A little less than a decade and a half ago, I returned to the USA after spending the better
part of two years living in Japan. This was quite the adventure for my late-twenty-something ass, and I sent an email about the important things I learned from that journey. As I settle in after taking my wife and two sons to live in Malaysia for a year, I thought it would be fun to post those thoughts for all to see…with maybe a little color commentary from my older and possibly wiser self….
In the past two years, I have crossed an ocean twice, swum in four different seas, visited six countries, lived in eight apartments, used fifteen different modes of transportation. I have slept on three continents, visited the temples of four religions, trained in five styles of martial arts, spoken three languages. I’ve seen countless wonders and made lifelong friends. Through, because of and sometimes in spite of these experiences, I have learned lot. This is my attempt to share what lessons I can articulate.
I’ve learned about fear. I don’t mean the big fears like death and failure. I mean the subtle ones like embarrassment and inadequacy. The first thing I learned was that I was, in fact, afraid. I think we all are to one degree or another. Once I admitted this to myself, though, the most interesting thing happened. I found the fear had lost a lot of its teeth just from my knowing it was there. By accepting that I was afraid I wasn’t good enough (for example, not tough and resourceful enough to make it in a foreign country, or not interesting and attractive enough to dance with a pretty girl), I found I could take that fear, put it in my pocket and carry it with me right into a the frightening situation. The fear didn’t go away, mind you. It just lost its power to affect my actions.
Fear changes when you’re a parent. As an unmarried 20-something, I had no idea what fear really was. But that other part — the part about naming your fear and owning it — is still not only true, but important. That goes for big fears like losing your child in a third-world hole and more esoteric things like screwing up your visa.
I’ve learned the value of asking for what I want. Maybe this doesn’t surprise anybody else in the world, but I’ve found that if I ask for something, I will quite often get it. Like a lot of men, I have difficulty asking for help. It feels like an admission of weakness. Living in a country where I couldn’t read and didn’t really speak the language forced me to ask for help in all manner of things. I’d need directions to the train, a translator for the doctor, a legal advisor. In Japan I became accustomed to asking for help several times a day, and when what I wanted was a way out of an unacceptable job and living situation, I asked for it. And a solution better than I had dared hope for was handed to me. Now how about that?
I can only double down on this. Ask for what you want. Ask all the time, and teach your kids to ask. Is tripling down a thing? Seriously, this is maybe the most important thing I learned over there.
I’ve learned to appreciate every single day. The wonder and excitement of living in a new country got me into the habit of paying attention, which brought with it the miraculous gift of noticing the world. It’s a fantastic place, full of sunsets and critters, of noble actions and pretty girls. Even sadness is beautiful, when you’re living in it and not just abjectly looking for it to end. I still forget this lesson from time to time, and find myself bulling through a routine or worrying about tomorrow at the expense of the park I’m walking through now. But when I remember this particular lesson, even the rough times have their value.
Okay. This sounds like Disney had a baby with Tony Robbins and had a writer for Hallmark put the whole thing to words. Man, but I was full of myself (and probably still am). That said, I fell out of that habit as the whole real-world-mortgage-kids thing consumed more and more of my time. This trip — and the same resulting exercise in presentness — reminded me of how much I enjoyed being in that head space.
Though in truth, watching my kids experience in their newness a world I’ve seen spin a fair number of times did a lot of this for me even before we went away.
I’ve learned the importance of family. Not that this was a new lesson for me; I’ve said for years that my family is the best thing that ever happened to me. But the past two years have shown me new facets of this absolute truth. Being away from my family showed me how important it is to maintain contact through email, phone and letters. Don’t snub snail mail, now. Nothing beats the feeling of an honest to goodness handwritten letter in your mailbox. It was all the little notes and emails and gifts from all of you that helped me through my patches of homesickness and general ups and downs. Another thing I discovered was the importance of building a family everywhere you go. Anybody who confines his or her definition of ‘family’ to blood relations is missing an important point. My good fortune of meeting Hamid and Yumiko, and of having Lorna in Nagasaki with me, gave me the supportive family of choice that we all need to be whole.
Doubling down on this one, too, but not in the necessarily positive sense. I’ve made family wherever I’ve gone my entire life, but failed to do that in Malaysia. We made friends, but what with the kids and our geography we never really found that tight fit. Our next trip abroad, we’ll have to take steps about that. It’s something I missed desperately.
I’ve learned that the chief traditional food of half the countries in the world is rice with
some stuff in it. Really. Go look for yourself.
I found no contradicting evidence.
I’ve learned about how to be alone, about how to remain whole when far from your support network and living in your own apartment a long way from home. In learning how to be alone, I also learned how to give myself more fully to other people. I think that, when someone is not whole and comfortable on their own, they end up needing to take little pieces of their friends in order to fill themselves up. Once you’ve become a whole person, though, it turns out that you can give more of yourself to the people around you, and do so more willingly.
I had exactly no chance to explore this for myself, but we had a chance to explore this as a family unit. At home, we always have other non-nuclear family members wandering in and out of our space, including two adults who live in our home. I really prefer having those “extra” folks around, but it was instructive to see how we functioned without them around. There are things I will change (and other things I’ll leave just as they are) as a result.
I’ve learned that I can do anything I set my mind to. I’ve navigated the Japanese rail systems and the Beijing subway. I’ve lived and succeeded in a foreign culture where I didn’t speak the language. I’ve dropped myself into a group of people where I knew just one person and made good and lifelong friends. The important thing in this, I think, is that the ‘I’ in these statements it totally subjective. I have learned that the limits we set for ourselves are far, far lower than the limits we actually have. Ghandi once said that the difference between what we do and what we are capable of would solve most of our problems. Chuck Norris once said that limits do not exist for the person unwilling to accept them. We are all of us capable of so much more than we think. I am most thankful for this last lesson, and for the things it means I can do with my future.
Of everything I learned over there, this was the one that stuck with me the most over the intervening years. Combined with a push in 2009 from my friend, coach and mentor Tom Callos, it’s responsible for how I now spend my life doing mostly what I want, when I want, and coaching others on how to make that their life, too.
Watching my oldest son learn this lesson, and seeing him interact with the challenges of life in the USA, was one of the greatest joys of this adventure. It will be a joy to see what kind of adult he turns into…and whether or not he decides to spend some time Over There as part of his own journey.