Uniting the new and old

…a foreign place can provide the opportunity to reinvent oneself, to be freed from a constraining self-image and become more individualized and less controlled by convention. Not belonging allows a kind of creative jiggle-room between self and environment. The challenge of living in a very foreign place, where there is no familiarity and no foundation for a sense of belonging, can even be experienced as joyful! It offers the chance to begin again, without having to compensate for the ‘failure’ of not fitting in at home.
The End of Belonging by Dr. Greg Madison

I moved half-way around the world and ended up reinventing myself (well, partially).  It wasn’t deliberate, it wasn’t planned.  It just happened.  I discovered a place that felt right, a place where I was happier and felt at ease, where I enjoyed waking up and discovering new things each day.  Occasionally I would leave to visit other places (or home), and I think knowing that I would be returning to this new place helped to make these visits enjoyable and fulfilling.  But then the day came when I had to leave the new place for good and return “home” – return to the place that others think of as my “home”.

I’ve traveled for extended times before and lived in other places, other cultures.  I’m familiar with the experience of culture shock in reverse when re-integrating back into my home culture.  It usually comes pretty quick and lasts a few weeks, maybe as long as a couple of months.  This time is very different; it’s been nearly a half a year.  I find myself facing the old me, the old life I lived and left behind, struggling to integrate all of that back into my new self as I simultaneously contemplate what life might be like if only I could find a way to continue my reinvention.

It’s difficult to find a way to proceed.  I am paralyzed by the dilemma of having to choose between two great losses; all that I gained, or the several good things from my old life that I would almost certainly have to leave behind in order to embrace the gains. People who care about me are cognizant of my struggling.  My indecision and inability to move forward in a definite direction is causing them pain and uncertainty, and leaves me heavy with guilt.

What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.
–Alain de Botton

Posted in Exploration Tagged Guilt, reinvention, returning, Uncertainty

Taking stock….

Let me see…. It’s been over half a year since I’ve written here, I’ve moved halfway around the world, and I’m still unsure of things.  Time to say fuck it, then chuck it, and become someone else?  Wha…?

Posted in Exploration

Red, Green, and Gray

countries

One planet, many places.

Southeast Asia.  It has a certain allure and I’m trying to figure out why.  I suppose it seems more foreign to me than other parts of Asia that I’ve traveled to in the past.  Japan, China, and Hong Kong….  These places are different from where I am “from” but the cultural differences aren’t as great as many people imagine.  Yes, there are differences.  Take pizza in Japan (please!).  It almost always includes corn as a basic starter ingredient, along with the crust and cheese.  And mayonnaise is a frequent substitute for tomato sauce.  Then there’s the very small, almost non-existent, amount of “personal space” people are accustomed to in Japan as compared to western countries.  Yet other aspects of Japan (and China) were as “normal” as anywhere I’ve ever been.

So what is the culture like in other Asian countries?  I thinking specifically of Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos?  What’s the the island nation of the Philippines like in contrast to the island nation of Japan?  Some of these places – especially Laos and Cambodia – appear much more untouched by the influences of western culture, although it is doubtful they will remain this way.

asia-closeup

Southeast Asia

I’m considering quite seriously one of these countries as my future home – if they will have me.  But I worry about the Road not Taken affect that western expats exert on the cultures that they visit or move to.  One person alone is unlikely to be the impetus for the westernization of these places, but a lot of “one persons” combined have a lasting impact.

I intend to spend a lot of my time over the next couple of years writing, photographing, and documenting my experiences on video.  I’d like to build some sort of an audience for the work I do, but at the same time I worry that the stuff I do could inadvertently cause harm by making the places I look at of more interest to viewers.  It’s an interesting paradox – one that I’m going to have to think on some more.

Posted in Exploration Tagged asia, Southeast Asia, travel

What drives change?

I’ve been wondering what drives people to change or at least the want to change?

For the last 12 years I have lived in this city of more than a couple of million people and yet I feel like I’m trapped in a cage.  I’m immeasurably bored with my life and feel aimless and without any direction.  A couple days ago, rather than do any work or take steps towards change, I slept late, showered, and headed to the dentist for a cleaning.

If I move overseas or travel around this country, what will I do about regular visits to doctors and dentists?  Do I come back to this place once a year with everything scheduled around the same time?  Or do I just see whoever is local?  What do other people who don’t have a permanent place to call home do?

With my teeth nice and clean, I headed to another appointment, only to discover upon my arrival that the person I was meeting with thought they had told me they wouldn’t be able to make it.  My reaction was, as it always is…. I was understanding and accommodating.

