A corridor in Penang

One Chapter of a Floating Life

A few people have been confused by the title of my blog – Never Coming Back. I get comments like, “Hey, that looks like a great place! Why don’t you want to go back there?” I guess the title makes more sense if you’re reading it back at home in the US. Perhaps then it’s a little clearer that the place I’m never coming back to is America. Of course, it also makes me sad to know that few people have read my ‘about‘ page, where there’s an explanation for the title. Sigh.

But don’t get me wrong – I think my country is one of the most beautiful places on earth, with fantastic food, and some of the best people you will ever meet. Anytime I meet someone who’s not from America but who’s been there on a holiday – they just can’t stop talking about what a great time they had. The title of this blog notwithstanding, I fully intend to go back home at some point – I’m just not sure when. The problem is, after living abroad for so long, I just don’t think I could ever go back to that American lifestyle.

You know what I’m talking about, my fellow Americans. Those long workweeks of 60-70 hours, not including the emails and text messages that have to be returned 24/7. The car payments and house payments. The consumer society where the end all is the acquisition of goods. The inability to talk about anything at dinner other than work – or after a certain age, doctor visits and medical problems. The rancid political divide, made worse by the ugly debates people have on social media. I don’t mind admitting it – I was never able to sort through all those things and put together the life I wanted back at home.

I don’t consider myself too good or too enlightened to live that kind of life – I’m just not tough enough to live it. I hated pretending to love my job, looking at everyone I met as if they were a potential client, being nice to obnoxious customers because it was my job. (Of course, I didn’t know then that I could have just started working for United).

It seems everyone’s living on the edge, one or two paychecks away from the whole house of cards tumbling down around them. I’ve got friends who were millionaires or on the way there – and one change in government regulation, one extended hospital visit – they’re fighting to keep their heads above water.

Once you have a taste of being free from all of those things, it’s hard to go back. When you’re working in Asia, many of the apartments you rent come fully furnished – and sometimes your employer pays your rent. Yes, the furniture isn’t very nice – but you seldom invite people to your home and your self-worth is not wrapped up in how nice it looks. Your social time is spent in inexpensive tea houses, cafes, or pubs. You take public transportation, so you don’t need a car. You pay for nothing on credit, because those systems are not in place here – even in highly developed economies like Japan, people pay in cash. Your phone and electricity are not ‘bills’ for something you’ve already used – you pay them in advance. There are no expensive cable bills, gym memberships, or other subscriptions you have to worry about. When you’re sick, medical care is either free or less than half what it costs at home – in fact, the pharmacist can often diagnose you himself and prescribe medicine – you don’t even need to see a doctor.

All of these things provide peace of mind – you tend to have just as much apartment as you need, not a square foot more, and just the amount of furniture you need to be comfortable. There’s not a thing in your apartment that you owe money on, and no car in the driveway sucking away hundreds of dollars each month in payments, insurance, and maintenance. If you’re short on cash and can’t afford to ‘top up’ your phone until payday, it’s not a big deal to go without phone service for a few days – because your employer would never expect you to pick up the phone outside of work hours anyway.

You have longer holidays than you had back at home, and money left over to spend on them when they come around. Your savings account grows – at first because it’s a little scary living and working in a foreign place, and you want to make sure you have enough to fly back home should it all come undone. But it continues to grow because you’re not caught up in the orgy of consumerism from back at home.

You realize you were a frog in a slowly warming pot, and you’ve jumped out just in time.

To be fair, the locals in your new home may be caught up in their own version of the ‘American Dream’, working ever longer hours to achieve the success they think we Westerners enjoy. The Chinese are busy saving up money for the mandatory apartment, and the Thais blow their expendable pay on new cars. But as a stranger in a strange land, you are given the opportunity to choose the parts of the new culture that appeal to you, fuse them with the ideas from your own that you cherish – and the result is a lifestyle that is truly chosen, not one forced upon you.

Living the peripatetic life tends to lead to minimalism – you simply just don’t want to carry too much around from one place to another. When I first left home to live in Thailand, I gave away or sold what bit of furniture I had, sold my car, gave most of my clothing to the thrift shop. I arrived there with one backpack. Three years later, when I moved to China, I had accumulated enough that I needed to move up to a large suitcase. Ten years later, I left China with a large suitcase and a backpack – all of my belongings in the world.

But I’ve accumulated memories and adventures enough to fill a book.

Full disclosure – I have bought and sold things over the years, shipped a few things back home, and have half-dozen boxes of books in a sister’s basement. I see things all the time that I’d like to buy to hang on my walls, throw on my floor, or set on a shelf. As I write this, from Kathmandu, the yak carpets, cashmere sweaters, trekking gear, bronze monk bowls, and leather goods are calling. But I’d need to buy another suitcase, and you can really only manage one in each hand.

I am recently feeling the need to at least have a ‘home base’, a place where I could return to from time to time and be surrounded with my own things – photos of my family, souvenirs from around the world. But I’m not quite ready to settle down just yet.

I am certainly not feeling the need to return home, buy a three-bedroom box in the suburbs, and spend my every waking hour making money so I can fill it up with IKEA crap. So, it looks like I’ll be having new adventures and writing about them for a while longer. But, if it’s ok with you, I may extend the meaning of ‘nevercomingback’ to refer not only to travel, but also to stories that illustrate a renunciation of the unsustainable lifestyle we’ve come to accept as the ‘good life’ back at home, adventures that involve not only the exploration of new places, but of new ways of living and experiencing life.

Those are journeys anyone can take – one need not leave home to find contentment.

The title of this post alludes to a poignantly beautiful autobiography of a minor administrator in the Qing Dynasty, ‘Six Chapters of a Floating Life‘. His simple but romantic and poetic life went against the rigid expectations of society at the time; unfortunately, only six chapters of the autobiography have been discovered.

Don’t forget to subscribe – Like Never Coming Back on Facebook!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s