What Do I Do?

May 29, 2013

“So, what do you do?”

It’s a cross-cultural question.

If I were still in South Korea, I’d attribute it to wanting to know the proper language to continue the conversation, however impersonal it may be from my perspective. If I’m on the road in some random country, it could just as easily be construed as a friendly opener, or perhaps genuine curiosity as to how my life allows me access to all these foreign lands.

But when I’m in the US, especially surrounded by old friends, family, or people who haven’t been living like vagabonds (or even left the country), the question takes on a life of its own:

What do you do?
Are you a failure?
Do you have something to teach me?
Is your answer mature enough to make me want to continue this conversation?
Should I take pity on you?
If your answer sounds better than mine, I’ll just lie about what I do.
If I don’t believe you, I’ll just keep up the interrogation.
How can you do that? I don’t understand it, so I’ll undermine it.
Are you even worthy to be here, talking to normal people?

I know, as Americans, we tend to get personal very quickly in conversations with strangers, going into detail about our jobs, politics, and beliefs (income as well, if you’re douchey enough). I fear this question, as I expect to encounter unbelievers. People who question my worth as a man, as someone who should be doing what they’re doing, putting down roots, dating a pretty girl, paying for a mortgage, working the 9-5. Again, black and white, but rarely do I encounter like-minded souls in family gatherings or amongst old forgotten friends… probably why they should have stayed forgotten.

However, after living the kind of life I’ve lived abroad, having seen things and experienced worlds I doubt I ever knew existed in high school, I know what my answer will be. Simple and elegant, but requiring an understanding from the listener that may just not be there.

What do you do?
I travel.

What do you mean?
I travel.

So… you work with a company that allows you to travel? How do you do that?
No. I do whatever it takes to see more of the world. Sometimes I work. Sometimes I volunteer. Sometimes I just pick a direction and start walking. Sometimes I look for an excuse: a friend to visit; a deal on a airline.

Wow, that’s awesome. I wish I could do that.
You can, if you really want to.

No, I can’t. I (insert lame excuse here).

At this point, the conversation evolves into more preaching than convincing, in that asking parties might be receptive, but it’s strictly a one-way conversation.

Apparently, to most average Americans, I come across as unorthodox. I can accept this. But I have a hard time coping with the disparity of reactions to my “profession”: green eyes wanting to know the secret, and condescending ones wondering when I’ll grow up. I wrote about the immaturity of the long-term traveler back when I was still coming to grips with travel as a viable lifestyle. In my mid-20s – can’t believe I have to reference this like it’s the distant past – I was all for educating naysayers whom I considered too ignorant to appreciate what I was doing. Later on, I started to believe they had been right all along; I didn’t renounce travel entirely, far from it, but I looked for ways to establish myself in the US, i.e. a stable job, a girlfriend, an apartment.

Now it feels like I’ve come full circle, in learning to accept I can still go out and do the things I do in my 30s and beyond. There will always be societal pressure to conform, it just happens to be more present in one’s 30s than 20s in the US, because, hey, who shouldn’t globetrot in their 20s? I’d imagine the reverse would be true in your 40s and 50s, when it’s obvious to everyone you’ve obviously got a handle on your life, you’ve been traveling for over two decades, and no amount of light scolding is going to change you.

Do I want those things most people tell me to go out and find? Yes. I want to get married, but I doubt I’ll ever find someone. Short of the universe developing a way to seek out one’s soulmate across great distances, it’s not going to happen. I should just accept being alone and move on, but I haven’t quite shredded away all hope. I don’t really want a stable full-time job, but it would be nice to find a way to create, to contribute to society. I’m working on a book, but I need more than just words on a page. I need to see the fruits of my labor affect people’s lives and change the world. It’s never too late for that, fortunately.

Neither of these are incongruous with a travel lifestyle. I can meet someone on the road and find work abroad just as easily (easier, in fact) than I could in my own country. But those people back at home do have one thing working for them at all times: they stick around. However busy you may be at a job you don’t necessarily like that allows you to pay for watered-down overpriced drinks at a bar for the opportunity to talk to people with whom you have nothing in common, you can rest assured that the majority of people around you will be there tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. And for years to come. However hollow you may feel from an unfulfilled life, you are in the company of the familiar, and it gives you different kinds of opportunities. The chance to see the same girl over and over again until you finally get the nerve to ask her out. Maybe she says no, but there are other people. Familiar people. Ones you’ll see time and time again until you get it right. Work colleagues who are only too happy to vent their shared frustrations. Family you want to avoid at all costs.

This could well be read as travel satire, but I assure you, I am deadly serious. All these things – friends, relationships, work – can exist abroad, but without the consistency. You may meet a wonderful, intelligent, attractive individual at the train station, only to discover she’s headed in the opposite direction. You can stick around Asia teaching with friends for a year, or two, or three, but they will probably have left after one or done a runner. Your mentality as a traveler drives you to seek out more distant lands, preventing you from putting time into one company when there are others eager for newbies with visas. And while you might cry out for things to remain stable for at least a little while so you can catch your breath, you know this is the life you chose when you stepped on that plane.

These are the values I weigh every time I’m asked: “What do you do?” I’m not a failure. For now, I’m just making different choices than the ones you consider your only options.

One Response to What Do I Do?

  1. David C. on May 30, 2013 at 6:34 am

    This has nothing to do with your current post, but comments are closed on your post of 1/12/12, “Always Take Pictures Abroad.” I was approached via a message on Flickr by the same editor from Penguin. She wanted to use a picture I took of an Indiana restaurant called Eat Here and Get Gas (a filling station is attached to the restaurant). I turned down her offer of free books and we agreed on a licensing fee of 50 pounds. Unfortunately, I never got paid. As far as I can tell, the book World’s Best Restaurant & Bar Names was not published. A Google search on the title brought me to your blog and a forum post from one other guy who also received a request to use a picture.

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