The other night, I was discussing the allure of Hong Kong with a friend over dinner. “The longer I stay, the better I like it,” he said. “I will say, however, that in D.C., my life was more stable. Here, I have ‘nine’ days, but I also have ‘three’ days. There, it was a pretty constant ‘six.'”
I stabbed my fork into a meatball and then shoveled it into my mouth. “Yeah, I’m a ‘one’ and ‘ten’ sort of girl.”
There are some things that would never appeal to me. For example, as a renowned adrenaline ascetic, the idea of jumping out of a plane or off of a cliff seems about as palatable to me as eating a bowl of thumbtacks.¹ I almost had a panic attack leading up to paragliding for a friend’s birthday in Medellín. And yet, there is something about an activity being in the realm of human possibilities that makes it irresistible to me. I am paralyzed by the thought that I could, but don’t, learn all of the languages of the world. The idea that I will die without having stood on every inch of this earth upsets me. Why don’t I learn martial arts, or ballet, or to run a marathon, when I know that my body could be trained with practice?
The same holds true for the intangibles. If my brain is wired to have the capacity to feel pride and love and ecstasy, I want to feel it. The trite axiom follows that intense positive feelings come with the caveats of pain and grief and betrayal and misery. I’m inclined to reject the notion that one can experience the spectrum of what it means to be human–and therefore legitimize one’s views and outlook on anything–without enduring failure and loss. Is this tantamount to fetishizing suffering? Maybe.
One lesson I’ve learned from living abroad is that the rules I had set for myself at home were completely arbitrary. Rules about how much money I was supposed to have made before a certain age or what car I was supposed to drive or how long a commitment I was supposed to make to a partner or especially where I was supposed to live seem like relics from another era.
I hear two common refrains from people offering commentary² on my life: first, that my lifestyle is frivolous and unsustainable; and second, that people “wish” they could do (or would have done) it.
To the latter, the answer is obvious: you need to disabuse yourself of the underlying assumptions made in the former. Living in Asia isn’t some adventurous detour I’m taking before I “get serious” and “settle down” and embrace “real life.” This is my real life.
And in my real life, paramount on my list of priorities is experiencing as much as possible. In a lot of ways, this is an exercise in excess. I was born–accidentally, and by no virtue of my own–into a white, upper-middle-class family in America in the turn of the century. That I have the opportunity to wax philosophical on travel and worldliness is a function of my privilege. And yet, I think that with this privilege comes a responsibility to exploit it, to use it to try to soak up and understand all the world has to offer, with a tacit acknowledgement that I am viewing and processing it from a certain perspective.
What I am trying to say is that the majority of the world does not have access to “Life’s Secret Dining Menu.” The list of options available to us if only we are curious. The choices that few of us realize are easily accessible. Most of us know it is there but refuse to consider it. We imagine we are bound by some external social force. But what if you knew that you weren’t?
If you are lucky enough to be a student of the earth, why wouldn’t you study her? We will only have ourselves to answer to, on our days of reckoning, for the excuses we’ve made.
- Yes, even strapped to some sort of safety mechanism or possibly a long-haired, vegan, failed Film Studies major taking a year’s sabbatical to “find himself” through manual labor on a farm in New Zealand
- Mostly unsolicited.