So I got in my car and drove.  No destination in mind,  I drove.  Empty; no thoughts.  I just drove and drove.  My body’s muscle memory just took control, moving the car forward and around turns.  Pushing forward on green, pausing on red.  I found myself at a place I often eat, without the memory of having driven myself there.  The engine was off.  I had no appetite.

Most probable route that I took.

The most probable route that I took.

So I started the car back up and drove.  I found myself in another part of town – again the result of driving without a destination in mind – near the best of the mediocre bookstores that still remain.  I had been spending a lot of time looking at books of far off lands – places which have seemed more like dreams than possibilities.  Travel books can give interesting overviews of a place, but there usefulness is limited to those places and topics of interest to temporary visitors, not the issues or concerns of someone considering a more permanent visit.  Having already looked through every book in the store on places that generate even a small spark of interest, I had no desire to go in.  The place feels like a hospital.  The employees like patients who are stuck in the kind of limbo that life support provides.  Not dead yet, but not able to recover to a healthy state.  All the bookstores in this town are depressing.  I went past and continued to drive.

That’s pretty much how the rest of my day went; shifting from place to place without thought.  At some point I put on a favorite album from a year ago.  I started to reconnect with the world as I drove and listened to the music.  The lack of awareness I had while driving was replaced with a general numbness.  I listened and drove.  I didn’t think all that much.  I felt catatonic and a sense of blankness on my face, a blandness about my being.

After hours of driving, I was back at that place I sometimes eat, ordering the same food I always order.  Sitting there, I spent some time reflecting on where the day had gone, and wondered if the day was some sort of preview of what life would be like if I chose the option of traveling around my home country.  Would I find myself traveling from place to place with numbness as a companion?

I desperately need to change my life.

Posted in Exploration Tagged driving, lost, numb

A quiet rumble….

I’ve been contemplating the future.  The past year has been one of a lot of thought but little action.  It’s been nearly a year since I posted to this blog, so that should give some idea of just how little action I’ve taken.

That has to change, and soon.  In fact, soon isn’t really soon enough.  That change has to start now.

So, I’m going to put down my options – for the first time – in writing.  I can:

  • Move half way around the world, get a job teaching, meet lots of new people, live lots of new experiences, and pursue my passion (photography).
  • Spend the next year or two traveling around my home country and live a life of near subsistence, hiking and camping and working, while pursuing my passion (photography)
  • Stay put where I am

Obviously that third one isn’t a real option for change.  It’s doing what I’m doing now.

Money is definitely a limiting factor.

If I go overseas I should be able to get a job teaching (English) in quite a few countries.  I’ve got the necessary training and credentials to do this, and there’s something really appealing about immersing myself in another culture where I’ll get to constantly meet new people.  And think of the great opportunities there will be to photograph lots of interesting places and people.

If I stay at here in this country traveling around, there are a lot of places I’ve never been and certainly there are experiences I haven’t had yet waiting.  Roads I’ve not taken….  But money?  That’s a problem.  I could eek out a living doing odd jobs here and there, making my way as I go.  I’ve got enough saved to start, but I’d have to find a way to bring in enough income to fully support myself while doing this.  Finding a sustainable source of income while living on-the-road is crucial.  Could I sell photographs?  Could I put my experience to work photographing people and selling them portraits?  It won’t be good to find myself 2 or 3 years hence having spent what savings I have now.

No.  Whatever it is I do, it must entail earning a living – enough that I can actually cover all my expenses (start-up and ongoing) – and hopefully put some away for the future.

I think my next step is to actually look at the start-up costs and monthly expenses for each of these options.

 

Posted in Exploration

An interesting site

I’ve come across an interesting site called Matador Network.  The design appealing, the subject matter interesting, and the content well written.  Best of all, it’s put together by a group interested in the exchange of ideas and information about the cultures and people of the world.  Actually, it is the Matador Abroad “channel” that I’m most interested in.

I found the site while searching for some stuff Greg Madison has written on Existential Migration.  I’ll probably have a lot to say about Madison in the coming weeks and months.  I’ve recently ordered his book, The End of Belonging: Untold stories of leaving home and the psychology of global relocation.  To get a sense of what the book is about, his post, Existential Migration: Is Travel An Existential Need? is worth a read.

Posted in Exploration

A Nomadic Life?

Would living life one way be considered a nomadic lifestyle?  I was just reading the Wikipedia entry on Nomads and wondered if my thoughts on movement through place are essentially a nomadic approach to living life.  Or, are they different?  Here’s what Wikipedia says (emphasis added for later discussion):

Nomadic people (Greek: νομάδες, nomádes, “those who let pasture herds”Smilie: ;), commonly known as itinerants in modern-day contexts, are communities of people who move from one place to another, rather than settling permanently in one location. There are an estimated 30-40 million nomads in the world.[2] Many cultures have traditionally been nomadic, but traditional nomadic behavior is increasingly rare in industrialized countries. Nomadic cultures are discussed in three categories according to economic specialization: hunter-gatherers, pastoral nomads, and “peripatetic nomads”.

