Living a Dream

I have almost been home for a month now, after a surreal 5 months of backpacking.  When people ask me about how my trip was, I pause for 3-5 seconds out of confusion, because it is an injustice to just use a single adjective.  Eventually I’ll say, “Hrmm, wow, hard to summarize,” because it really is hard to sum up 5 months that you don’t have a mental construct of.  If I were to say my last 5 months at my job were great, or my last 5 months of college were amazing, it would be relatable because the construct of a job and of school are generally understood by the people I usually talk to, even if we had varying experiences.

It’s also difficult for me to recount my trip, because I don’t feel like I’m a particulary captivating storyteller, and because I don’t really like talking about myself for an extended period of time.  The conversation of my travels usually ends up lasting 5-10 minutes on average, and then I ask about the other person’s life and what they’ve been up to because I also haven’t seen that person in at least 5 months.  It’s not really anyone’s fault, and there’s nothing inherently bad about it.  But it’s just crazy to think that if I never talked about my trip again to a particular friend, that particular friend’s understanding of my experience is an incomplete, 5-minute summary of 5 life-changing months.

In many senses, I lived a dream.  In one sense, it was a trip that I dreamt of experiencing, and it exceeded my expectations.  In another sense, it almost feels like it didn’t happen.  In the sense that I am referring to now, it’s something I experienced and can’t hope to convey through words and pictures, in the same way that it’s impossible to communicate a dream to someone else after you’ve woken up.

I now understand what people mean when they say they have “someone to share with.”  Kat is the only person in the world that could ever understand what the trip was like, because she was with me the whole time.  It’s not to say that my friends and family don’t have the empathetic capability to understand, but they just weren’t there, and I can’t convey with enough fidelity how my experiences were.  I am very grateful that I had someone to share my trip with, not just because I would have been lonely and that she is fun and compatible company, but because I have someone to bounce my reality off of and converse from a place of shared understanding.

Home Sweet Home

My circadian rhythm and I are still processing being home after a crazy 5 months abroad.  I get ridiculously tired at 7PM and 10:30PM, and I wake up at 7AM before getting up at 9AM.  In any event, I imagined my jetlag to be a lot worse, and It is REALLY great to be back home.

Although I doubt anyone was keeping track or holding us to traveling for 6 months, we were originally supposed to visit Vietnam and Cambodia for a few weeks after spending NYE in Hong Kong with Jon.  We also seriously thought about making our way to South America for a drastically different change of scenery.  As exciting as traveling and seeing different places was, after a certain point Kat and I decided that we were more excited about being home and starting the next chapter of our lives.

I am really looking forward to spending more time with my family and making an earnest effort in bonding with my parents.  One of my deepest regrets in life would be not getting to REALLY know my parents before they go.  I made a vow to myself to speak only in Cantonese with my parents, even though my mom knows English fairly well.  I’ve always been embarassed about little Chinese I know, but it is time to bear the pain of not knowing words and time to stop using a language barrier as an excuse to not open up to my parents more.

I am also really excited to hit the ground running on a startup.  Running a business is something I’ve wanted to do for a longgggg time, and now with my old job, Quirky, and traveling out of the way, I feel ready to crack down and start sprinting.

It would be a feat for both the writer and reader to capture 5 months of reflection in a single post, so I will reflect more in other posts and just end by listing out what’s fucking great about being home:

  1. Not having to filter water before drinking or brushing my teeth
  2. Not having to carry 35lbs of stuff, and constantly un/pack
  3. Wearing jeans, not wearing gladiator sandals, and having a wardrobe
  4. Stability, personal space, privacy
  5. An endless supply of the greatest cuisine in the world – my dad’s food
  6. Being able to talk to friends and family in person
  7. Consistently fast internet
  8. Not having enforced power outages
  9. Not being yelled at to look inside a store when walking down the sidewalk
  10. Consistently hot showers
  11. Using toilets that don’t require buckets for flushing
  12. No mosquitoes, and more importantly, no relative fear of catching malaria or other scary airborne diseases
  13. Using my phone to call people again
  14. Not being paranoid about pickpocketing and not having to tether my wallet and camera to my pants
  15. Not being paranoid about having my room broken into and not having to carry everything on me just to go on a walk
  16. Being in a place where I feel I identify with
  17. Not having to figure out where to sleep
  18. Having a clear division between where people walk, and where automobiles drive
  19. Being able to work on a desk
  20. Trusting that the price I am paying is the price everyone else is paying
  21. Driving myself to get somewhere
  22. Using Google Maps
  23. 4G internet on my phone and not having to buy food to use WiFi

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely cherish all the great and not-so-great moments of traveling.  There are many things that I already miss, and others that will intensify much more in the coming weeks that will make me question my decision to come home.  The decision to backpack around Asia for 5 months with someone I love will resonate throughout my life for many years to come.  There is no way to share the sensory overload, the experiences, the lessons, the perspective I gained.

