Life Abroad and the Journey Home
Making what can be an epic choice to pack your bags and move half way across the world can be both scary and liberating. Talking about how you’d like to drop everything and run away versus actually, in a sense, picking up and leaving everything behind to start fresh in a new and foreign place are two completely different things.
Talk is cheap, as they say, and actions speak louder than words. I’ve had the honor and privilege of living and working in Taiwan for more than seven years, returning home sparingly in between. What I learned and continue to learn while living abroad has been invaluable. What I learned the very first time I returned home from abroad are lessons that will remain with me for a life time.
Living overseas the first year is comparable to freshmen year of college. It’s a new found freedom (in a way) with people who seem very different from you in a place with limitless opportunity and potential. Like college, a lot of acquaintanceships are made, with very few of them resulting in long lasting sustainable friendships. Parties are readily available, and if you did it right you have a job with a salary that affords you the freedom to do whatever you want while simultaneously adulting, paying bills, and sending Christmas and birthday cards with real money to the family.
The connections that actually stick are with people who are able to provide key elements that are missing from all the fun and new experiences that come with making such a big move. A sense of true friendship, loyalty, responsibility, and most importantly family. True connections are made with those whose birthday or holiday parties you don’t just show up for, but you actually purchase a well thought out gift for. These are the people who make sure you made it home safely not with a text message, but with a phone call.
These connections are made with people who show up at the school performances you’re in charge of to watch your students sing the songs you sang the other day at karaoke night for their parents in English. These people not only know the names of your immediate family members, but take the phone during those priceless FaceTime moments with mom and dad to make sure they know who they are, and who’s looking after their baby boy or girl.
It can be as many as five, or as few as one, Having a reliable road dog or two while abroad definitely makes dealing with the absence of family less difficult, and helps maximize and fully embrace the experience as a whole.
What’s the difference?
If you had asked me in high school what the difference between a Thai and Taiwanese person was, I would have thought you were making up words. If you told me two of my best friends in the world would be a person barely 3 1/2 feet tall that speaks five different languages, and another who’s lived all over the world speaks four languages and goes by the nickname my best friend gave her on the first day we met, I probably would have hit you with a peoples elbow. Not because I didn’t think I could make friends, but because it sounded so different from who I was at the time and who I thought I would be in the future.
I met them both and so many others by chance and through putting myself in uncomfortable yet safe situations that challenged me to step outside my comfort zone to embrace and learn the beauty of people, their cultures, beliefs, and views. From doing this with a variety of people during my time abroad, I’ve learned that at their core, most of the people I met shared the same love and passion for life and family as I shared. Sure we disagreed on some aspects of politics, our religions were different, and at times there were language barriers to overcome, but when we came together none of that mattered. We were just people. People with common interest, a healthy zest for life, and mad love for one another. The same qualities I shared with my close friends from home
Home, The Social Side
When returning home for the first time in three years, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Of course I missed my mom, grandparents, and siblings, but a good amount of time had passed and FaceTime and messenger weren’t as easily accessible as they are these days. That left a gap between what I knew had occurred before I left versus the time of my return. I was different. Not only in size due to the considerable amount of time I spent in the gym everyday, but the things I had seen, done, and experienced had changed me. My perspective on the world was different. I knew for certain I loved my family more than ever and wanted to be the biggest part of their lives while I was home, but the reality was while I was gone, time went on. Their families grew. Their circumstance changed. They experienced new perspectives and things just as I had. In my mind I wanted to come back and plop right in without missing a beat, but the truth was I had to listen, learn, and understand where they were then from before, as much as I had to share how I’d changed from before to then.
As unconventional as that sounds, it was really refreshing. Unconditional love from family is probably the greatest gift in the world, but sharing your growth no matter the circumstance amplifies that love and made the connection to my family stronger than it had ever been. Over the next few years while away from home for long stretches advancements in technology helped, but that initial interaction was so key. Knowing that my family not only accepted but supported my decisions, allowed me to not have to carry the feeling of “abandoning my family” while traveling and working abroad. It provided a new found perspective that only led to bigger and better things for me personally and professionally. That first time returning home made this so very clear.
Friendships, were similar but different in some ways. It was certainly clear who my “real” friends were vs my sometime acquaintances, especially after not being state side for quite sometime. The true homies picked me up from the airport, took me all over the city when I needed to since I didn’t have a car, made time in their schedules to be sure we hung out, and we didn’t miss a beat in terms of catching up, cracking jokes, and simply being friends. It wasn’t hard. No need to talk everyday or every week, but a check in once or twice a month would suffice because the bond was that real. Their lives moved forward and hearing about it was interesting and exciting. We knew that no matter what I’d be back for their weddings, and they would fly to mine. If I got into a bind and needed someone to vent to they might not fly out to have a beer on the boardwalk, but they’ll FaceTime with me and listen to the entire story as if they were there. They’re beyond besties, they’re brothers and sisters from another mother.
Work Politics, Home Vs. Away
While in high school and college I was fortunate to work for a few different companies via internships and the normal hustle, which left me with a fair sense of what the business world could be like. I entered my job in Taiwan with zero expectations. As long as they treated me with kindness and respect, I would do my job to the best of my abilities while also taking classes after school to become fluent in mandarin Chinese. Long story short, after vowing to only stay a year, I fell in love with my job teaching high school, got promoted to manager in six months, hired more brown people for a number of important reasons, and built a strong self sustaining program that will provide opportunities to recent grads for many years to come. (For the full story check out my book, The Unexpected Perspective)
I was very fortunate to be in management for seven years. Over that time I certainly learned a lot, especially since I started at the tender age of 21, in a foreign country, on a staff where my oldest team member was nearly 30 years older than me. The politics of dealing with staff, fair treatment, and not only being young but also being black on an all non-black staff was challenging enough. Add that to the trickery of dealing with other managers and directors trying to get over on our team, principals looking me in the face telling me they think I’m not capable of performing in my position with no evidence or reason to support his claim other than hearsay, to having to follow decisions that were solely about money and not the betterment of students is enough to drive a person crazy. But I not only survived, I thrived. And didn’t lose myself in the process. It wasn’t all bad by any means, but management in a foreign country is no cake walk.
When I returned to America to work for five months for a short hiatus from Taiwan to gain my footing, I was expecting my experience to be different from what I experienced on the island. I was expecting communication to not be a problem, for everyone to be working toward a common goal, for their to be transparency and clear mobility and all these other magical things that make America great. While I enjoyed my time, experience, and the amazing people I worked with, the problems were the same, only I wasn’t communicating in a foreign language daily. Everything was happening in English. Point being, other than language, there wasn’t much difference. This realization helped me make the huge decision to take a chance and start my own company with my best friend. A decision, I appreciate more and more each day.