In 2017 I packed my bags and headed off to New Zealand on a working holiday visa. The original plan was to spend a year living in Auckland, but life has its own agenda. After six months I repacked my things and headed off to Asia for three months. There I learned how to ride a motorbike, navigate among local culture, and to appreciate my family roots. Sometime between dangling off Huashan and trekking up Mt. Fuji I received a wedding invitation from two of my friends back home. They were finally tying the knot! After I RSVP’d “yes!” I started making my way back to the States, which included a month stopover in London. Why? Because London has amazing tea and cream!
I officially stepped foot back into the States in Autumn and went straight into road trip mode. My friends and I drove in an old Toyota named “Sweet Pea” to Jackson, WY to witness fleeting moments of the solar eclipse. Birds started chirping out of nowhere. I spent the rest of the year going north. I swung by Tahoe, CA to celebrate my friends’ wedding and continued north to watch the leaves change through Portland, Seattle, and Banff. To close the year I ventured south to munch on ceviche in Costa Rica.
Here’s a summary what I learned from traveling for a year:
1. Empathy is the Universal Language
In the process of miming and gesturing arbitrarily in culturally different places with language barriers, I discovered that having empathy is the best form of communication. Empathetic communication can overcome language barriers by having you focus on the things that matter. While engaging with locals I had exercise hearing and understanding what they were trying to communicate instead of listening for what I wanted to hear.
2. It’s Impossible to Know Everything
The world is a huge place! Once you leave your comfort bubble the exact size and scale of our planet are limitless. There are more many things to see, cultures to experience, things to eat, perspectives to understand, etc. Vastness of the world outside of your own is humbling and an excellent reminder to stay open and curious.
3. You Can Live With A Lot Less
Before moving to New Zealand I sold and donated the majority of my possessions, and as a result, I boarded a plane with a backpack and one large suitcase. Then within six months, I narrowed my things down to just a backpack. For three months I traveled from New Zealand up to Japan and then jumped over to England with only what would fit into my Osprey Farpoint 70. I learned that I could not only live with fewer items but also it was equally important to invest in things that were of quality and (to borrow from Marie Kondo) sparks joy.
4. There’s Nothing New to Learn About Yourself
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t believe that you discover yourself through travel. Instead, travel gives you the time and space to uncover yourself by letting you temporarily run away into something new and exciting. Traveling alone didn’t change the core of my character. Solo travel isolated all the excess noise and mental distractions and allowed me to embrace and enhance what was already there.
I “discovered” that I like who I intrinsically am and I don’t like it when I try to measure myself with someone else’s metrics.
5. You’ll Grow a Backbone in More Ways than One
Traveling by yourself is a great way to confront an uncomfortable thing: confrontation itself!
Once you’re off on your own, you have to be self-reliant. There’s no one else in your corner to vouch for your needs and you’re responsible for travel logistics and safety. How you act and adapt to changing situations will also fall on your hands. It can be a heavy responsibility.
In between moments, especially when you’re bored (trust me you can get bored while traveling,) you’ll find yourself confronting personal thoughts and traumas. Changing locations doesn’t mean that you can run away from your problems. I rode many trains while mentally confronting my seemingly “huge” imperfections and being okay with them was pivotal for my self-worth.
6. Enough is Enough
Enough is enough. How powerful is this simple sentence? While glitching between instances of stress and anxiety when the sentence flashed through my mind and I snapped back into a state of calm. At the time I living in Auckland without a budget nor plan. I felt relaxed again when I realized that what I had was enough. I had enough to cover my basic needs. I’d also have enough to cover my needs the following week. And then the following month. If I were an irresponsible and lazy person I’d be in trouble within six months to a year, but I’m not that type of person.
I became more focused on the present and mindful of the future, by not allowing myself downward spiral into a never-ending list of what I was lacking. When you have enough, it’s enough.
7. Relationships Take Work
Technology nowadays makes it technically easier to stay in contact with friends and family. However, I found that even technology can’t resolve the logistical obstacles of coordinating an available time to catch up with people.
In a way, time zone differences act as a filter to prioritize relationships. If you looked through my phone you could easily see who were the people I chose to keep in touch with and who were the people that chose me.
8. Disconnecting is Feel Amazing
During my time as a digital nomad, I gradually distanced myself from the “digital” part of being a nomad. In New Zealand, I allowed myself to scroll aimlessly on the phone only while connected to my house’s wifi in order to conserve my precious 4gb of cellular data per month. And then thanks to the Great Firewall of China I couldn’t use my phone –even if I wanted to. Before beginning my travels I thought that I’d be creating content like a machine, instead, I found myself disconnecting and taking more time stop to stop and eat the bun cha.
Distancing myself from my devices prioritized being in present and removed the incessant noise of keeping up with the Jones.
9. Travel is For Yourself
People travel for all sorts of reasons, but it’s for yourself. I realized that everything that I experienced while amid travel would be internalized. I could share images embellished with audacious stories, but the narrated experience would be a surface retelling. It’s a beautiful feeling knowing that the visceral experience is something that belongs solely to you and can be relived through your memories.
