The things that once gave me a sense of self have long been taken away and the power of their memories I must fight to regain. It’s Saturday, March 31, 2018 at 12pm and I’m lying on the sofa at our apartment in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in a cold sweat. My entire body is sore and I have barely enough energy to prepare a meal for myself. Today, it takes hours before I’m able to regain the energy to leave the couch and I never gather enough strength to leave the building. Instead, time speaks to me through dreams, soreness, and flu-like sweats, because in all other conditions I’ve been unable to listen.
Two years and 5 days earlier, I gave up my apartment in Silicon Valley and initiated the first major step in downsizing my life in the States to create a life abroad. By the time my wife and I boarded the plane in San Francisco for the first leg of our Nomadic Travel Adventures, I gave up my car, my ability to pilot an aircraft, my two vintages of homemade wine, and the continued presence of close friends with whom I often enjoyed deep intellectual conversations on a weekly basis. In saying goodbye to these parts of my life, I was saying hello to new experiences, new friends, and new ways to establish my sense of self. Yet, it wasn’t until this debilitating day in heart of Saigon that I realized just how much I lost when I boarded that flight.
The Normalcy of Discomfort
Traveling, and more specifically living, abroad causes one to constantly throw themselves into uncomfortable situations on an almost daily basis. Generally, the native language in the foreign land is not your own. Even if you’re able to speak it well, as I do with Spanish and Italian, it’s not your native tongue. When situations become challenging and emotions start to run high, we always run back to comfort. So we struggle, daily (almost hourly, at times) to regain our sense of comfort – our sense of self. Sometimes switching between languages, currencies, and cultural norms in a matter of days can create a sense of unease that can rattle even the most even-mannered individuals.
For much of my life, I’ve been fairly resolved, calm, and able to allow difficult encounters to roll off my back. I’m usually a pretty hard person to shake mentally, as I can generally see beyond the storm (or at least understand how the storm developed).
As a kid, I always had a vision of my life in mind and I never allowed anything to veer me away from it. As soon as I entered high school, I knew that I wanted to be gone in three years rather than four. I knew that I wanted to go to Arizona State and study aviation. After making that dream a reality, I envisioned going to graduate school in New York or Chicago. While attending graduate school in Chicago, I knew I wanted to leave and move to California as soon as I was done.
California, then working at Stanford, then becoming a pilot, becoming a winemaker, becoming fluent in Spanish and Italian, and eventually starting my own business. These were all visions so strong in my mind that when I was faced with daily adversities at work, in my relationships, or on the street, those adversities felt minor because they were just bumps along the road to the life I wished to create. So why was it now that for the last 1.5 years I seemingly lost my ability to rise above the bullshit and keep my calm nature when things became challenging?
Uncovering the Frustration
The first time I recall feeling that something had changed in me was back in Verona, Italy in July 2016, only 3 months after our life abroad began. That day, as I noted in my previous post, “Thirsty – My Tongue’s Eternal Battle with a Knife”, I reached the first of many breaking points mentally. My wife and I had been visiting my friend Sara, and I reached a point where I simply couldn’t try to hide my frustration any longer.
Well during our afternoon in Verona in early July, my mind reached a breaking point. I was finding the mental gymnastics of floating between these three languages a bit too challenging and my mind needed a break. As we sat down for a café across from the beautiful Colosseo in Verona, I sat quiet and frustrated. Soon, Sara would pose a question that lit a fire in me to try to both understand and explain why I seemed to be putting myself in a naturally precarious situation. Essentially, she asked me why our trip seemed like such torture for me.
I went on to describe how the trip actually wasn’t torture but rather a challenge for me. I explained how, though I struggled mightily to keep my calm and push through the situation without affecting those around me, eventually I emerged from the situation stronger than before. I believed this at the time but didn’t fully understand how this first hurdle would be a microcosm of things to come.
