave?  Will you walk up to each other and catch up on the past (or lack thereof)?  Or will you both pretend you didn’t see each other because you don’t want to get involved in what might otherwise be **cringe** an awkward situation?  But you are friends on Facebook.  And when you go home, you’ll look up Joe’s profile and find yourself clicking through every one of his photos and soon you’ll forget yourself and leave some kind of comment about one of his funnier photos.  And then the awkwardness sets in and you feel you should go ahead and leave a comment on his wall mentioning that you “thought” you saw him at the store today, but you “weren’t sure” if it was him. Hope he is well.

AAAAAGH!!!

I don’t know; maybe it’s just me.  (I did just find out recently that I have a high raw percentage of neuroticism, compared to most people).  Haha. Um.  Yeah, maybe that’s all it is.  But honestly, tell me you’ve never been in that situation before.

For a moment there I thought I was going somewhere with this post.  And then it all went to pot.  I could go back and edit the post and figure out what I meant to get at.. but I’d be here for hours… and I believe my readers are smart enough to figure it out for themselves.  Heh heh.. I do hope you got something out of it.

Oh well.  Hearts to you all for sticking around.  I’ll try to be better next time.

Dear wotBlog,

I’ve been avoiding you.

I’m sorry.

It’s been two months.  I find that I inevitably end up writing this blog entry at some point every time I try to keep a blog.  I’m so terrible.  It’s like having a pet.  At first, it’s exciting.  “Oh, think of all the wonderful things I can do with this!  This will be so much fun!”  But the pet only does so many things.  I can only do so many things with the pet.  And soon, I get bored.  I still want to keep the pet, though, because there was a time when I was genuinely enthusiastic about it and I would hate to hurt its feelings by giving it away or something.  Like I’m going to hurt my blog’s feelings.  Well, I do feel bad!  Is that not ridiculous?  I get online and I check my email, my flickr, my facebook, etc, and I see the little bookmark for wotBlog and I quickly drag my mouse away from it and look at another part of my screen.  I am literally avoiding my own blog out of embarrassment.  Wow.

It’s a blog.  Come on, Emily.

-written on December 14, 2008.  and never finished.

Peas and Violence

I know most of us, at some point in our lives, have seen the play on words involving peace and those little round green veggies we call peas. Kind of funny, isn’t it? Well, sure it is. But why?

Well, in the simplest terms, we’re human and violent behavior is an innate characteristic for us. It just happens but we try our best to moderate it. I had actually written a few paragraphs about violence and anger but none of it was coming out right and I couldn’t even figure out what I was trying to say. It probably would have been seen by some random reader as extremely politically incorrect anyway. (Remind me to write an entry about political correctness for next time.) So rather than fuss over this touchy issue with my ramblings and opinions of anger and violence, I’m simply going to introduce the subject.

And why would I do such a thing, you ask? Because it’s a taboo. And I believe that every taboo should be talked about. If there’s something that people don’t like talking about, it’s because it makes people uncomfortable. But if we’re ever going to make any progress, don’t you think we should face the things we’re uncomfortable with? It’s just food for thought. And everybody could use a little food for thought every now and again.

So, for now, I’ll leave you with this interesting video I came across on YouTube. Take a looksie.. and then think about the things that good ol’ John said.