Travel Blog #16: Trial and Error

My dream of spending a year living in Asia so far hasn’t gone quite as planned. But that doesn’t mean it’s been a complete mess or waste of time. These are some of the biggest trials I’ve gone through in a while, and I’ve learned a lot from them.

Trial #1: The Job

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This digital plaza shopping spree made me realize I need a job ASAP

Since I came here knowing I wanted to teach English I did what any logical person would do – found a teaching job at a school. After a few weeks of travel and another week of depressed burnout I decided to actually be productive. (That is, after staying out until 2 a.m. eating and drinking with a then-stranger, now best friend.) In a strong burst of motivation, I applied for about 30 jobs in one sitting. That sitting lasted me from about 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. the next day.

I slept for a few hours (I think) and woke up to the nonstop buzzing of my cellphone. Now, the smart thing to do in this situation would have been to respond to the offers, go to interviews, weigh the options, ask around to get a sense of things… You’ve probably already guessed that I did none of that. Within three days I signed a contract to a school that was seemingly a perfect match. This was Ellis-Koifman-meets-first-real-job syndrome.

Trial #2: The Classroom

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Having settled into a rather luxurious place with two super friendly roommates and an adorable shiba inu I was pretty happy…. with the apartment. With the job, not so much.

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely enjoyed the teaching; it was a really rewarding experience where I got to feel like I was making a real difference in kids’ lives. But therein also lied a problem: kids…. as in… more than one kid… as in spend half (read: 80%) of the class managing behaviour. In and of itself, this wasn’t a game-breaker, but the particular school I was at had a borderline “zero consequences” policy. Kid hits another kid? No real consequences. Kid repeatedly violent in class? No worries. Kid hits teacher? Not allowed to send them out of class. You get the idea.

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None of these rules has enforceable consequences.

This was already exhausting on its own, but then you add into the mix that the school demanded quite a hefty amount of paperwork. I can type pretty quickly (around professional speed), but even then I was struggling to finish everything. Between the paperwork exhaustion and the behaviour management problems I quickly found myself counting the days until each weekend and treasuring each of the (extremely limited) days off. Then I’d get sick once in a while and feel even more exhaustion as I struggled to keep up with everything.

On December 1st, 2017, I departed from my first teaching gig of 40 hours per week and retired to the comfy day-to-day of quickly dwindling funds and figuring out what the hell to do with my life as an expat in Taiwan.

Trial #3: The Apartment

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Living room and New Year’s feast (no, I don’t eat like this everyday).

I’ll be honest, up until recently (and even now to a lesser extent) I did a piss poor job of managing my personal finances and budgeting for the long term. As part of this youth-related stupidity, I signed a one-year contract for an expensive apartment, including a rather large deposit, about a week after getting the new job.

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The kitchen and its master.

Without a job, it became (admittedly slowly) apparent that it was a terrible budgeting decision. At the start of April, I’ll be moving across the city to a cheaper neighbourhood and an apartment that costs less than half of my current one. For now, it’s just a matter of hard lessons about budgeting hitting me like bricks.

Trial #4: The Future

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My online teaching backdrop.

After about a month of nothing I started doing one-on-one tutoring with an online company (which is why I was able to stay in Taiwan at all instead of just going home). This was a really nice change of pace from teaching in the classroom. It has given me a lot of autonomy and lets me cater each lesson to the individual student. Teaching online also gives time to develop my own teaching style and “classroom” decorations.

It’s taken me a long time to realize it, but this whole slow transition has been an opportunity for me to figure out where my strengths lie and what I value in life.

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Ditch Your Picky Eating Habits

I had a picky eater friend in university who stands out from all the rest. Whereas most picky eaters would perhaps have a list of ten or twenty acceptable foods, he had maybe five. These were limited to: steak/beef, chicken fingers, pasta, tomato sauce, and pizza. (Okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by much). As a foodie this habit drove me insane and naturally led to many discussions about the merits of trying new food.

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The most adventurous dish my friend tried in university.

