“But he was able to understand one thing: making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.”
― Paulo Coelho,
Three years ago today my flight touched down in Taiwan (my “Taiwanniversary”) and I stepped off the Delta Airlines 747 and into my new life. I had never been to Taiwan before and I passed through immigration and customs in a sleep-deprived daze after the long flight from the US. Walking out the door into the arrival area, I scanned the signs held by the mob of drivers, searching for my name. It wasn’t there. No one was there to greet me and welcome me “home”.
I wandered over to the other side of the arrival lounge, searching for anyone who might be searching for me, a tall blonde standing out in the crowd of Asian faces. There was a baseball game on TV in the arrival lounge – the Tampa Bay Rays were playing. I stopped to watch and was transported back to Tropicana Field, back to a different life. “Ironic”, I thought as I snapped myself back to my new reality.
I had no phone and no way to contact anyone, so I sat down and dug my laptop out of my carry-on bag. No luck there – bad wifi connection. I began to wonder if I had misunderstood the results of my Skype interview.
“Was there a language barrier? Did I actually have a job here?” I wondered.
It was getting very late and I was exhausted and thought about looking for a hotel. An hour after arriving, making one last pass through the arrival area, I scanned the signs held by drivers and FINALLY saw a sign with my name on it! I exhaled with relief.
The 45-minute drive to my new hometown passed in a blurry haze of new sounds and sights. As we arrived in Hsinchu I saw the golden arches of McDonald’s, strangely relieved to see something so familiar even though I rarely eat there. My driver pulled into “David’s English” and I was warmly welcomed by my new boss, Rita, still at the office at midnight waiting for me. Together we dragged my heavy bags up the long metal staircase and she showed me to my temporary room.
It was a tiny room with peeling paint and a small twin bed – no mattress, no pillow, and no bedding. Just a box spring. It had a prison cell vibe. I dug into my bag for my purple silk sleep sheet that had come in handy during my previous months of travel through southeast Asia. I found some soft clothes and created a lumpy pillow and then I laid down on the rock-hard box spring and drifted into a restless sleep….my new home.
This was the beginning of my new life.
People sometimes dream about creating a new reality, leaving the comforts of their current life to see what else is out there. Making the decision to actually do it feels like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, toes on the edge, exciting yet terrifying. People call you crazy and then self-doubt creeps in. “Maybe I am really crazy?”
But the view from the other side of that gaping canyon of fear and uncertainty is more incredible than I’d imagined. So, from this comfortable chair in a quiet café in a small Taiwanese town that I now call home, I try to wrap my mind around the expat lessons I’ve learned by taking that leap.
Three years later…here are four expat lessons I’ve learned.
Simplicity is freeing
I lost my job in the US when the company I worked for went under. My condo was rented and all of my stuff was either sold or stored. There is a certain freedom in having little left to lose (no job and no stuff) and it’s much easier to walk away from one life to start over. There is a simplicity and relief in having less “stuff” to worry about and all of my stuff now fits nicely into my 10-ping (350 sq ft) apartment. Letting go of it wasn’t easy, but the minimalist lifestyle is so much simpler.
“Now that she had nothing to lose, she was free.”
― Paulo Coelho,
My old life wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t truly amazing either. It was perfectly fine and it was safe, but I knew deep inside I wanted more. I craved adventure and challenge. During my long walks on cool winter nights in Florida, I plotted my escape and visualized where I hoped to be in the next two years. The image was very vague and the path was uncertain, but I followed it anyway and everything just worked. Not exactly the way I expected, but the way it was meant to. Once I was open to change, the doors opened.
“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
― Paulo Coelho,
During the first six months in Taiwan, I totally lacked confidence in teaching English and went into every class faking it. In the evenings I’d go for long walks around a nearby lake, praying for the strength to just survive the next six month and knowing eventually it would get easier. One day I’d feel as confident as I pretended to be. Eventually, I did get there, and it felt like climbing Mt. Everest… and now everything seems possible.
“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” – Sir Edmund Hilary
The wisdom of Steve Jobs kept me going through some of the roughest, most confusing times. I focused on moving forward and hoped for the best, trusting it would all work out as it should. And now looking back, it’s true – things happened as they were meant to and it all makes sense.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” – Steve Jobs
In the wise words of one of my really good friends, “You were born different“. It’s a fact and I stopped fighting it a long time ago. I realize that leaving the comforts of home and living on the edge is not for everyone. But one of the most important expat lessons I’ve learned is that it really works for me.
Embarrassingly, three years after landing in Taiwan, one thing I still haven’t learned – Mandarin. (Ugh.)