In 2015, I made a career leap to “split time” between Los Angeles and Asia in order to gain global experience. Part of the contract is for two years, I will fly across the Pacific every month, with 2-3 weeks of stay to work in each place.
I was hired by a technology startup based in Singapore and the Philippines in order to inject best-in-class practices to a new market (Southeast Asia) that is showing a lot of promise. It was also a move up in my career, in terms of increasing professional responsibility, salary, and exposure to new people and work methods. From a personal standpoint, it also helped me establish lifelong relationships with friends new and old.
Most of all, I took it because of the growth opportunity. It’s scary and challenging, but I had enough motivation and resilience to ride through the move.
I’ve documented the fun travel adventures I’ve experienced as part of my move to Asia. But here, I am sharing the lessons I uncovered while living in Southeast Asia thus far.
1. Moving is hard.
Nothing is new here. I was fully aware of the difficulties in moving and I’ve mentioned this before I physically moved. But the challenges I encountered while moving is nothing like I anticipated. I’m not new to moving, in fact, many will consider me an expert in travel due to my constant jetsetting (mostly fun, but not without stress). Still, moving introduces a new set of existential questions, emotions, and experiences that are rewarding to have gone through in hindsight, but painful to endure.
2. It forces you constantly shift your perspective.
When you’re new to travel, it’s exhilarating. There are so many adventures to be had, so many varied sights to discover, so many new people to meet. It’s mostly a blissful experience as you’re traveling. You’re stimulated by new scenes, new landscapes, and new people to meet, all the time. Yet if you do it constantly, a feeling of unsettledness begins to ensue. It’s uncomfortable at first, then you get used to it. And you realize that getting used to it doesn’t make it easier. While it introduces you to entertain new ways of thinking and helps you discover new ideas, which keeps you sharp, you also get used to movement as a survival mechanism.
You learn to adapt with your environment in order to survive— at the most basic, you learn the language and the local culture. When that is not enough (ie. you want to move up the career ladder or build new business relationships), you adapt the practices that are accepted locally— and sometimes it runs against the grain of what you believe in.
For example, in Asia, there’s a submissiveness to authority that is rarely seen in the States. And the way that people move up is to submit to anything their superior does or say, hoping that that is their ticket to career success. And those who always follow and don’t challenge people above them are the ones that get promoted.
When you’re in a new place, you constantly have to negotiate your identity explicitly and implicitly. You’re constantly have to remind yourself of your values, even when nobody else in the room believes it but you. Even when you are challenged by the lack of diversity in thought in your environment, you have to be that diverse voice even if it’s not always seen as favorable. Basically, you have to stick with your guns and believe in yourself. You develop resilience and courage along the way.
3. You get antsy when you’re still.
The constant movement excites you, and helps with dream big. When a plane takes off, it reintroduces you to the horizon and the sky, which helps with dreaming up new things. You get used to bouncing off ideas and plans not just professionally (innovation!) but personally as well (ie. planning parties with friends). You never know where you’re going to be next time, or whose party you will miss and whose wedding you will be able to attend, because you’re not in one place for long stretches of time. Since it’s something you must do, it becomes something you expect. You begin to think that the only way to progress is to keep physically moving, flying from one place to the other. It becomes harder to stay put in one place.
4. Friendships are put on hold, even temporarily.
We tend to create groups of friends in places where we spend a lot of time. So when we live in two places at the same time, we create two groups of friends (and multiple sub-groups of these friends), one at home, and another in the place where you spend a lot of time. When I’m in LA, I hang out and catch up with people from LA. When I’m in Manila, I hang out and catch up with people from Manila. Of course, I keep in touch with both groups even when I’m in the other location, but I realize it’s hard to jive remotely with local culture. When I’m in LA, I’m completely Angeleno, and it’s hard to ride with jokes and stories of people from Manila, when I’m not there. When I’m in Manila, it’s hard to be on top of LA trends and culture.
This is something I’m trying to improve: to represent who I am fully no matter where I am, and uphold the activities and thinking that define myself, and not be susceptible to changes in the environment too much. This reminds me of the existential question I’ve asked myself so many times: how do I adapt to the environment I’m in (to connect with locals) while fully being who I am (which may introduces differences)?
5. You become a more dynamic person.
In spite of the difficulties of traveling across places, the ultimate reward is you become a more aware and global. You may experience the stress of cultural acculturation, and there are times when you think you’re losing a part of yourself for the sake of fitting in, in order to survive. But really, you’re growing into a new kind of person– one that is culturally sensitive, curious and sharp– even if it’s hard to realize it while waiting in airports or being in transit.
Even if it feels like losing yourself, you don’t lose yourself, you are still who you define yourself as. Your definition of yourself is something that no one can take away from you. You have to list down your values and remind yourself what those are. I believe that one’s definition of identity does not shrink. It expands as you gain new experiences and become immersed in new environments. It is strengthened when you meet challenging situations along the way. It is up to you to reinforce them, any way you can.
People always ask me, after having lived exactly the same amount of time in the US and Asia, if I’m more American or Asian. And I always answer: I’m not half of one or the other, in fact, I’m whole of both.