Searching for Comfort
Later that same year, when we arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I pushed myself via similar writings to break out of my comfort zone and find ways to “…Feel Limitless Rather than Limited.” Although I had created a new life abroad that was seemingly a progression of the life that I left behind in California, it started to become apparent that the discomfort was rising. After struggling mightily with private Vietnamese lessons in Saigon a few months later, I arrived in Valencia in April 2017 ready to jump back into the comfort of Spanish. But instead of opening up to the excitement and comfort, I continued revert inward.
I began to allow minor interactions and microaggressions in public and at restaurants to shake me. The discomfort grew as my sense of self slowly regressed. To the point that a language that once gave me energy, excitement, and passion for life, soon began to make me feel unintelligent and psychologically crippled. Throughout my entire life, I rarely allowed things to get to me and now it seemed like everything was getting to me. I was losing patience, losing confidence, and losing my sense of self.
A few weeks later, I spent another week in Italy, visiting friends, but something very strange happened. I arrived in Italy, hearing and speaking Italian in a manner that I wasn’t able to feel with Spanish the previous weeks in Valencia. It was beyond weird, especially given my history with the two languages, and how much more Spanish naturally flows out of me than Italian. Yet, in the comfort of friends and familiar places, I was able to find my rhythm, my confidence, and start to understand how I had lost it in the recent weeks and months.
In conversations with Ricardo, he reminded me how much my life had changed and how it was understandable that so much discomfort (living and traveling abroad for such an extended period) would naturally create inner tension. He started to make me realize something that, while I understood what he meant at the time, would take almost another year to fully embrace it and see the underlying issue.
Stuck in the Mud of Microaggressions
Fast forward to January 2018. I’m heading out to Australia for my once-in-a-lifetime trip. A gentleman at the airport says something to me that I felt was demeaning and unnecessary. I politely and calmly confront him and ask him why he felt the need to say what he said. Why did I care?
A couple of days later, I’m sitting in my seat at Margaret Court Arena, and a lady comes over to me and says, “Excuse me, you’re in our seats.” Once she realizes that it wasn’t me who was out of line, she takes her seat and doesn’t even apologize, though her embarrassed partner does.
The undertones of these events, and a couple of others that I have not mentioned, stick with me. They start to gnaw at my core. I began to notice that minor interactions and microaggressions that I once never allowed to penetrate my core, are now not only piercing my core, they are drilling their way into my heart.
My patience is thin. My words are short. My mind is tight. I find that in conversations with my wife, my natural desire to slow down and find the right words to communicate challenging emotions is fraught. But something happened when I awoke from my 3-hour sore and sweaty nap on the couch that Saturday in Saigon. I woke up thinking without clear thought. Not that my thoughts were dark or clouded, I was simply in a state of deep processing. A couple of hours later, I gathered the energy to head up to the rooftop terrace to get some air. My wife joined me and later asked me a question that would spark a sense of clarity that I hadn’t felt since perhaps we first began our nomadic travel adventure.
Every Destination is an Opportunity to Reset
That late afternoon while sitting atop the roof of our Saigon apartment, my wife asked, “So what’s your lesson learned from this trip?” She was referring to our brief 5-week stay in Saigon this time around, to which I simply and comfortably replied, “I don’t know, yet.” At the time I didn’t know but very soon I would know.
The following day, I sat with a pen and paper, and began to jot down thoughts and questions. I began to ask myself what was different about me now from when I was younger, and why was it that I felt like I lost my natural, calm way. And then an image flashed in my mind. It was my car.
Anyone who knew me back when I lived in California knows how much I loved my car. I’m not one for many material possessions but my car was more than that. It was my dream car and my sanctuary. It was a symbol of the life I created in California.
It is what I drove to the airport to go flying. What I drove to vineyards to go wine tasting. What I drove to meet friends for deep intellectual conversations over drinks. What I drove to client meetings for my own business. What I drove to the park on the day of my wedding. What I drove whenever I needed a mental escape or simply time to get lost in the foothills on a fall Sunday and dream about future desires and accomplishments.
