Why do I work?

September 3, 2014

I’ve been having a lot of latent thoughts since my return from Canada, the only bit of international travel I’ve had since the Philippines… ok, even that makes me sound a little spoiled. My worldview and my definition of happiness and success are changing all the time for the better. If you had asked me in high school what I would have wanted out of life, I would have spouted off something about being a famous actor, having lots of money, a mansion in the hills, and taking a different woman to bed every night. Eight years ago, I would have said traveling was the be all and end all for me, and anything that kept me on the road was tantamount to paradise. Just a year or two ago, and I would have returned to some of my high school ambitions. Not because money is directly tied into success, but I believe holding a job and sticking around one place provides more opportunities for friendships and relationships. And if you’re going to be rooted, why not have a little cash on hand?

7/365: Working (or pretending to)
Working (or pretending to) by Paul Gannaway

Couchsurfing with older hosts has given me a new perspective as well. Rowena, who put me up for one night in Seattle, freely admits she has no joy for her work running operations behind the scenes at the airport, but stays on for free travel anywhere and the opportunity to continue these benefits once she puts in fifteen years of service. Fifteen years… just for flights. Morgan and Eliza, in the South Bay, have all the trappings of a domestic life: two cats, Walmart furniture, an assortment of spices, stable employment. But even they are travelers at heart, and plot their next escape. It’s just more difficult when you have somewhere to which you feel obligated to return: a job, an apartment.

Getting trapped happens to everyone who once enjoyed a traveling lifestyle, and most of those who have never known such a thing. I’m coming to realize that so many of those backpackers I see out in Peru and Thailand are indeed free spirits on the road, but even they go back to their respective countries to earn a buck when time runs out. We make attempts to travel again, and we do, but very, very few people can sustain entire lives on the road, short of employment abroad or being born wealthy.

Right now, I have a semblance of a life settled. I have a job for a few more months and a network of friends. By most definitions of American success, I’m not exceptional but I’m doing ok and living independently. All well and good. However, I’ve come to realize why I put up with this kind of life. True, I enjoy having a few extra dollars with which to shop at Whole Foods and live in beautiful Sonoma County, but let’s face it: I could live in the Philippines for a quarter of the cost and enjoy stretching myself with new experiences. I’m aware of opportunities that could have me living in one of a dozen countries, and I have the means to go at the drop of a hat.

So why don’t I? Why do I work here? It’s certainly not for the money, or even the ambience of California.

It’s difficult to explain. When I’m abroad, there are more opportunities for friendships with like minded people and more are open to random conversations and connections. That is, if you’re just a white face walking down a random street in Japan, you’re probably going to talk to another white face that happens to walk by. In the states, this could happen, but it’s far less likely. By the same token, the people you meet are similar in age and on a parallel path: traveling, teaching, hiking… I’ve also come to realize most expats are nerds after hearing the fury over missing tickets to the Doctor Who tour in Seoul.

These friendships abroad are important, but they, like travels, seldom last. Of course you can stay in touch with friends practically indefinitely using social media and Google Hangouts and there are chances for future travel plans to overlap, but rarely do they become a part of your lives again. By sticking around, by trying my utmost to not cry out in pain at seeing the same scenery outside my window day in and day out, I allow people to get close, and to see me on a regular basis. Maybe the next generation will reach a point at which physically being there isn’t so important, but for me, long distance relationships, between friends and more, just won’t cut it.

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