Photo: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

I’m Not "Traveling." I'm Just Living in a Country That Isn’t America.

by Stephanie Wang Feb 1, 2017

I have lived in seven countries. Crazy and stupid as it sounds, that’s really what I’ve been doing in the past eight years. I grew up around Los Angeles, California. It’s a wonderful city with endless art events, new bars and coffee shops, tons of hiking trails, and live music. However, I still felt like it wasn’t enough for me. I still felt like I was doing the exact same thing over and over again; I needed some new scenery. What I didn’t know was that I needed to be challenged.

Before I get berated for ‘flaunting and bragging about my wealth and nomadic life,’ let me explain. Firstly, I’m a frugal English teacher and a freelance graphic designer. I manage my funds very carefully and I only use my credit card for emergencies, and I make sure that I have zero credit card debt. Secondly, I’m not labelling myself as a nomad or gypsy nor am I promoting anyone to quit their jobs and travel. I am an ordinary person with student loans who had no idea that living abroad would become ‘normal’. Some people like stability and work, and I respect that. I’m the kind of person who likes change and taking risks.

It all started when I wanted to participate in a volunteer program in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2009. I buddied up with 49 teenage orphan boys, set up activities with other volunteers, and created a photo project for the founders of the organization. In addition, I taught English to Tibetan lamas. Every day was different; joined an outdoor puja with the lamas, hiked hills with the kids, visited the kids’ schools, walked around the monkey temple, and watched bootleg DVDs when there were nation-wide strikes. Although I trekked to Annapurna and bungee jumped in the north, all I wanted to do in Nepal was work and get to know the culture. When you live somewhere, you tend to not do touristy things.

My five-month visa ran out and I was unable to extend it. I had to leave the country. Going back to America didn’t cross my mind. “Well, I guess I’ll go to India and find volunteer work there,” I thought. I got roped into visiting Leh, Ladakh. After taking many means of transportation, I arrived in Leh with the plan to rent a cheap room and meet locals for any possible volunteer work. By luck, I met a couple awesome Ladakhis who helped me get a volunteer job at a school. After two months of living in Leh and getting waved at by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, I was forced to leave due to severe winter weather conditions. Many people advised me to leave and so I did. I went to McLeod Ganj. I taught English to Tibetan refugees and sort of managed an organization for a couple of months. A few other volunteers and I had major responsibilities, such as helping new volunteers find work, create various classes for Tibetan students, and build a new website. We were so fixated on our work that we rarely explored. More importantly, I learned spirituality in McLeod Ganj. The Tibetans prayed every day, they risked their lives traversing icy mountains to be closer to the Dalai Lama; I was in awe of their heart and dedication. I don’t have a religion, I’m quite practical and I have a slight fear of hippies. However, I was supposed to be there. I was supposed to meet who I met. Because of my unexpected spiritual journey, I tattooed Tibetan Sanskrit on my forearms. Sadly, I had to leave by force once again. The weather from the North pushed harsh conditions toward McLeod Ganj. I couldn’t bare it any longer and decided to actually travel and see the beauty in India.

Three months of solo traveling throughout India, I had to leave. This time it was my choice; the sexual and racial harassment ran my patience thin. I went on Air Asia’s website and purchased the cheapest deal I could find from New Delhi: Hanoi, Vietnam. On Day 2 in Hanoi, I met crazy locals and expats who are still my close friends to this day. I was a social butterfly loving every minute in Hanoi. I joined a language school to learn Vietnamese. I attended every art exhibition, music show, festival, and parties. I bought a beat-up motorbike. I went on motorbike trips to untouched Northern mountains. I lived in a mansion with close friends for $225/month. I paid $1 for every meal. I slept in until 11:30am every day. I met a Canadian who I didn’t know I’d fall in love with three years later. I traveled to Thailand six times and Laos twice for visa runs, what a great excuse to visit neighboring countries! It was the laziest two years I’ve ever had. With regard to funds, I taught only nine hours a week, I worked part-time as a graphic designer and photographer for a notable organization, and had some freelance design gigs here and there. But then, everything became…easy and comfortable. I kept thinking about what to do next: discover new places, face obstacles, and learn about a new culture. I decided to go on another solo trip. Two years living in Hanoi came to an end; I shed a lot of tears, said thousands of goodbyes, and hopped on a train to southern China.

My grandmother built a Buddhist temple in southern China. My older brother, who is a teacher, lives in Shanghai. It was perfect for me to spend family time with them. After wandering in Yunnan province and visiting my grandmother’s temple with my mom, I offered to help at my brother’s school. The money was pretty good, so might as well teach some classes and create new curricula. I lasted two months in Shanghai! That city wasn’t for me. Not to mention, I had the worst heartbreak of my life occur in Shanghai. The best way for me to escape is to flee to another country. Ergo, I went to Mongolia, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Then my funds ran low in Borneo.

Living abroad wasn’t always copacetic. I was in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. I thought it was a great place to start new again. Even though KK was paradise, I couldn’t help notice all the unwelcome signs: I quit at one international school because the headmaster was racist and sexist toward me, people would spread rumors for their gain and others’ loss, I was offered low pay rates for being a non-white teacher, and lastly I was in a motorcycle chase with an unsuccessful purse snatching bandit — the damages on the scooter were a lovely gift. Each laughable monthly payment I received mostly went to housing and a rented scooter. The money left over was meager; only enough to eat once a day. I spent six months trying to set up a lifestyle in KK and failed. I wasn’t happy, so why stay? I sent my resume to numerous countries and accepted the first offer: Taipei, Taiwan.

To make myself feel more optimistic about leaving Malaysia, I used my last paycheck to travel to Kuala Lumpur, Myanmar, and Vietnam. It wasn’t a smart thing to do, but I didn’t care. I needed to lift my spirits up before Taiwan. I lived in Taipei for 3.5 years. I find it sad to say that all I did was work. Taipei has a working kind of lifestyle and I fell into that immediately. I worked 40-60 hours a week managing an ESL program; it was hell, but the money was oh so good. I rarely travelled within those years because of my job and it took me that long to realize that I shouldn’t have had to work so much. I ended up quitting for another job, I worked fewer hours, and made the same amount of money. This transition gave me more time to plan what to do next. I ran a half marathon, explored Taipei’s eateries, and planned another long vacation. Oh, wait. Remember when I mentioned in the Vietnam paragraph that I met someone who I later fell in love with? Three separated years of being ‘just friends’ became a serious relationship when he moved to Taipei to see if we could actually work.

And it did work. We both moved to the Dominican Republic at the end of 2016. No, he doesn’t have a high-paying job to support us both. All those years in Taipei of work and no travel enabled me to save enough money to travel for almost a year, give my parents money, and invest.

In summary, I don’t think about my life in Los Angeles. I’m so far removed from life in America that it’s unrecognizable. When in fact, I faced the same circumstances in the aforementioned countries as I would in Los Angeles. It’s just a different setting. I’m not just traveling; I’m just living in a country that isn’t America. I can’t explain why I’m living like this, but it feels right. I don’t think anyone can elaborate on why they do what they do. To conclude this essay with something cheesy; one of the Tibetan Sanskrit tattoos I have on my forearms says “Follow your heart.” As long as I keep doing that, I know someday I’ll be that old Asian lady with thousands of stories to share on the bus.

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