Go to school, get a nice job and work until you have the money to enjoy your remaining days. That’s what we’re taught that life is all about, right? That seemed to be the blueprint of my life as a lower-middle class American. I have always been smart enough to recognize that that is a wonderful problems to have- I have never worried about hunger or the biting cold Missouri winters. I had loving parents who kept me safe, fed, and educated. Still, somehow, it wasn’t working for me.
I think that for many people, graduating from university is sort of terrifying. We have spent two decades of our lives on a track with rails and then, in a snap, as we walk across the stage to get our certificate, the track has come to an end and some of us have no idea which path to take next. What will be fulfilling now? What will be fulfilling in ten years? Twenty? It is scary business. Of course you should be thankful for having the privilege of having an education (I am) but the piece of paper you earn does not always tell you which way to go or if there’s a speed limit at which you should go. With the knowledge I gained from my studies, I still ended up knowing almost nothing about life or how the world works. I looked around and saw billions of paths to take but had no single idea where or how to begin.
I finished university in 2016, then joined the workforce at a mortgage company in central Missouri, USA. It was the first time I ever earned real paychecks. The feeling was surreal and you get to have that feeling of pride – that you are independent and doing what you are supposed to do. The company was absolutely extraordinary in every way- last time I checked, I think they were ranked among the top 20 companies for which to work in the USA. I don’t have a single complaint about my work after university, yet somehow I felt unhappy working there. Despite the nice paychecks and the friends I made, there was this feeling that it was not quite the right time or place.
Life was good but somehow, something was missing. I do not take for granted the fact that I am more privileged than others but that makes it even more problematic for me – thinking I had all these things but at the end of the day, I felt like I was stuck somewhere in which I just didn’t quite fit.
Somehow, I started to feel like I was living in a bubble. It eventually made me miserable. There were times when I actually cried because I felt so stupid for feeling miserable when I had such a comfortable life full of friends and family. Yet the claustrophobic feeling wasn’t quelled and I spent a lot of time reflecting on where I belonged and how I could get closer to that place.
In 2014, my aunt and uncle took me l on a vacation to The Bahamas. I got to taste something new – a taste of adventure and excitement. I think I have always hungered for that adventurous feeling. A month before my graduation in 2016, my now ex-girlfriend and I went on a spontaneous trip to Cancun, Mexico. I remember trying to go to Walmart on a city bus and ending up in a dangerous neighborhood. Luckily we were rescued by a man who was visibly concerned for our safety and showed us a safe route. I had no idea how to travel then. I had no confidence and felt that shaking feeling you get when you are in a foreign place without a clue of what’s going on around you. Thankfully I was not alone and a kind stranger was willing to help! Later I visited Chichen Itza and that was the moment. Although I’ve traveled a bit in the USA, my mind ran wild about how much history and culture sits around the world, such beauty and wonder, completely lost on a life lived in Missouri. That was when I learned how I could replicate that adventurous feeling in the future. Between my first trip to The Bahamas and going to Mexico, my eyes were opened to the idea that this world has more to offer than what is confined into the school-work-retirement box.
After university, I worked for two years, during which I was hungry for some excitement. I started to travel alone and went to Europe. There’s just something about reading about a site or city on the internet, and then actually finding yourself lost within its walls in real life. I think everyone knows that the world is more than what we see in the media but not everyone wants to look any deeper than the media. I learned a lot along my journeys; there is so much to learn every single day while traveling.
I realized I love the feeling of being somewhere completely new, being alone, and having nothing to do other than filling a nearly-empty basket of world adventures. It was therapeutic. Traveling has always given me this feeling like I am doing something that my family and friends haven’t done before and I hope that, somehow, I can inspire them, or even just share with them a photo or experience to make them say, “wow, that exists?!” From my background, I found that traveling was a path that seemed less traveled (no pun intended) and something about that has always been appealing to me.
June 2017, I finally decided that I would suffocate at home unless I did something crazy. I did my research after hearing about a newly-made friend’s experience teaching English abroad. I found a route to teach English in Thailand and found myself there less than 4 months later. I started exploring more of this part of the world – a totally different setting than from where I grew up. It was the most cultural, educational, and satisfying adventure of my life. I am still currently in Southeast Asia and am still having the time of my life. Of course, I miss my friends and family. I am planning to go back home before too long but I am positive that this is not the end of my adventure.
I might be more privileged than others and have problems that seem to be trivial for them, but I think that we all have our own bubbles that we have to deal with. And for me, that bubble I felt trapped in was real. We might not have any idea how to set ourselves free but I think that the only way to find where you are going is to try something new.
Ultimately, there is no magical cure for discontentment. There’s no one-step fix or easy solution. For me, putting the “standard” American plan for life behind me and traveling has been the closest thing. I find that, where I used to have anxiety about a feeling of my time being wasted each day, I now have anxiety over happier things, like, in which country should I find myself 3 months from now. Rather than worrying about whether I should purchase a new iPhone, I find myself worrying about whether I should splurge on another plane ticket to an unknown destination. Rather than stressing over finding my worth in a job which puts meaning into my life, I try to find jobs that allow me to put meaning into my own life.
Using travel as a tool to find happiness in my life has been unprecedentedly successful to this point. I’ve met amazing people, I’ve seen amazing things, I’ve eaten crazy foods, and I’ve made unforgettable memories. I have crossed items off of my bucket list, I have overcome self-doubt and fear, I have even learned an amazing amount of the Thai language, which I thought would be impossible when I first arrived in Thailand. I’ve made friends, I’ve fallen in love with people and places, and I’ve learned more about the world than I ever would have imagined in such a short time. The most important and satisfying thing about all of this is that, at least for right now, I have the ability to feel like I am exactly where I should be in life.
Traveling isn’t for everyone and even for me, it might not be something I’d do forever. But right now, as I type this from northern Vietnam, the only thing I can think about is how proud I am to have popped that small-town bubble. I am so proud to have gotten out of my claustrophobic life, which I sometimes felt was suffocating me. The unknowns scare us but they give us opportunities. You must be ready to fail if you want to get out of the standard mold of a normal life. Take a risk and lead yourself down any road that will take you closer to where you feel that you belong. It may not be easy but it will most definitely be worthwhile.
As for me, digging for ways to live and earn money outside of the suffocating middle-class American mold has already brought me enough adventure and joy for a lifetime. The world is small and loving friends are plentiful. Maybe some day I will find my fulfillment elsewhere but, in the meantime, you can find me anywhere, lost in the streets with a smile on my face.