10. Wear Sunblock
The sun is an evil, omnipotent being in the sky. Defend yourself by loading up on zinc or titanium based sunblock and shielding yourself with hats and umbrellas. Begone radiation!!!
11. Have a Personal Supply of Toilet Paper and Hand Sanitizer in Asia
For some reason, napkins and toilet paper aren’t commonplace in other countries. Sometimes you’ll find yourself sitting majestically on a warm, singing, high-tech Japanese toilet, sometimes you’ll be hovering over a freshly dug hole brimming with mosquitos, and other times you’ll wish your body had an extra bladder for excess storage. When traveling it’s best to have your own stash of toilet paper and hand sanitizer to handle all conditions.
Oh, and travel hack! Local in Singapore leave packaged tissues out on open tables in hawker food centers as a sign that the table is reserved.
12. To My Ladies, Get a Menstrual Cup Because…
- In the long run they’re more cost effective and environmentally friendly.
- They’re biologically kinder to your body since they collect the fluids instead of absorbing them like tampons.
- Avoid accidents in places where sanitary products are debilitatingly hard to find (i.e. small villages in mountains of Vietnam)
- Cups are more discrete and take up less luggage space
For more information available: https://www.healthline.com/health/womens-health/menstrual-cup
13. Be Financially Responsible
I’m all for the idea that everyone should go out and see the world, but please do so in a manner that’s also fiscally responsible. It’s exciting to throw everything to the wind and hope the things will all work out in the end, but as I mentioned earlier life enjoys throwing curve balls. Before embarking on your journey here’s what I recommend:
- Get travel insurance. I personally used World Nomads because they worked globally and would cover my photo gear.
- Set aside money as a “Oh Sh!T Get Me Out of Here” fund in the event that situation happened where you had to go home immediately.
- Give a travel alert to your bank and credit card accounts, otherwise they may mistakenly freeze and lock your account.
- Get a Credit Card that does not charge for foreign transaction fees, I personally use the Chase Sapphire card
- Consider getting a debit card that has no ATM fees, such as Charles Schwab.
- Research the cost of living of all the places you planning on visiting and create a budget.
- Figure out a specific skill you can do anywhere for work, for me it’s photography and retouching.
14. Roll with the Punches
I can easily tell you of all the wonderful things that I’ve experienced and disregard the inauspicious hurdles I had to deal with, but that would be a disservice to traveling! Before this year of travel, I never realized how slow time could feel while riding on a loud, bumpy 6-hour hour train ride across northern Vietnam in the cheap seats. Nor did I expect that it was near impossible to sleep through the night on a 3-tiered sleeper bus full of European expats. Waking up two days in a row with Chinese cockroaches crawling all over is as a unique of an experience as seeing the solar totality. I also made the grave mistake of letting the ice melt in my Vietnamese coffee, I spent the following days praying to the porcelain god. Plenty of unplanned mishaps happened along the way. It’s best to do what you can to prepare and anticipate these situations, then adapt and make the best of the situation.
15. Americans have Accents and It’s Music to My Ears
Yes, Americans have accents! I was ignorant of mine until I met Asian-Kiwis in New Zealand. My speech initially caught them off guard because despite being Asian my spoken English lacked a Chinese accent and yet I also don’t have an Aussie or Kiwi accent like them. I suppose the idea of an Asian-American is still uncommon.
As started jumping around from place to place I began to hear a plethora of accents. For the majority of where I traveled English was commonplace, but it was often colored with a local accent. My ears would perk up on the rare occasions when I was in earshot of another American accent. When you’ve been away from home for awhile hearing your home accent unleashes an overwhelming sense of familiarity.
16. Travel Global, Live Local
I’m borrowing my friend Isaac K’s saying “Travel global, live local” because it’s a great mantra to have in regards to how to travel. If the opportunity to travel outside of your home is available, seize it! While traveling recognizes that you’ll be among people from different cultures and different upbringings. Don’t try to impose your cultural idiosyncrasies on the locals because it’s a downhill battle. Somewhere in China, I sat within earshot of foreigners trying to convince a cafe owner to start serving vegan and glutton-free options. Vegan and glutton-free are a bit preposterous in China… Instead be open to local culture. I’ve noticed that although locals instantly recognize me as a foreigner, they are more likely to help me out when I showed appreciation for their culture. This means eating, commuting, and behaving as the locals would.
For instance, in countries with British influence such as Australia, New Zealand, and the UK there’s a saying: “can’t be bothered”, which means that they can’t be bothered. Unlike the States, small talk is not a norm. There if someone “can’t be bothered”, don’t hold them up with silly small talk.
Looking back now, I recognize that my approach to navigating daily life back home is influenced by the experience of backpacking abroad. In short I’m more measured and content. I’m very thankful that I had the opportunity to dedicated an entire year to travel and personal exploration. It’s a rare chance to temporarily drop everything and escape into impulsive wanderlust.
I hope to experience traveling this style again one day.