One of my favorite quotes: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

All that being said, I can’t believe it’s over, am grateful that I’m alive, sad that it’s over, and really excited to start anew.  Also, there is no place like home.

26

26 – another great year in my life to look forward to, another great year to look back on.  Never thought I’d be in India again to celebrate another birthday.  When I was a kid, I always thought that I would feel a lot older and mature in my mid-twenties than I feel now.  I guess in a sense though, these few years mark the transition from boyhood to manhood, as the societal clock ticks closer to serious financial, geographical, marital, career-minded decisions.

I am certainly not complaining about being in India, but one thing I will never find here is the security and comfort of the people I love back at home.  I am lucky to spend this day and many others with the love of my life, but sad that I can’t physically celebrate another year in my life with my friends and family.

Nonetheless, life is great.  This past year was monumental, and I am very proud of everything I was able to do and feel.  In no particular order:

I quit an amazing job at ISBX – probably one of the bigger big-boy decisions I’ve had to make thus far (in conjunction with deciding to move out of LA, moving home, and leaving America, since all those things unfolded in the span of 2 weeks).  I am very proud of what I was able to accomplish there.  There were many, many sunrises spent in the office to meet crazy deadlines, and a lot of self-doubt in my performance.  In hindsight, while I may not be the most genius of developers or agile enough as a project manager, I was able to pull off some amazing things and lead a great team of people.  I absolutely loved working with my team and looked forward to going to work to balance fucking around with getting a lot of shit done.  If not for the specific skills I gained, I gracefully walked away with the confidence in knowing that I made an impact there and that I can make an even bigger impact on society.

I left LA and all of the people that tether me to security.  While it is certainly not goodbye for the people that are closest to my heart, it’s crazy to leave 8 years of my life behind for another chapter.  I vividly remember driving away from my apartment with all of my belongings, wondering if I was making the right decision.  It is sad to think that I won’t be able to randomly drive after work to visit ACA practices, or kickback and act stupid with my best friends in my living room.

I moved back in with my family, and I started calling my parents almost everyday while I was still in LA.  In college, I used to be a bit more ungrateful for everything my parents do for me, barely calling home and not picking up when they called.  It makes me feel very ashamed to look back at those days, but at least I can say now that I am making more of an effort to show my love and appreciation.  I am really excited to move back home after traveling, specifically to spend time with my family, cook with my dad, teach my mom yoga, hang out with my sis and cousins more regularly.

I worked out 3 times a week for almost a year, without exception.  There were spurts of times in my life where I tried to work out consistently, but I didn’t really have enough of a driving motivation beyond improving my appearance.  Something switched this past year, when I decided to take myself and my promises more seriously, and the thought of breaking a workout streak was more painful than enduring a short workout.  I actually broke my streak the day I was packing up and moving out of my apartment.

I finished off my last two classes at UCLA, a GE that I incorrectly thought I had fulfilled, and Chem 30AL (organic chemistry). After my 5th year I kinda got over school and just decided to work for a while, with the intention of recharging and eventually finishing.  It is definitely not easy working fulltime and driving through traffic to campus multiple times a day, so props to people who work their way through college.

