I graduated from college less than three weeks ago, closing the book on yet another chapter of my life. Two days later I was on a plane to Bangkok with nothing but a suitcase and a vague sense of what the next nine months would offer. Yet I am comfortable with my decision to momentarily put my life on hold, to keep at bay the demands of a conventional lifestyle for just a while longer because my life, to date, has been nothing but conventional.
Arguably, the same can be said for many of the nearly 3.5 million young Americans that graduated this spring because the plan was clear from an early age: go to school, get into college, graduate, secure a good job, work, start a family, work some more and then retire. It is, after all, the American dream.
However, while in the throes of pursuing that prefabricated dream, I found myself questioning the familiar platitudes of how one’s life should seemingly go. Did I really have to wait until I was retired before I could make decisions outside of the framework of an impending future that held only work? At that point, would those plans amount to more than a round of golf on the weekends? At 20, I momentarily felt as if my life was on rails, that I was trapped on a train whose destination was firmly fixed to the future with no stops for the next 40 years. I suddenly wanted off. My solution was to pack up my things at graduation and spend a year working and traveling in Southeast Asia. I would take a break from the conventional and dive headlong into the foreign. And so I did. I applied for a few teaching fellowships, one of which I was able to land, bought a one-way ticket to northern Thailand, and now here I am teaching introductory level English to university freshmen.
Be reassured, my desire to come to Asia was hardly capricious. It was a choice that was given great thought and heavily influenced by an atmosphere of revolution permeating the region. Asia is in the midst of great change, both political and otherwise. Bhutan is set to have its second free democratic election after its monarch, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, willingly conceded to the creation of a democratic parliament five years ago. Just to the east lies Myanmar, a country that only recently reopened its boarders to westerners and who’s the political atmosphere is seemingly reminiscent of South Africa in the 1990’s. The New York Times writes that Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and who was imprisoned for nearly two decades by the Burmese government, has expressed an interest in the presidency. “(H)er ascension … would be a kind of Mandela moment for this impoverished and formerly hermetic country that is now opening to the world.” The chance to experience such revolutionary political change, to be in its midst, to bathe in the waters of idealism incarnate, gives good reason to travel go Asia.
Yet these political developments are not to be outdone by neighboring China’s recent growth. China’s economic expansion, especially into international markets, is on the rise and it will be interesting to see whether social reform attempts to mirror this economic progress. Several protests already occurred earlier this year in response to censorship and even more recently in response to the seemingly unjust imprisonment of the brother-in-law of jailed Nobel Peace laureate Lui Xiobo. All of this speaks to the atmosphere of change that is running wild throughout much of Asia and one cannot help but feel taken by it all. Great moments of courage, moments not unlike those seen throughout the region, tend to lend themselves to great positive change. Individuals experience personal growth, entire nations find themselves on the precipice of reform and freedom replaces tyranny. There is tremendous merit in being apart of all of this and Asia lends itself to anyone eager and willing.
Quietly underlying this political change, however, is the ever-consistent fact that Asia is a traveler’s paradise. Thailand’s beaches have long been a destination for expats and Myanmar, Indonesia, and Japan all made National Geographic’s “Best Trips 2013” list.
So here I am, some 10,000 miles from my home, now more confidant than ever that I have made the right decision. Yet while settling on Asia was easy enough, the confidence to actually make it here was hard earned and it required a hell of a lot of encouragement. It was while applying for the myriad of different fellowships that I hoped would help fund my time abroad that I came across an article that was able to so clearly articulate how I felt about travelling. In it the author quotes Aristotle, writing, “We are what we repeatedly do,” He goes on to remark that “life is a result of intentional habits,” that, “youth is a time of total empowerment,” and that “while you’re young, you should travel,” since, “traveling will change you like little else can,” and nothing could be closer to the truth.
Needless to say I took his words to heart, in large part because I desperately needed to leave my own back yard and to experience something new. Until now, I did not realize how imperative it was that I did so sooner rather than later. Firmly situated on the other side of the fence, it’s clear that had I not seized the opportunity when I did, had I not unabashedly taken the plunge, then my chance to travel would have quietly passed me by. I would have been left with unanswered, “What ifs,” to which I would have undoubtedly met with a string of excuses: the time isn’t right or I don’t have enough money or by going abroad I will miss the chance at a career and be left behind, empty-handed. These ready-at-hand excuses are always going to be there and their pull is only going to get stronger.
So I encourage those of you with any interest to travel to do so now, while you’re young enough to be changed by the experience and to internalize the lessons learned. And I promise, your career or graduate school or whatever else you’re afraid to leave behind, will be waiting for you when you get back.