Nomadic hunting and gathering, following seasonally available wild plants and game, is by far the oldest human subsistence method.[citation needed]

Pastoralists raise herds, driving them or moving with them, in patterns that normally avoid depleting pastures beyond their ability to recover.

Peripatetic nomads, who offer the skills of a craft or trade to those with whom they travel, are most common in industrialized nations.

The first thing that strikes me about the article is that it is primarily a discussion of communities and cultures.  This is certainly different from what I’ve been talking about in regards to movement through place.  One of the primary ways in which an individual is able to really experience a place is by arriving there alone.

In my post Movement Through Place, I mentioned the need to remove any cloak of familiarity in order to expose yourself to a place and let it wash over you.  When a community travels together, the very nature of the community – its purpose – is to offer inclusion to its members through the exclusion of outsiders.  These closed communities provide the kind of structure and support that their members would otherwise have to discover or develop anew when arriving in a new place alone.  It is the need and act of discovering the new community – I’ll call it the hosting community – which fundamentally alters a person, bringing change to their point of view on the world.

The third item I highlighted in the Wikipedia excerpt is the most interesting to me.  Who or what are peripatetic nomads?  There seems to be some confusion about this.  On the one hand, people say that gypsies are peripatetic nomads – this again implies the presence of a closed community separate from a host community.  But then I came across a site called Nandango where the author writes:

Ok, so I’m not a gypsy or a carnie but even still I could be a more modern day version of this, someone moving to settle populations offering my skills in exchange for work or to perform services (and no, not those kinds of services).  Since I graduated from high school 12 years ago I’ve moved back and forth between 21 cities/towns.  That’s not including moves into different apartments within the same town.  Though maybe one of those shouldn’t really count because although technically it was a different city it was only 15 min away.  And yes some of those towns are repeats but months or in some cases years, separated the time in between.  The point being that I had to pack everything up and move it, only to pack it all up and move it again later.  This last stint in Utah really slowed me down.  I was there four years which is by far the longest I’ve lived anywhere since high school.  The next longest was one full consecutive year in Hawaii.  Every other place less than a year.

This is very interesting to me, and I wonder how it felt to move around so frequently.  I wonder if they experienced the kind of movement through place I’ve been describing on this site.  And I wonder if they ever tire of living that kind of life.

Posted in Exploration

Movement through Place

A few days ago in my post about the film The Man from Earth [Amazon Streaming, DVD], I wrote about the “can’t go home again” feeling everyone experiences at one time or another, and said this is really the simplest form of what I call the movement through place phenomenon.  I wrote:

I suspect that most people when they give cursory thought as to why this is, come up with the answer that they have grown or changed over time.  And while there is certainly some truth to this, I have come to feel that a big part of the change in people is due to the movement through place.

So what exactly is movement through place?

Imagine leaving home after 18 years to go off to college.  You move to a new place, far from everything familiar.  You build new relationships, discover a new town or city, and spend the first few months developing in ways you never imagined.  Come winter holidays you return home and discover so much has changed.  This is probably the first time you assigned some personal meaning to “you can’t go home again.”  You know that you have changed, and suspect that everyone else is probably about the same as they were when you left.  But what is the cause of your change?  Is it only the passage of time, or have you experienced something more, a movement through a place where there are new people, new accents, new sights and sounds, foods, feelings, weather, architecture, opportunities, experiences…?

That the “can’t go home again” feeling can become so pronounced after so short a time makes me think that change of place has a much more profound effect than the passage of time.  The amount of newness you experience when you first go to college can only be attributed to the place (and everything that comes with that place).  A counter example might help.

Your married and have kids.  They’re growing up and you want to spend as much time with them as you possibly can before it is their turn to go off to college.  So you take trips with them away from home, exposing them to as much of the world as you possibly can.  In summer the family takes 3 weeks and travels to Europe (lucky kids!).  When you return home, everything is as it should be, your friends are the same, you feel pretty much the same, and you’re happy to be home again.  Where is the “can’t go home again” feeling?  Why is it missing?  Was it because you were gone for only 3 weeks?

No, I firmly believe 3 weeks is enough time to acquire the can’t go home feeling, providing the conditions are right.  Rather than the amount of time that has passed, it is the amount of place that has passed.  In your first few months of college, everything about the place was new, but on the trip to Europe, the family around you created a barrier between you and the new place.  In essence, some of your home was there with you throughout the trip so you never got fully immersed into the new place.  Your discovery was limited because everywhere you went, a very big and important part of home went with you.