I left America – I’ve been traveling since the end of July.  Kat and I spent a month in Bali, a month in Thailand, and almost two months now in India.  There is no combination of media that could ever capture everything I’ve experienced, but some highlights:

  • Bali
    • Being bombarded and scared by all the taxi drivers at the airport
    • Staying and meditating on an ashram, meeting amazing people
    • Going scuba diving for Kat’s birthday
    • Eating bread, shrimp chips, and ramen for a few days because our ATM card wasn’t working.
  • Trekking up a fucking mountain at 3AM to see a breathtaking sunrise.
  • Thailand
    • Drinking with Tommy on the beach in Phuket and losing my glasses
    • Getting open water diving certified in Koh Tao, being fucking amazed by schools of fish and a whale shark
    • FOOD IN CHIANG MAI.  Getting a combination of all you can eat Korean BBQ and Shabu Shabu for $4 in Chiang Mai.  Fried street food.  Drinking ‘buckets’ and wishing we could be cool as the hipster Thai college students next to us.
    • Talking during a “silent” one day meditation retreat with a Buddhist monk.
    • Our frustrations with the Indian Consulate and finally getting visas for India the day before our flight.
  • India
    • Arriving in Kolkata at 3AM, driving through empty streets past homelessness and herds of goats.
    • Walking along the Ganga in Varanasi and seeing all the ceremonies, cremations, families traveling from all over to bathe in the river.  Walking through alleyways, playing local games, being offered opium and to buy my camera off me.  Volunteering at a slum school with some of the most enthusiastically inquisitive kids I’ve ever met.
    • Getting certified to teach yoga in Rishikesh.  Sitting and taking in a relaxing view of the Ganga.  Building a website for our yoga school.
    • At least for us, India has shown us the most hospitality by far.  We met the most incredibly kind people on our way from place to place.  A passenger in our taxi to the Kolkata train station paid for our fare, and led us through the crowded and confusing station to our train.  One of our friends at our guest house in Varanasi showed us around everywhere.  We met a man on our train to Rishikesh, who, at 5AM, let us ride along in his car for 40 minutes from the train station to our destination.

I started dancing again.  I always felt a little sad when people asked me if I was still dancing.  I figured I have all the time in the world to freestyle in my room for a few minutes, and that there’s no better distraction-free time to start that habit than now.

I created 100 invention ideas, submitted them to Quirky, and mailed them a book.  A week after my birthday, I found out that one of my ideas was chosen for development.  This deserves its own post (among other items in this blog) because it’s so huge for me, so I will stop here.

—–

In general, I am just really excited for life and what will be another great year.

  • A major goal is to have 500 users by Memorial Day 2014 on my web/mobile app that is yet to be brainstormed and built.  I have been gearing up for entrepreneurship for years now, and now is finally the time to make it happen.
  • In a few days, I’ll be doing a 10 day silent meditation (no music, electronics, writing, talking, exercise, contact with the opposite sex, etc.)
  • Kat and I still have a few months left of traveling left, tentatively Nepal next, Hong Kong for NYE with Jon, and maybe more of Southeast Asia (OR BRAZIL OR MOROCCO?)
  • Quirky will hopefully have my product on shelves before I turn 27, and I will finally have turned a creative thought into a tangible reality that other people can use.
  • I get to move home and get a lot closer to my family.

Life is awesome!  A little late, but thanks for all the love on my birthday and this past year.  I am grateful and humbled to look back on an accomplished year, and excited to live out another one.

Routines

I finally started on a morning/daily routine that I’ve been able to commit to for 2-3 weeks now.  I have been trying to commit on/off (mostly off) to one since 2010, but it’s a little bit easier now that I don’t have as many scheduling obligations that would require me to be somewhere at a certain time.

It consists of:

Meditating (7-15 minutes)
After learning a little bit more about meditating from people who have done it almost everyday for years, I decided to get a little more serious about incorporating it into my daily life. At least right now, I am trying to just let myself go wild. A lot of times I try to stop thinking and just observe my emotions. There have been quite a few meditations where I felt an emotion (anxiety, sadness, love, happiness, anger, etc) to the point where I was shaking, gritting my teeth, smiling, etc. It is scary but therapeutic, and I am trying to learn to just let myself feel those things.

Another thing I’ve been trying in the past few days is to try to count my breaths without forgetting my place. I feel like this will build my focus and concentration in other areas of my life as I get better it. It’s only my 3rd or 4th time, but I feel really drained afterwards and usually need like a 3 minute nap.

Stretching (15-20 minutes)
I just use the stretching routines from my ACA days. There is at least a decade of bad posture in my upper back/neck/shoulder blade area, and I am trying to stretch the shit out of it.

Freestyling (3-5 songs, for however long I’m in the zone of a particular song)
After ACA, a lot of people asked me if I still kept up with dancing. I would sadly reply “no… I’ve been [   ]”. Being busy was the go-to answer, and I remember consciously deciding not to dance as much because I had other priorities in my life.