It was also what I gave up on April 2, 2016. Physically, I donated my car and mentally, I gave away part of myself. What I came to realize almost exactly two years later in Saigon with my pen in hand and notes jotted down on paper was that in downsizing my life into only a carry-on and a backpack, I shed physical aspects of my former life that constantly kept me grounded.
My car, my piloting adventures, my winemaking adventures, and my weekly chats/visits with close friends were all aspects of my life that constantly reminded me of my personal accomplishments. It was a constant reminder of the life I created and my continual progress. Yet, once those things were shed, I slowly began to lose sight of those accomplishments and with them, my sense of self, my confidence, began to erode.
Perhaps without fully knowing the extent of what I gave up or left behind, Ricardo tried to get me to understand this during our dinner chats in Bologna last year after my difficult time in Valencia. Yet, it took me almost another year, several more challenging moments, a deep mid-afternoon nap, and one poignant question from my wife for it to all come together.
Ironically, immediately after that realization, I began to notice my disposition change. I felt like I shed some of the weight I had been carrying mentally for the last year. I felt closer to my younger self and farther away from the noise and nonsense that had pierced my core. I felt like I had shone a light on the shadow side of downsizing my life to live abroad and the ghost of my discomfort slowly faded away.
Behind the Pen: 3AM
Since I began this personal “Behind the Pen: Life Experiences Through a Poetic Lens” series, I’ve wanted to share this poem. Even though I have a different poem written around the same time as this one that actually speaks to many of the challenges I mentioned above, I decided to share “3AM” for a different reason.
This poem exemplifies what I feel is the height of my creative expression. Inspired by a variety of lyrics from my favorite songwriter, Natalie Merchant, it tells a vivid story. Like many of my other works at this time (nearly 20 years ago), the story came to me at a single point in time and was released from mind to pen in a quick, steady flurry.
I think it’s one of my best pieces and it speaks to me in the same way time spoke to me while I was sleeping off my sickness in Saigon over a week ago. It reminds me of what I’ve accomplished and what I can accomplish when I am calm, confident, and in a state of natural comfort.
She awoke at 3am and grabbed her keys;
She knew this night she must make her leave.
Four hours prior, he struck to have his way;
She couldn’t stand the relentless suffering;
She knew she couldn’t stay.
“Anna, get your coat, your doll, it’s time to play.”
“Honey, we’re going to a village far, far away.”
“But mommy why now, why this time of night?”
“Honey, don’t worry just pack everything tight.”
Their bags were packed as they headed for the door,
However luck was not with them, as his feet hit the floor.
She opened the truck, as her daughter screamed in fear.
These were the devastating effects of his nights of beer.
This old dirty truck was their last hope for freedom,
He called her parents, angered that she’d leave him.
Her gray-haired mother was of the old-school fashion,
in which marriage was a job with no room for passion.
“Oh mother thank you for being awake.”
“I couldn’t live anymore in that house with Jake.”
“But Sarah you are too young to fully understand.”
“You have to return your husband and stick with that man.”
She couldn’t believe the words ringing in her ear,
Her own mother was against her, her father sat with a beer.
Suddenly she recalled all those nights she sat in tears,
The nights her father went out and her mother waited in fear.
She looked at her daughter with tears in her eyes,
She didn’t want Anna to live the same life.
As her mother debated, she knew this was it.
She had to leave everything behind or simply call it quits.
“Mother you’ve done me wrong, you of all people should care.”
“I can’t stand to leave my daughter in this climate, it’s not fair.”
“We’re leaving for good, starting a new life.”
“My daughter will grow a great woman, without all this strife.”
“Although, I love you both for your hardships and gifts,”
“I will not let Anna grow up in this myth.”
“She is my life, my fire, my air from within.”
“Never will she see the devastating effects of beer again.”
– November 12, 1999
Want More – Hit Me Up
If you find this or any of my other work showcased in the “Behind the Pen” series interesting or inspiring, feel free to leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter @Jarard29. I’ll happily provide an electronic copy of my entire book of poetry upon request. Be sure to check back from time to time for links to future releases and life stories.