Note: This was written in the early spring of 2015, so it’s gradually falling out of date, but it gets at what I wanted people to know about my travels before they began.
Spring 2015 is my final semester as I work toward a master’s degree in East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University, focusing on Korea. In the summer of 2015, I will leave the apartment I’ve had for five years, the Google job I’ve had for seven years, and the city I’ve lived in for 22 years to spend seven months traveling in Southeast Asia and then move to Korea. It’s a complex, multistage plan that leads to a lot of questions. Here are some answers. (Check out the detailed plan as well.)
What do you plan to do with your degree?
I plan to move to Korea. Eventually. First I’m going to spend seven months backpacking through Southeast Asia. Or maybe ten months.
I’ve lived there, worked for the Korean government in New York, and one thing led to another.
Back in 2001, I had a girlfriend, American, who wanted to live in a foreign country. I wanted to go back to India and Nepal, where I’d traveled in 1997-98. We found out we could get jobs as English teachers in Korea for good pay and no more qualifications than our bachelor’s degrees, so off we went. I knew nothing about the place.
That year was tough at times, fascinating at others. I didn’t fall in love with Korea then. But in 2004, I got a job as a speechwriter for the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations in New York, and while I was there, I read a ton of East Asian history and started learning the Korean language. When I left, I decided to keep going with it. I met conversation partners, started going to the New York City Korean Language Meetup, dated some Koreans here and there, took up Korean dance. Korean culture was, for whatever reason, the thing I kept showing up for. I decided to go back to school for it, and a couple of years into that, I decided to move there.
There’s a longer version of this story, but that will do for now.
Why Southeast Asia?
I’ve never been. It looks beautiful and enticing, it has a solid tourist infrastructure but isn’t that expensive, and I know people all over the region. I like the food, I will be thrilled to skip winter for a year, and it nicely combines my experience and knowledge of South Asia and East Asia. If I meet some great people along the way who convince me to come with them to Dushanbe or Madagascar or whatever, I’ll go there instead.
(Some people go straight into nudge-nudge-wink-wink territory at the mention of Thailand or Southeast Asia. Stop it. Don’t reduce all of Southeast Asia to the hooker scene from Full Metal Jacket, and stop prying into the prurient details of my sex life as you happen to imagine them.)
Are you moving to Korea forever?
No. Forever is a long time, and I will be dead long before then. But if I told you I was moving to San Francisco or Portland, you wouldn’t ask me this question. I’m moving without any plan for where I’ll move after that. Maybe I’ll spend the rest of my life in Korea, maybe not.
To put it in context, I’ve been in New York City for most of the time since I first moved there for college in 1993. I spent some summers back home in California, backpacked for four months through India and Nepal in 1997-98, and spent almost two years out of NYC from September 2001 to June 2003, during which I taught English for a year in Korea and spent another six months backpacking in South Asia, with some California time on either end. Since 2003, I haven’t ever been out of the city for more than a month at a time.
So that’s more than twenty-one years that New York City has been home, or at least the home I planned to go back to. That’s nearly all of my adult life. And now I’m planning to move on. What will happen in another five or ten or twenty years? I don’t know.
I do have a fallback plan should I decide that Korea’s not working out. I bought a house in Phoenix, Arizona, for my parents to retire in, and I can always move back there while I get on my feet and figure out the next thing. There are jobs in Phoenix, and housing, and the cost of living is very low.
What do you plan to do in Korea?
When I first arrive — at this point I’m thinking that will be in the summer of 2016 — I plan to go to language school for a while. Eventually I’ll need to get a job. I have some ideas. At Google, aside from my main role as a tech writer, I also teach professional development courses, and I’ve looked at some possible ways to do that in Korea. I can write and edit, so jobs related to that are an obvious possibility. I’d love to find a way that I can be self-employed and work on my own schedule. I’d also love to get back into political or diplomatic work. And if I need to, to get a visa and make ends meet, I can always teach English.
But all that will be happening sometime in 2016 or even 2017. There’s a long time between here and there, and I don’t know exactly what will happen.
Why don’t you try to work for Google in Korea? Don’t they have an office there?
They do, and I’ve tried to get posted to it, believe me. There’s not a role for an English-language writer with limited Korean skills.
But beyond that, by the time I left Google, I’d been there for over seven years, and I’d put in a combined total of ten years — a quarter of my life — as a tech writer for DoubleClick digital advertising products. It’s enough. I’m ready to try something new. I want to take a year off to travel, and another six months to a year to learn Korean. That’s not something I could do while working full-time at Google.
But isn’t Google the best company to work for? Why would you leave Google?
If you are going to work for a giant corporation doing stuff that you’re not passionate about, Google is a better place to do it than most. The pay is very good, the benefits are outstanding, the perks are ridiculous. They gave me free phones and other toys, they sent me on ski trips and reward trips to Costa Rica and business travel to India and California and Seattle. They let me teach classes part of the time. They let me skip out of the office and go take classes at Columbia. We had parties and events and scooters and free meals.
But it was a job, with office politics and meetings and spreadsheets and quarterly reviews. There were people I liked and people I didn’t. I spent most of my days at the office, working on help content in the field of digital advertising, which is not where my real interest lies. (No one has ever caught me reading Ad Age for fun.)
Back in 2008, when I rejoined DoubleClick (I’d been there from 1998 to 2001), I did it because I needed the money. I worked then as a speechwriter for the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, a job I loved. I cried when I left it. But I was going through a divorce, and I needed a better salary. At DoubleClick, I could go to work for my old managers, who knew me, and I knew how to do the job, and that was comforting when so much else in my life was coming apart. Also, I knew the Google acquisition was coming. I figured that I could work on display advertising for a while, then find something more interesting to do in some other part of Google. But that second part never quite worked out. I applied for transfers, and I got to work part-time on some cool projects, but on the day I left, my day job was still pretty much the same thing it was seven years earlier.
I understand that when I move to Korea, I could well end up doing similar work for less pay and lousier benefits somewhere else where the culture’s not as nice. Sure, but I’ll be doing it in Korea. It’ll be different. And I might also end up doing something really cool and different and exciting in Korea. I don’t know yet. I won’t ever find out if I don’t try.