A while back, I sent in an essay I had written to an online travel magazine. Hey, I figured, I’ve been doling out my writing for free for four years on my blog; wasn’t it about time I became rich and famous through the lucrative world of freelance journalism? (Right, guys? That’s how people become rich and famous, right? That is, if your reality television show ideas never get off the ground – although I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before I finally get a Hollywood producer to agree that a television show entitled “The Battle of the Librarians” is maybe the best idea ever. I mean, who wouldn’t love a show that regularly features a challenge called The Dewey Decimal System of Death? Now that, my friends, is some good TV!).
A month after sending the essay in, I received an email back from the editor saying that she liked my piece but she wanted me to revise it. “I’d like to see what you’re saying said really strongly, with no maybes,” her email read.
I dutifully emailed her back to say I would look it over and revise it as soon as possible.
This was almost three weeks ago.
I looked it over. I did nothing.
It’s not that I’m lazy. (Okay, I am lazy. But I swear this wasn’t the reason why I haven’t revised it yet.)
It’s just that I didn’t know what to do.
Edit out the maybes?
But I am the maybes.
My personality could at best be described as whimsically wanton or refreshingly capricious; at worst, I’m perpetually wishy-washy, annoyingly indecisive and easily weak-kneed. Just choosing lunch throws me into fits of despair. When I finally do make my decision, I worry that I made the wrong choice and I’m plagued with thoughts of the sandwich that got away.
I love going out for meals with people who will order for me. In fact, I’ll find any excuse to force someone else to make my dining decisions. “Oh, you’ve eaten here before? You know what’s good. Why don’t you just order?” or “Wow, this menu has so many words. I’m not really good at words. But you are! Why don’t you use your word-skills and figure out which meal I want?”
It’s usually pretty easy to find someone willing to tell you what to eat. Unfortunately, I haven’t had as much luck finding someone to tell me what to do with my life. I’ve heard these people exist – everybody on the Internet is talking about them. Chris Guillebeau on his website, The Art of Non-Conformity, says, “If you don’t decide for yourself what you want to get out of life, someone else will probably end up deciding for you.” He’s not the only one who says this – I read blogs and websites and watch interviews with famous people who say you should listen to your heart and not listen to other people telling you what to do with your life.
But what if I have a really hesitant heart that can’t even decide what it wants for lunch? What if my heart hems and haws over the simplest decisions? How can I possibly trust it with important tasks like figuring out what to do with the rest of my life or where I should live or whether or not I want pickles with that? What if I would really rather have people to tell me what to do with my life rather than my stinking, no-good, doubtful heart? Who are these people and how can I get some?
A month ago I really could have used these people. Faced with dwindling savings, a volunteer job that ends this month and absolutely no plans on the horizon, I had a whole bunch of maybes on my plate.
Maybe I should settle down. There is something liberating about knowing all of my possessions can fit into a suitcase the size of a Golden Retriever, but wouldn’t it be nice to own more than one pair of shoes? Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a home and a couch and dress-up clothes that are considered such because they’re pretty… and not just because they don’t have any holes in the crotch?
Maybe I should get a real job. For the past nine months, I’ve worked odd jobs and volunteer gigs that have paid me in cat cuddles, sickles, sanding wounds and warm fuzzies. I’ve really enjoyed my time off from the whole 9-to-5 thing, but, unfortunately, the government agency that issued my graduate school student loan refuses to be paid back in cat cuddles… or sickles. (I’ve tried to reason with these folks, but they just won’t listen. Bureaucracy, I tell you!) By now, I could really use some real wages and a retirement plan that doesn’t involve my living under a bridge and threatening small children for their lunch money.
Maybe I should stay in Asia… or move to Cairo… or, hey, I hear Ohio is nice this time of year. There are lots of places in the world I still want to see: Mongolia, Mozambique, Cambodia, Columbia, Ecuador, South Africa, Italy, Ghana, France, Germany, Kazakhstan. (Come on, don’t tell me that you’ve never wanted to visit Kazakhstan! It’s national drink is fermented mare’s milk! Isn’t that reason enough?). I’d love to go back and spend more time in Japan, too. Yet, some days I dream of buying my own little house in small town America with a porch swing and a bookcase full of books and a cat… or twelve. (I really like cats. And given the current real estate situation in America, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if you can pay for your mortgage with cat cuddles. Anyone know if this is the case? Anyone?)
