3 Ways I Grew from Moving to Asia
Driving in gridlocked, bumper-to-bumper traffic for 2.5 hours per day as someone in their early twenties feels like you’re living life as a leaky faucet — your youth just slowly yet ceaselessly dripping away. Especially when where you drove to everyday for work was a land of franchises and strip malls, devoid of the colorful culture, bustling campus community, and vivid vibrancy of the metropolis that is West Los Angeles that you were immersed in as a college student.
My first job didn’t even feel like it was a step backward in life. My daily life was an even more stripped down, sterilized version of the multi-ethnic and personality-filled hometown I grew up in.
I didn’t want to spend my twenties living that way for more than two years. It’s what we lack that compels us to want and to take action. And so after working my first job for 15 months, I decided to resign and pursue an opportunity I felt would only be responsible and appropriate in my twenties — moving to Asia.
It has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life, especially as an Asian American who is ethnically Chinese and has Vietnamese roots. Being able to return to your motherland and live there for years provides a depth of insight into your identity that you is inaccessible without immersion. It’s more than just sitting with the experience. It’s letting it settle into your marrow and make you feel whole in a sense.
As I complete my 29th lap around the sun and grow closer to 30 years old, these are the ways I grew from moving to Asia that I would advise my younger self was worth the journey.
1. You will learn to trust and believe in yourself. It’s the only way you’ll make it.
Although many of my family and friends were excited for me to embark on this adventure, there were a few relatives who swore the experience would be a mistake and anything I endeavored would be marred with failure. And while I had my concerns, successfully navigating unfamiliar environments, learning to ask for help from strangers while struggling to communicate with them, and finding ways to get what you need reveals an inner resourcefulness you always had within you. You just needed a purpose to call it out. And after you see this power you possess, it’s hard to unsee it or yourself and the world around you the same way again.
Beyond being forced to be more resourceful, choosing to follow a path that’s not required of you also forces a certain ownership and responsibility for how you feel, what you do, and also what you don’t do. Whether it’s my job, my apartment not having any hot water in the middle of winter, or not knowing how to go buy groceries and being reluctant to cook because you’re paralyzed by unfamiliarity and the unknown, you have nobody to blame for the problems, setbacks, and issues except yourself. After all, you brought it all upon yourself.
This is what’s helped me build character, to mature and take responsibility for the way my life is, and what has compelled me to take action to change it if I don’t like it.
2. Learning to speak your immigrant parents’ native language adds new dimension to your relationship.
Being the foreigner who couldn’t speak the dominant language (Mandarin in China and Vietnamese in Vietnam) helped me understand what it was like to be my parents. Having always been sheltered by their provision and community, I understood what it was like to not belong and be an outsider. To feel like I didn’t fit in and lost on a constant basis.
But as I eventually learned the language and gradually gained the ability to piece together a conversation with my mom, I experienced a new dimension of our relationship that only exists through speaking her native languages. Seeing and hearing her giggle, laugh, and encourage me as I spoke in broken Mandarin and Vietnamese was an affirming experience. With my limited language ability, I certainly sounded like I had the intelligence of an infant, and she was as affectionate towards me as if I was a baby too.
Having grown up choosing not to speak my parents’ languages because it was an inconvenience I didn’t want to struggle through left me disconnected and isolated from my culture, a culture I didn’t know I valued or cared about. Now when I try to speak, it’s a hobby, activity, and pursuit I share with my mom that I cherish. I tell my mom, “until I can speak your languages, I cannot call myself your son.” And whenever I do, I honor her whole identity as a person.
3. You realize the bubble you lived in isn’t everything.
America is not the center of the world. It sounds obvious to everyone except maybe Americans. Perhaps it does as a global superpower who has widespread political and economic influence.
But in China, the family living in the next building over just cares about their only child’s education and the lady who owns the cart selling barbecued yams really just wants you to buy her yams (and yes, you can pay her via WeChat). And in Vietnam, people are just as interested in Korean and Japanese culture as they are American, probably more so.
Whenever I traveled back to the US, it was weird to listen to conversations that sounded so unaware of this entire other hemisphere that existed. Massive populations that didn’t speak English and talk about daily American life. As one of my American friends and colleagues explained it, “You can’t tune out the English,” and the English is what makes you aware that people care about things that you have no concern for. You can live beyond the bubble, and as a result, you realize what you give your attention to is optional.
For anyone who is considering moving to Asia, even if for just a year, I recommend it. Not necessarily for the destination, but who you end up as as a result of the journey.