The saying, “home is where the heart is” comes to mind.  (I promise not to include cliche idiomatic phrases in everything I write, and certainly using two in a single post will be the exception not the rule.  Whoops.  Make that three in one post.  Hehe.)  Home is your spouse, your kids.  And when you bring the people you love with you, you’re bringing your home with you.  I don’t believe you can’t really experience or understand fully what movement through place is really about, or at least what I think it is about, until you’ve traveled somewhere alone, or at least with a group of people you don’t know or have only recently met.

When you travel surrounded by family – in a cloak of the familiar – can the unfamiliarity of the new environment wash over you?  Can you really soak in new places?

I do not argue or believe that you can never have worthwhile experiences when traveling within a cloak of familiarity.  As my children were growing up we had many vacations filled with wonderful experiences, but my strongest memories – and therefore the things that were the most important to me – are of the kids and my spouse.  But when I’m in a new place without the cloak of familiarity….

 

Posted in Exploration

The places I’ve lived

The number of places I’ve lived – for any significant amount of time – is three, all in the United States. I’ve lived in two other places for shorter periods (less than a year each) and both of those were internationally, the first time in Europe, the second in Asia. As a child I grew up in a stable home with both parents around and a sibling to play with. We never moved and I never had to change schools until it was time to graduate to the next.

Every summer my parents would take us somewhere that was at least a few hundred miles from home, but usually much farther than that. We would spend three weeks away from home, but of course not away from each other. So it wasn’t until I moved away for college that I experienced what life was like in another place for the first time, stripped of almost everything that was familiar except for a few personal belongings and perhaps a photo or two of home.

It was the first time I experienced the movement through place feelings I described a few days ago in my Man from Earth post [Amazon Streaming, DVD].  When December rolled around and I had finished my first semester finals I headed home only to find that it, or rather I, had changed and the home I had left was now a memory.

Posted in Exploration

The Road Not Taken

Lately I’ve been thinking about Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken.  My thoughts about living life one way has a sort of natural connection to the poem.  I’ve spent some time reading other people’s thoughts on what the poem says and what it means, and have come to a conclusion that a lot of what’s been written about it may be a bit off target.  Of course everyone is entitled to their own reading, and my reading may be as off as anyone’s, but I thought I’d share it and see if anyone has other thoughts.  (Ah, the tough thing of course about starting a blog is that nobody reads it in the beginning.  Hopefully someday someone stumbles on this and comments.)  Here’s the poem:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

A lot of the discussion I’ve found deals with  how a casual reading can leave a wrong impression, namely that there was actually a less traveled road that the speaker took.  A more careful reading would reveal that the roads were about equally traveled, and the speaker, being aware of this fact, sighs and tells a fib – that he took the one less traveled by.  Proponents of this point of view point to the second and third stanzas as evidence of the similarity of the roads, and dismiss the bit about the one road that was grassy and wanted wear.

I cannot agree.  The analysis they offer doesn’t go deep enough.  Must the sigh indicate awareness by the future speaker that he’s about to tell a fib?  Or could the sigh actually be a realization of some deeper understanding of what it meant to be standing there in the woods where two roads diverged?

I suppose how you interpret the sigh depends on whether or not you believe there was a less traveled road.  Here’s my take.  Before the speaker decides which road to take, the roads looked about equally traveled but there was a difference in them.  One did in fact look a little less traveled:

And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

The other road apparently was not grassy.  Knowing these two things, how do we know which road the speaker took?

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

He took the grassy one that wanted wear, but in doing so made the road about the same as the other.  Aha!  After taking the grassy road they became equally traveled.  Except…

The grassy road has had it’s leaves stepped on and trodden black – the other road was still covered In leaves no step had trodden black.  What we have here then is a realization by the speaker not that he will fib about his story in the future, but that he in fact took the less traveled road but in doing so made it the more traveled road.

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Taking the one less traveled changed the nature of the speaker’s choice.  That’s the cause of his sigh.

I doubted if I should ever come back

The speaker will not get the chance to take the road which is now the one less traveled, The Road Not Taken.  At the very least, the road not taken is the one less traveled by the speaker himself.  It is the road that could never be taken.  Life is filled with situations where you can’t choose to do multiple things, or at least to do multiple things at the same time.

It is true that in life you can sometimes try one thing and later go back to try another.  That is certainly the case when you live life without constantly moving from place to place.  You can, for example, choose one restaurant today and another next week – providing you’re still in that place next week.

But that is not this speaker.  He is a traveler, and his sigh may be a realization that living the life of a traveler means giving up the ability to go back and experience a place in different ways.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood

He is a lone traveler, living life one way.

Posted in Exploration