In 8th grade, my sister’s raver-esque friend showed me the arm wave. I downloaded as many videos as I could in the pre-Youtube days (Liquid Pop Collective, anyone?) and retrospectively was really lame dancing in my room and at school dances. From there, I kept sucking and auditioned for my high school dance team during the end of my junior year. I made it onto the team during my senior year, and I experienced confidence and humiliation like nothing I’ve ever felt. Doing jazz leaps across the floor is not something I’d ever wish upon anyone, but it was in those steps I learned about humiliation and humility. From there, I latched onto my confidence in movement, and spread it to confidence in my appearance, my social skills, my personality, my status, blah blah blah. The pinnacle of my K-12 days was performing solo in front of my entire school, shaking to applause, realizing I was no longer a shy asian kid.

One of my 200-word UC application essays was an exaggerated piece about my love for dancing, and likely increased my odds of getting into UCLA. There, I found ACA, two parking lots, many stages, lifelong friends, role models, leadership, passion, competition, unconditional love, family, forgotten nights, unforgettable memories.

Looking back at the last decade of my life, my biggest catalysts (aside from my family, friends, girlfriend, and heartbreaks) have been dancing and writing. No classroom or curriculum has shown me more about myself than those two art forms. Why I decided to cut out dance from my life for the past two years remains a mystery. I don’t regret the choice, but I am sad I left it behind. During the past 2 – 3 years, I kept comparing my dwindling sharpness in dance to others. The comparisons interrupted my creativity every time I watched myself freestyle in the mirror. I was (and still am) insecure about not being as good as others who practice much more frequently than I do. Eventually, my schedule and insecurities knocked dance far from the top of my priorities, and I almost stopped altogether.

When I dance now, I try to forget about everything else and watch my reactions to melodies. I’m trying to explore and create for myself, to lose myself and let go and embrace my own style and who I am. We’ll see where it takes me and what I learn, but it feels good to reconnect with that part of myself again.

—–

Some recent routines by Shaun that I love.

Uprooting

I’ve met a good amount of people (like our dive instructor) who have completely transferred their lives from a western country to Bali or Thailand (and definitely others). While I’m sure their stories and motivations are uniquely powerful, from a financial standpoint it isn’t a huge jump.

Especially if you live in a metropolitan area where things are excessively expensive, and especially if you can afford to live in those areas, Southeast Asia is way more cheap and affordable. I am very fortunate to have a smaller number of genuine obligations that would tie me to a specific locale or occupation, and I have a lot of respect for people who do what they do to tend to those obligations.

But barring any major obligations like blood or health or money, people who have wanderlust should seriously consider traveling for a few months. I feel like fear of the unknown is a major paralyzing factor, and I am still getting over it every day, but I am sure it will be worth it a thousand times more the next time I step foot in America. The stress of preparing to travel is very real, and my last day in the US was one of the longest days I’ve ever had – I almost fainted.  But here I am, 6 weeks later, blogging from our room while Kat’s watching TV.

While I don’t agree with some parts, Four Hour Work Week goes into a lot more detail and definitely fueled some of the tank to go on this adventure. It has been surprisingly more safe, familiar, and easier than I thought it would be.

Apparently a lot of people fall in love with a place and end up starting a business there. Maybe a bit hypocritical of me to say, but with what I would like to accomplish and the regrets I would have otherwise, I don’t think I’m quite ready to drop everything and start a random shop somewhere. But it certainly is an option for many, many people, and quite possibly myself at a later stage of my life.

Schools

As of a few days ago, I am a certified Open Water Diver by PADI, and can go down to depths of 18 meters / 59 feet. It was really nice that our instructor was fluently Canadian (English with ‘eh?’ and ‘aboot’), and an ex-English teacher of 8-10 years. Also very nice that it was on a beautiful island with white sand and clear, comfy waters.

I felt like a nerd again, studying through all of the reading and assignments. It brought me back to my high school days, dominating tests but maybe not truly understanding the lessons.

On our last day, we dove with a whale shark – a “baby”, about 12-16 feet long. As we were gearing up, all of the dive instructors and boat crew screamed with excitement and rushed into the water to see it. Apparently we were incredibly lucky, because our instructors dive almost every day and only see one once or twice a year.

