My mom woke me up way too early for a university student on a weekday to give me my graduation present. She was also my landlord, and now that I was done with my studies, she was telling me to paint the deck so she could sell the house. This was all news to me. I didn’t have any savings or anywhere else to live. Groggily, I checked my email only to be notified that the countdown for my student loan payments would start immediately. I went upstairs, and my mom asked me what we should do with the broken dining room chair. To her bewilderment and horror, I wordlessly took the chair out back and smashed it to bits on the concrete. She still thinks I have anger problems because of that, but what she doesn’t realize is the raw emotion of that trapped frustration was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. Because instead of (still) being homeless, I ended up moving to Taiwan.
I think a lot of people can relate to the feeling of graduating without a solid plan. It’s a strange paradox, because I couldn’t wait to get my studies over with. Twice, I even took a semester off because I couldn’t stand school. Same with that house. I hated managing the property for my parents, even though I lived rent-free, because I had a hard time filling the rooms and convincing people to pay rent. Plus, I was responsible for paying the utilities, which I found out were expensive for an entire house. Ironically, all the hate harbored toward that house and my studies blinded me to the reality of living a life without them.
I think it was my mom’s lack of understanding at all my confused feelings that really put me over the edge that day. The only congratulation I received for graduating was a letter from some lawmaker who hoped for my vote. Receiving nothing but an eviction notice from my parents really illustrated the generation gap to me. This was right at the lowest part of the financial collapse, and they were treating the end of my education like another box checked in the process of getting a career, a wife, etc. Jump through all the hoops, because that’s what everyone has always done.
Well, that’s not what I did. I ended up living in my car and on friends’ couches when possible. I worked pizza delivery, so my car became my most valuable possession. It was fine for a while, because I ate all the pizza I needed and made enough tip money to survive. Just not enough to make a deposit on an apartment. That’s how I lived for a summer, but there was something psychological about not having a home. I seemed to have less and less money, as if my poverty was compounding. It was like I was in limbo, but I decided if nothing else happened, I would be fine.
Of course, something did happen and the whole precariously balanced structure came crashing down. I went camping with my friends in the mountains and the drive must have burned out my transmission because my car wouldn’t budge in the morning. No car meant no way to deliver pizzas, which meant no job. My dad offered to tow me back to my hometown, a place people flee from as soon as they reach legal adulthood. His one condition was that I cut my long hair. I had no choice but to agree.
The hair wasn’t really symbolic to me, but his telling me to cut it did represent his attitude towards me. It was my fault I was homeless and didn’t have a career lined up. He later confirmed this during an hour long, forcefully yelled lecture about the way I was acting. Apparently if I stopped acting homeless and jobless, I no longer would be. Truthfully I wasn’t that concerned about it. Once I had found out you don’t actually die if you don’t sleep in a bed at night, I became a lot less worried about the whole concept of homelessness.
In a way, I think my dad was half right. It was a stroke of luck that an old friend I ran into said I could stay with him as soon as I found a job. It was my decision to not be jobless and homeless that led me to put in an application at every business within walking radius and take the first offer. Then again, not everyone is privileged enough to make that decision.
The job I ended up taking was terrible, but it gave me a base from which I could enact the second part of my plan: Get as far away as possible.
The big move
I say all this because maybe someone else can relate. Maybe you feel trapped and don’t know how to get out. It’s not a sob story. I know a lot of people have it much worse, but I think our generation can relate to this — to being misunderstood by parents from a generation where things often went more smoothly. When there was a simple, color-by-numbers path to success.
My parents aren’t bad people. When I told them I had a job opportunity overseas, they gladly used the tax break they got from having a student dependent (me) to help me buy a flight ticket. It just took a little convincing.
During my off hours I organized all the tedious visa paperwork, said goodbye to everyone, and before I knew it, I was in Taiwan. It was that simple.
You really don’t need a lot of money or resources to move overseas. The company I worked for provided free (but unpaid) training and an interest-free loan to get me started. Other companies pay for flight tickets, housing, etc.
The downside is if you want to move overseas, the job options are pretty much limited to English teaching. At least at first. If you are good enough at something, you can find a job doing it. Especially something like cooking. However, the basic, most common job expats from English-speaking countries have is English teacher.
It turns out I hate English teaching, and the first school I worked at was a corporate atmosphere that ground on my very idea of how people should exist, but it was a priceless experience. The training gave me a foundation of skills I can use to teach at any school anywhere, which comes in handy as I still substitute teach or do private lessons when I need extra income. It also gave me experience in a work environment outside of the restaurant business (the only place I could get a job before) in the ‘real,’ ‘adult’ world. And it gave me invaluable skills like being able to talk to strangers, regardless of whether we share a language or not.
Then, of course, there were the language and cultural lessons. I, as a white male, have for the first time been confronted both with the vast amount of privilege I have and with what it feels like to face racism and discrimination despite, or indeed because of that privilege.
For all of these lessons, I recommend that anyone, no matter their age or profession, work abroad for at least a year. The change in perspective is absolutely indescribable.
But I have been in Taiwan for six years. After two years of teaching, I realized, since I have nothing to go back to, I either have to put up with teaching English (which I hate) or learn Chinese to be eligible for another job. Don’t get me wrong, some people love teaching and I have friends who will probably do it forever. But for me, teaching only brought my other passions to the fore.
I began cooking and writing a lot whenever I found myself hating my job. When I needed a way to learn Chinese, I applied for a Master’s degree at a university that offered free Chinese classes to any degree student. As it turns out, universities love foreign students, and I got a scholarship. I fell in love with being a student again, and it has given me the free time to be writing this article right now.
After I had pretty much mastered Chinese, I decided I don’t want to bother with it anymore. I love that I am free enough to make that decision. I don’t regret knowing Chinese — it’s a really valuable skill — but now that I have tried it, I know that it wouldn’t be a good choice to pursue a career in it.
I soon found myself with two years to write a doctoral dissertation, and I decided to use the extra time to try freelance writing. I had mostly written fiction before, but writing the truth sparked something inside me. I get a rush from it that I could never have predicted back when I was graduating from university. It is fascinating now to look at the chain of events that got me here.
I still struggle financially, but I have discovered my passions. Instead of feeling lost, trapped and frustrated, I am happy. It isn’t about the country I live in — I could have these same passions anywhere — but moving abroad was priceless in this process because it changed my perspective on my life. It made me realize what I do and do not like, it made me realize the difference between a real problem and a dramatic self-delusion, and it made me realize success isn’t about doing what is normal or expected.