If you’re a picky eater, I strongly urge you to ditch your habits. First and foremost, it helps fill my ego when someone ends up loving a food I recommended to them. But as much as filling my ego is awesome, it also gives you the ability to open your mind.

Now, you’re probably wondering, how the hell eating some sushi might open your mind. I’m not talking about an unprecedented blast of flavour changing your world. I’m also not talking about telling a potential employer how worldly you are because you went to a poke place once. Eating new foods helps you open your mind by exposing you to new cultures and unique values. 

For example, let’s say you’re like my friend and only eat typical broke university student foods for 98% of your meals. After 300 invites to go to Korean BBQ you finally break and accept, promising yourself and others that you’ll eat more than just the beef.

You arrive a tad late after battling food anxiety (I’m told this is a thing) and discover your friends have already ordered. For those of you familiar with Korean BBQ, this means they’ve brought the unlimited sides (kimchi, sweet potato, salads, cold soup, lettuce, onions, sauces, lotus root, glass noodles, and more).

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Just look at all those sides!

Kimchi is thrust upon you and you take your first bite. Then another side and another. Eventually, you find one that you love or at the very least tolerate. As the meal goes on your friends tell you about the different types of foods in painstaking detail as that’s the only way you’re willing to try them. By the end of the meal you’ve learned a bunch about typical Korean foods that everyone loves and your culinary palate is slightly larger.

As you begin to explore more cuisines your curiosity grows and you question why Asian food has so much rice (history lesson about Asia), why vegans are obsessed with eating local (farm to fork movement), why Indian food is so spicy (valued cooling effects of hot food), and more. Even if you don’t turn into a full blown foodie like what happened to me, you’ll more than likely end up learning a lot of new things. As an added bonus, you’re likely to get invited to more hangouts and making friends with people from other cultures will become easier. And perhaps greatest of all, travel will become less scary and more enticing.

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Lessons in history (Tokyo).

In case education, new friendship opportunities, and travel aren’t enough to convince you, take this word of advice from the once super-picky-eater friend of mine:

For me it was like, well, I know I’m not allergic to anything (or there’s a 0.0001% chance I am but who knows), so why shouldn’t I just go for it?

Worse that happens is I don’t like it.

As a foodie, blogger, and fellow human being, I sincerely hope you’ll think twice before your next meal of chicken fingers and push yourself to try something new. And remember, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.

Skills of 2018 – Inspired by Matt Deutsch

For the past couple weeks I have been having a lot of trouble deciding on a new year’s resolution and no, the irony is not lost on me. In one of my research sessions (YouTube binges) I stumbled across this video about a guy named Matt Deutsch who challenged himself to master a new skill every month for a year.

Feeling inspired by this concept, I decided to do something very similar. Rather than simply having a one-month time limit on challenges, I decided on a ‘by the end of each month’ challenge. This way I can incorporate skills that take a longer time to build and not feel like I’m “cheating” if I give myself a head start.

So, without further ado, here is my “new year’s resolution”/Skills of 2018 Challenge:

By the end of…

January: Learn how to whistle.
Current Skill Level: Can breathe.

February: Solve a Rubik’s Cube in under 30 seconds.
Current Skill Level: Never solved a Rubik’s Cube without a computer or removing stickers.

March: Hold a 10-minute conversation in Mandarin.
Current Skill Level: Can speak <20 words in Mandarin.

April: Complete every “very difficult” Sudoku puzzle from 7Sudoku.
Current Skill Level: No idea how Sudoku works.

May: Draw & write an acceptable 10-page manga with varying characters and detailed settings.
Current Skill Level: Can draw stick figures with smiley faces.

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June: Go on a weekend cycling trip, including at least 10 hours of cycling.
Current Skill Level: Exhaustion and sore muscles after less than an hour.

July: Get 6-pack abs.
Current Skill Level: Never go to the gym.

August: Crochet a hat, gloves, and scarf.
Current Skill Level: Had to Google “difference between crocheting and knitting” just now.

