Most of the people I meet abroad in Asia are in the same boat as me. Not many are traveling for a few weeks; they are traveling for months on end or teaching English. So many of these people, myself included, are in their twenties and haven’t committed to a career path yet. Exploration is more enticing, and quite honestly we don’t know what to do.
We’ve been told to do what we love, but because our economies at home are in the crapper, to take what we can get. So, do you sell out and take whatever job you can if you can’t get a job that pays you to do what you love? Do you move back in with your parents?
The opportunities abroad for a native English speaker are immense. You can get paid a handsome salary and live a comfortable lifestyle. You may not be doing your dream job; but you can travel and enrich your life and world knowledge at the same time. You are continuing your education but getting paid to do it. And while you do so, you get to draw up plans for the future. The problem is the longer you are away, the harder it is to go home and stay home. The opportunities abroad are so abundant; it’s easy to find an employer who is happy to hire you. You don’t have to beg for a job waiting tables. You are handed good jobs on a silver platter, and you can become a pillar of the community as an educator, for example.
This is where it gets tricky though. Once out and about in the rest of the world, it’s easy to keep putting off making a plan. You think to yourself, “I’ve got so much time left before I go home, I’ll figure it out later.” Then, before you know it, you’re at the airport heading back home and you’re still stuck at the drawing board. The real kicker is when the reverse culture shock sets in.
Every traveler goes through reverse culture shock. You get home and you are confused and don’t fit in. You don’t know how to talk about the past months or years. How do you talk about the funny or amazing things that you experienced without sounding like a show-off? If your friends aren’t travelers, they might not be as interested as you would hope in your travels. You don’t want to be that person who starts every sentence with “When I was in (fill in the blank)…” because after a while people will stop listening to you. So how do you relate to your friends and family? How do you strike a balance between over-sharing and not sharing enough? I have a bad habit of clamming up and not telling any stories when I get home. It seems overwhelming to discuss everything I’ve been through and experienced. I would rather be scolded for not sharing than for being obnoxious and rubbing people’s faces in my good fortune to have seen so much of the world.
So you realize you don’t fit in anymore. You aren’t completely at home abroad, but you aren’t completely at home, at home. You are changed. Not for the worse though. You’ve had incredible experiences.
At this point, reality may set in. You start looking for jobs at home, but then you realize that nobody is begging for you to come work for them. People are impressed by your travels, but that’s not enough to land a job. And so you are drawn back to where you are wanted…and you leave the country again.
I’ve sat around many a bar table with other travelers discussing this dilemma. What should we do? What do we want to do? What would be a dream job? When will we go back home? How will we make money at home? Screw home, what’s the next destination?! What do we miss the most? How much would you kill for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup right now? (Food nostalgia is constantly brought up abroad.)
We seem to go in circles and circles. I left The States three years ago after graduating from university to teach English in Thailand. I wanted to travel Southeast Asia more, and I wanted to live in Thailand for a little bit before backpacking. I came up with my plan at a bar one night with a friend and a few weeks later I had gotten myself a job. A few weeks after that, I was on a plane to Bangkok. What was my plan? To travel, explore, and figure out what to do with myself.
I had one page in my travel journal. A blank page. I didn’t allow myself to doodle in it. I was only allowed to write things I was passionate about that I could turn into a job. This page still only has a few things written on it, and I still have yet to fully explore any of them.
Before leaving the US in 2008, I had thought about pastry school. I couldn’t commit because I had just gotten a degree in Environmental Science. How could I throw myself into more school without using my degree at all? If I was going to go to school for something else I knew I would have to really start my career immediately after. There would be no travel. I couldn’t do that. I had to travel. So here I am, three years later still traveling and still wondering what’s next. I keep coming back to pastry school, but the hardest thing is that I’m scared. Silly, I know. Apparently I’m a wanderer at heart and committing to a career and a place is frightening, not to mention committing to the debt I would put myself in. I love traveling and knowing that tomorrow I could cheaply and easily change locations or go do something so foreign to me. I’m not done with it yet.
I am so proud of my life so far. I’ve made it rich and full of stories. I know things that you can’t learn in a classroom. I have a greater understanding of how the “real world” works. Though, according to our lexicon, I haven’t actually entered the “real world” yet because I haven’t created roots somewhere or landed a “real job”.
Here’s the real question though, to become an ex-pat or not? I don’t consider myself an ex-pat because, well, I don’t qualify as one. I travel and work abroad, but in my heart I still want to go home and that’s where I see my future (despite our current economic state). I just can’t see when that future starts. Most of the other twenty-somethings I meet abroad feel the same way. They want to end up at home in the end, but they just don’t know when that is. I know you can go home whenever you want, but after X amount of years, it becomes very difficult to actually do it. I know that I don’t want to teach English forever because it’s not my passion, but the longer I do it the easier it becomes.
So what I’m really trying to say at the end of all of this is that us twenty-somethings need to be careful. It’s easy to stay abroad and avoid settling down at home, but the longer you stay away the harder it will be to actually do it. One year turns into two and then before you know it you could be at three or five years. At that point, how do you go home? That’s when you become an ex-pat. I’m not saying don’t travel or don’t become an ex-pat. I’m saying be honest with yourself about your reasons and be committed to asking yourself the hard questions about the next step. It’s easy to get lost in the beautiful passion of traveling the world and lose track of other dreams. Don’t forget to check back in with yourself.