For a month, I wavered and waffled, disputed and doubted, shillied and shallied. I sent my resume to schools in Turkey, Korea, Rangoon, Egypt, Macau, Dubai and Beijing. I applied to be a camp counselor. I registered for an online au pair agency. I dallied with the idea of working on a cruise ship. I contemplated staying put here in Chiang Mai. I looked into teaching online and writing online. (And learned that, thanks to the wonders of sites like Fiverr you can do pretty much anything online and get money for it – including doing other people’s homework, doling out etiquette advice and casting out demons. Who knew even shamanism had gone 2.0?)
In the end I chose a job teaching academic English at a university in China. I realize this sounds pretty much just like my old job teaching academic English at a university in Japan. And it is very much like my old job — except it’s in China, which is like way different from Japan. China resembles Japan in the same way I resemble Kate Moss. (Hint: I have ankles the same width as Kate Moss’ entire body. So, yeah, me and Miss Moss aren’t exactly twinsies).
I’ve never actually been to China, but I’ve heard the stories (oh, the stories!). In fact, it’s those stories which have scared me away from China until now. You’ve probably heard that it’s common to spit on the streets in China despite many recent public campaigns to stop it from happening. (Including one campaign which consists of having volunteers wearing a sign with the word “mucus” on their front while handing out tiny plastic bags for people to spit into). But the public bodily excretions don’t stop at hocking a few loogies, my friends. Apparently, you can also burp, fart, slurp, snort and shoot “snot rockets”(as my friend delicately referred to them in an email she sent to me). Additionally, babies are often seen peeing freely in the streets thanks to the use of split-crotch pants. Littering is commonplace. Standing in line is regarded as a competitive sport. And, you know, there’s the whole air pollution thing.
As your typical germ-phobic, clean-freak American who is big on personal space and fresh air and not so big on things like spit and smog and having to dodge peeing babies and missiles of snot on my way to work, I was pretty sure I wasn’t ready for China when I left Japan. In fact, I’m still not so sure I’m ready for China. But I am ready for a paycheck. (A much lower paycheck than the one I used to get in Japan, mind you, but, that’s okay, I don’t need money! I’ll be gaining life experiences! Does anyone know if the U.S. Department of Education accepts life experiences as payment for student loans? Anyone?)
So why did I decide to take a job that sounds a lot like my old job but with a lot less pay and a much higher chance of getting covered in human excrement? Well, despite all the stories of free-range infants and free-flying snot rockets, I have been wanting to go to China. I’d like to see the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. Many of my colleagues have taught in China and enjoyed it. I have a major fascination with any food that so much as bares a passing resemblance to a dumpling. And I heard it’s perfectly acceptable to wear pajamas in public there, so I’m pretty psyched about that. (Especially since my pajama pants are one of the only pairs of pants I own that don’t yet have a hole in the crotch).
And, well, it was one of the few reputable gigs I could find that was willing to sign me on for short-term. My contract starts in mid-February and ends at the end of June. When I’m done, I have the option of signing up for another semester, or pursuing a teaching job elsewhere… or, heck, I could chuck it all and take up selling love spells on the Internet or yak-herding in Kazakhstan or cat cuddling in Cleveland, Ohio.
I thought that taking nine months off from a “real job” to travel and volunteer would give me a better idea of who I am, where I want to be, what I want to do. When I left Japan, I was tired and burnt out. I wanted to take a break from working. I wanted to see a little bit more of Asia. And then I wanted to go home.
Now I’m not so sure where I want to go or what I want to do or who I am anymore. I thought traveling was supposed to help you find yourself. (Yoohoo, Self! Where are you?!)
Instead of keeping to the six countries on my original itinerary for Asia, I’ve started to add a few more to my list of must-sees. Instead of thinking my international employment options were limited to teaching jobs, I’ve learned there are lots of things I could do to earn cash while overseas. Instead of seeing travel as an all-or-nothing, black-and-white, either-you’re-traveling-or-you’re-not kind of thing, I’ve started to see it as more fluid, more flexible. I’ve toyed with the idea of going home for a bit to rest and recuperate and reunite with family and friends (and a jumbo-sized platter of nachos… or twelve) and then hitting the road again. After all, who says you can’t go home again? (Besides, err, Thomas Wolfe… but what does he know, anyway?).
Maybe I’ll love China, and end up staying their long-term. (Have I mentioned the pajamas in public thing? I mean, how awesome is that?) Maybe I’ll get freaked out by the spit and snot and split-crotch pants, and high tail it out of there after my four and a half months. Maybe I’ll continue teaching or maybe I’ll take up selling English homework and exorcisms online. Maybe I’ll continue traveling. Maybe I’ll find a country I like and settle down. Maybe that country will be Cleveland.
Who knows? I certainly don’t.
But maybe you do. (Are you one of those people — you know, the kind of people who tell others what to do with their lives? Can you be my people?)