September: Fold 30 different origami designs from memory in one sitting.
Current Skill Level: Can make a boat.

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October: Homebrew a drinkable beer.
Current Skill Level: Have a general idea of how beer is made in factories.

November: Become proficient with Excel and create new VBA automations with ease.
Current Skill Level: Know very basic Excel functions. Understand the concept of macros.

December: Film, edit, and produce a 20-minute documentary.
Current Skill Level: Can take nice pictures with my phone.

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I’ll be writing occasional updates when I complete a monthly challenge or when I’ve made good progress. Watch out for new posts!

Breaking the Cycle

When I last publicly spoke of depression, it was to tell the story of how I got through my darkest days so far – days where I questioned the purpose and reason for continuing my life and the days that followed.

Now, for the benefit of those who experience depression, it is time to address what I said at the end of that article:

“These days I occasionally suffer bouts of depression, but what would have once taken weeks to overcome now takes less than a day.

I cannot stress enough how much therapy, friends and family can make all the difference.

Talking to someone is everything. It means the world.

Today, life keeps going. I keep going.”

This is all true. Most of the time. Sometimes there are events in our lives that last anywhere between a few days and a few months that can drastically change our mood: being overworked, upcoming exams, death, loss of love or friendship, etc. In those times we can find ourselves reverting to old habits of cyclical thinking as the darkness of depression takes hold once more.

Again we find ourselves at a party unable to tear our mind from our worries, forcing ourselves to play our favourite game, or just generally looking at things without truly seeing them. We space out into our own world of “what ifs” and (seemingly justified) predictions of the future that closes like a bubble around our ambitions and normal lives.

“I wish I could end the article here, but I can’t.

In third year, I pushed away friends and instead embraced a relationship destined to fail. Over its course I came to feel unwanted, lost my sense of autonomy and the river of emotions that I had walked away from the previous year came rushing back.”

What I found that worked back then and what I find to work best today – though admittedly much more difficult than it sounds – is breaking the cycle of negative thoughts and the actions/activities that help reinforce them.

Breaking the cycle doesn’t have to mean making an ideological or lifestyle change. In fact, doing so will likely increase the depression as such a task to anyone would seem large and even insurmountable. A break in a cycle need not be drastic.

When I stopped dating my ex I broke the cycle by going out exploring. And no I don’t mean taking out the old bicycle to a trail and then hiking all day. I mean going to a café I had been meaning to try for ages. Yes, there were the friends who were there for me and sympathetic family members, but what always stays in my mind as the turning point out of that period of darkness was sitting down in that café for a waffle and just enjoying it. My mind on nothing else. If you have to pull your mind out of other thoughts then do so. If it happens again then pull your mind out again, and again, as many times as is necessary. Stay focused on what is in front of you – whether that thing is a delicious waffle, something you’re crocheting, or a friend with whom you’re chatting.

Do this once and you’ll feel a change. Perhaps it will be major, perhaps it will be minor, but it will be a change nonetheless. In some small seemingly meaningless way, you’ll have broken the cycle. Maybe just a bit, but it will act as a thread that you can pull little by little to get out of the darkness.

In time and with a little luck you’ll work your way up to enough breaks in the cycle that depression no longer acts as such a large buffer to your enjoyment of life. The light will be able to shine again even in the darkest corners.

But you have to start. Today. Now. Right this second. You’re already reading this article so maybe your way of breaking the cycle is reading, maybe it’s something else.

It can be simple. It should be simple, by your standards. Simple is easy, it isn’t insurmountable. Like the start to anything it has the potential to lead to something big. And in this case that big thing is a reliable method for you to break the cycle of depression; whenever, wherever and however it may take hold.

Disclaimer: while this is what worked for me and many others I have spoken to there is always a chance it may not work for you. If the problem of depression persists or worsens you should contact professional help.

Good2Talk (students) – 1-866-925-5454

Suicide Hotline (Canada) – 1-800-784-2433

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (USA) – 1-800-273-8255

Feature image: Pexels