People sometimes tell me that I should follow in the footsteps of author Tim Ferriss, given my penchant for travel and remote work. I have a couple of qualms with this:
In my opinion, Tim Ferriss often comes off as a douche – in both speaking engagements and in writing. I’m sure he has good intentions to help people – but his delivery of advice is a mix of humblebragging (look at all this cool shit I’m doing) and light condescension of people living “normal lives” (what you can’t pull this off?). I was looking for a clip of him speaking that exemplifies this, but I think this will do:
I know I can be pretentious at times, too – but at least I try to catch myself and would hope I never get to Tim Ferriss’ level of aggrandizement.
Tim Ferriss advocates for a world where no one actively works on building or maintaining anything. He would have you create something once and passively sell it forever, thinking as little as possible about improving it or creating new products. All while outsourcing your tedious tasks to some poor folks in India.
This bothers me mostly because I am a product manager – and no half-decent PM would release a v1 without some sort of long-term vision or roadmap for where the product should go. I am also a very hands-on PM, so the idea of letting someone else manage my inbox makes me nervous.
So I’ve just resettled back in San Francisco after living and working 5 months in Sydney and 7 months in Ho Chi Minh City. It has definitely been a challenge to readjust to life at “home” and I’ve struggled to accurately convey this to folks who have asked about it. Some common sentiments that are shared:
“It must be nice to be back after so long!”
“Did you miss life back here?”
“Your family/friends must be so happy to see you!”
To all these well-meaning sentiments, I’ve only been able to respond with a hesitant, “Well, yes and no…”. Here I’ll try to shed some light on what it’s like to come back to a place after extensive time abroad.
Everything is dull in comparison
Especially if you’ve been travelling to places with cultures much different than your own, there is a very real “crash” when your exposure suddenly stops. You get bored extremely easily. Nothing excites you anymore. Food tastes bland. All buildings start to look the same and blur together. Even within the most beautiful cities in North America (e.g. Vancouver, San Francisco), you can’t help but get the sense that there’s nothing interesting going on anymore.
It’s all in your head, of course, but that’s what this “reverse culture shock” feels like.
You feel like it was all a dream
As memories of your time abroad start to shift themselves into the long-term part of your brain, you start getting the sense that they could have all been manufactured. The places you went, the people you met – were they real? Did you really live like that for so long?
Looking at pictures helps, but only so much. Those fond memories seem like a world away – and in a way, they were.
You want to leave, but then you don’t
It’s common for frequent travelers to report a “travel bug” they get if they stay at home too long. It’s this wanderlust that drives some to continue travelling for years on end. (Everything being dull on their return certainly contributes to this.)
What is not so commonly reported is that extensive travel has some real downsides – and if you’ve felt them before you’ll stop and think twice before committing to another round so quickly. You’ll remember that the lifestyle includes isolation (a.k.a. “crippling loneliness”), a lack of routine that the body craves (including exercise), and a longing for familiarity that serves as the cruel antithesis of the boredom you’ll feel when you return.
This conflict of feelings may be enough to put you into analysis paralysis – when you realize you can’t be happy at home and you can’t be happy abroad either.
No one fully understands your story
When you try to tell your friends and family about all this, they are most likely going to respond with blank stares or platitudes on how great it must be to travel all the time. And you really can’t blame them – most people think of travel as infinite upside and are unaware of the downsides.
It’s rare to find someone who can truly relate to the entirety of your experience. You’re more likely to be perceived as spoiled or entitled, as this sketch clearly shows:
And it’s a completely fair perception. The lesson here is that it’s important to not take your experiences for granted and do more internal reflection rather than expecting others to understand everything that’s going on.
You’re more alone than when you started
Extended time away from the people you love means that you will start drifting – there is no avoiding it. Despite your best efforts to arrange visits or draw them into your world, the fact is that most people will assume you are “gone” the minute you declare your outbound flight. (They may not even be aware when you return!) You will most likely be left off invite lists to birthdays, housewarmings, etc. as the operating assumption is that you will not be able to make it – and that’s totally fair. But it also results in fewer and fewer opportunities to stay caught up between friends, which ultimately makes it harder to reconnect when you return.
Do you even know what is new in these people’s lives? Not everything is posted on social media. When you meet up again, how much of their story can they catch you up on without omitting the colorful details that make the memories stick? Be aware that your relationships will be reset – most of them shallower as a result.
This is unfortunate, but there are exceptions to be found – notably with those you hold the deepest relationships with. Old, lifelong friends are those that you can meet up with and continue as if you were never away. Hope that you have some of those waiting for you.
I believe it’s important to share these experiences, despite them being incongruent with the typical glamorous thought pieces about travel. My hope is that highlighting these challenges will help me overcome them myself, as well as encourage others (like Charlie Guo) to share their own. Feel free to share your thoughts here as well.
Vietnam is an amazing country. I never really knew this as an American/Canadian until I spent a good amount of time here. When you’re raised in the western world, you generally don’t hear much about Vietnam unless it’s regarding the war – and that story is a little biased, to be honest. 🙂
Now that I’m wrapping up a ~7-month stint here, it’s time for some reflections. I’ll do it by describing the people of Vietnam, as they represent the values and character of the country well. They also form the vast majority of my fond memories here. These may seem like generalizations (and they are), but obviously the people are incredibly diverse as well – personalities, style, and quirks vary just as much as they do in any other country. I’m just using these as a proxy for takeaways about my experience as a whole.
So without further ado, I’m reporting that the Vietnamese are…
From what I could tell, the number of people in Vietnam with their own individual businesses was quite high. Whether it was a tech startup, a restaurant operated out of their own home, or a simple street cart full of fruit, the Vietnamese seemed to have that spirit of doing whatever it took to build their own financial independence. And of course, they love selling to expats…
It is one of the best kept secrets of Southeast Asia – Vietnam has some of the most diverse, creative, and flavorful cuisines around. And with the fierce competition that comes with a country of 90+ million people, locals and expats alike are spoiled for choice. But you don’t have to ask me or check out my Foursquare list of favorites in Saigon. You can also watch Anthony Bourdain describe it.
From cooking chickens in soda cans to fitting a mattress on a motorbike, you can count on the Vietnamese to come up with creative solutions to life’s problems. And to have a bit of fun as well 🙂
It’s kind of stunning when you realize it, but there is an absolutely huge number of young people here – probably more than any other country I’ve been to. Almost 70% of the population is working age, and the government likes to point out that it’s the backbone of their robust economy. In addition to making malls and nightclubs extremely lively (read: crowded), it also means you see lots of beer everywhere. 🙂
Vietnam is a fiercely independent country. They have fought to win their country back time after time – from the Chinese, French, Americans… Their spirit is really quite remarkable, and it carries into how they live their lives day-to-day as well. The culture of motorbikes and entrepreneurship are quite possibly a natural effect of this as well.
Suffice it to say that I’ve had an amazing time in Vietnam. I’ve met people I’ll never forget, I’ve had food that I will miss for the rest of my life, and I’ve experienced so many new things that I could just die now and feel satisfied knowing I’ve really lived, if you know what I mean.
Unfortunately, I’ve run out of time here and it is time for me to head back to (relatively boring :P) North America. I don’t know when I’ll be back in Vietnam, but I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t thought of it as a destination before. It’s been a wild ride, and I’m eternally thankful to everyone who played a part in it.