All of my training went out the door. In lieu of the slower “buddy check” where Kat and I would check each other’s equipment before diving in, our instructor said that he would check everyone before we went in. I took a long ass time, and my instructor was already in the water. Right as I was about to take my feet off the boat, I thought “OH SHIT, my air isn’t on”, and I asked one of the crew to turn it on for me. I almost dove into the water without my air valve opened.

The whale shark was amazing. In the midst of anxiously clearing my ears of pressure and adjusting my equipment and worrying about breathing correctly and tuning my buoyancy, my jaw dropped when I finally spotted it. Shit was massive and friendly.

I was thoroughly amazed and lucky to see a shark. To be honest though, I was waaaaYYyyy more astounded and frozen by the schools of fish. It’s probably related to my fascination with traffic and group behavior, but the way they interact with one another is so intriguing. It’s not like they have a complex controller governing where they all go swim. Each individual fish has a few simple rules they follow to dictate how far they swim from each other, who they follow, what direction they swim, how fast, etc. But the aggregate result is jaw-dropping. I literally froze in front of a whirlpool of fish that had to be 20-30 feet in diameter. Shortly after Kat nudged me to keep moving, I swam through another school of fish hanging closely to corral, darting around a few inches from my eyes and totally fine with a giant human being all up in their business.

Taking Charge

I would estimate that we spent at least 48 hours in transportation from one major Thai area to the next, on buses, boats, trains, tuk-tuks, big ass trucks, little ass trucks, motorcycle carts, and other methods of motion.

That might epitomize how I currently feel – that I am currently just going along on a ride. It’s good in the sense that it’s a great ride to be on, with a full sensory and emotional spectrum to take in. But it’s bad in the sense that I feel like I am not maximizing my time here. Thailand thus far has been intriguing, but I don’t get the feeling that I am getting the full experience and immersing myself as much as I want to. That is no one’s fault but mine.

We spent our first week in an area of Thailand called Patong Beach, in Phuket. It is a major tourist destination, and even during the low season (as it is now), it is an overload of consumerism. In the most basic sense, if you are white-skinned or not Thai-skinned, you are there to consume and street vendors bombard you with solicitation for ‘taxi’ or ‘massaaahhhh’. Bangla Street is probably the epitome of this:

– men walking around with monkeys and iguanas, almost forcing you to take a picture with them + asking for payment shortly after,
– bars and clubs littered with stripper poles
– kids that run around and put lei’s around your neck even if you resist, and then you chase them to give it back to them
– etc

It’s basically like Bruin Walk, but for sex, money, goods, drugs (one guy asked me if I wanted to buy weed).

It’s not like I haven’t been to Vegas 20+ times, but to put it briefly, it wasn’t my scene. It was very interesting to see and explore, and we had a lot of fun, but I didn’t find it rejuvenating in any sense. Kat and I actually spent a lot of time in our room just to chill out. Maybe it was the party atmosphere, but we did have one moderately crazier night with local vodka and red bull to explore the nightlife. We also got a random chance to hang out and get stupidly drunk on the beach with Tommy, one of my good friends from college and dancing days who I haven’t seen in years. The beach was BEAUTIFUL and the street food was amazing, but I didn’t get the depth and immersion that I am looking for.

Reflecting on it more though, it’s easy to blame Thailand for not being the experience I am looking for, but I am the one experiencing it and the opportunities I think will provide those feelings and senses and thoughts are certainly abound in this giant ass country. I have an idea of what I want on a grand scale for this trip, but in the minutes and days and weeks that I’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve pushed myself to REALLY experience what I am looking for (among them are altruistic, introspective, interpersonal, and cultural immersion).

I’ve been going along for a ride, which again isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I made a pivotal decision to leave a lot of comfort behind for a few months, so I need to up my game in steering my days, and being more present and intense and immersed. Even things as simple as not having my SLR out on walks leave me less engaged. If I’m working on my own stuff, then REALLY work on it. If I’m walking somewhere, then REALLY walk and enjoy. If I’m taking a 6+ month voyage, then go on that fucking voyage.

In general though, I need to make a bigger effort in seeking out the things I am looking for, and identifying things that I want to try to make happen within a day or week (and not just on a year or half-year scale).  There is a balance of course, because aimless adventuring has led to some amazing memories that would not have come about by controlling every single factor of a day.  I suppose part of this trip is about finding this balance, among many other contrasting qualities and forces in my life.