So here I am, an American expat, sitting in McDonald’s (of all places) pondering the past, relishing the present, contemplating the future. This journey is not exclusive to me alone. Many other expats have made this trip from the motherland to a foreign country. In my case, I relocated to the other side of midnight–Bangkok, Thailand.
We expats have our reasons for choosing the unknown and foreign instead of the familiar. If you are an expat, take a second and think about it. Why am I here? What route did I take to get here? Perhaps it was for a job, finances, maybe a woman, warmth, escape, — ? You know the answer. For me, simple'”it was because of my mortality or lack of immortality. Although I haven’t died yet, I suspect that I will be no exception to this rule, for no one leaves mother Earth alive (except astronauts so far).
The grim reaper approaches ever so slowly. I can’t remember that day, the exact day that I realized my mortality. Can you? Seems like this realization is slow to fruition as we live life, enjoy life, and navigate its many obstacles and hardships. But one thing for certain, sooner or later we all come to realize that the grim reaper is lurking somewhere around the corner.
For me, the realization occurred in my early fifties. I found myself more prone to sports injuries and more concerned as recoveries were slow and less certain. Suddenly, I was no longer invincible. My last grandparent had died, and my parents were retired and addressing their illnesses. At some point here, certain questions started gnawing at me. What will I do with my remaining life? How many good years do I still have? Is this as good as it gets?
No doubt, you have seen good times and bad times, sacrifices and pleasures, feasts and famines, rain and sunshine. Everything seems to run in cycles. Nothing stays status quo. We learn that the only thing constant is CHANGE. Whether we like it or not, change happens, and often it doesn’t seem to be within our control.
If you’ve lived fifty years, so much has happened to you (well, unless you have lived on Gilligan’s Island). Sometimes you were warned, other times, just broadsided. Sometimes change was slow, ever so slow; sometimes it was fast and furious, often leaving you wondering what happened. We learn that there are 3 kinds of people in this world: those who watch things happen, those who make things happen, and those who wonder what happened. And the reality of life is that at times we’ve been all 3 of these.
We can all look back and connect the dots from where we started to where we are now. It’s easy to predict the past, BUT the future'”who knows? The earliest dots start with birth, childhood, attending school to be educated. We study, we learn, we sacrifice, we look forward to better times — as we are sure they will be once we are educated and graduated'”right? Eventually, however, we realize that life and living is one continuous process of education, re-education, learning, unlearning, and relearning.
Next usually comes careers and relationships. Probably, you graduated from a school, started a career, served your time in the military, and got married (or some combination of these). Along the way came opportunities and sacrifices, income and debt, complications and obligations, growth and change. This is all normal, all part of our trip on this planet we call Earth.
When we are young, we look FORWARD, always looking ahead, not wanting to wait, impatient. We have the whole world and lots of living ahead of us. There is very little to look back to and very little need. We are just starting out and not sure where this journey will take us, but we are certainly on a voyage. We are having fun or at least trying to have fun. Sometimes, we are waiting to have fun. This is called deferred enjoyment. My generation was very good at working first and enjoying later. I learned this from my father, and I was a very good student. Sometimes, however, along this journey, I would wonder: “when does the fun really begin?”
Somewhere along the timeline, marriages, careers, children, and businesses ensue. Certainly some fun and pleasure, certainly investment of time, certainly more obligations, usually more debt. And all the time, tempus fugits. I was always busy, mentally consumed, physically exhausted, welcome to modern civilization. All the while though, I was looking ahead, building empires, and healthy as a horse. Life was pretty good, and I was waiting for it to get better. Yes, I was progressing normally on this trip.
By now, you have accumulated some “things”‘”education, careers, business(es), spouse(s), children, — Some people are lucky, very lucky in dodging “bullets,” others not so lucky. One-half of all marriages fail; 75% of all businesses fail; most couples bear children. The cost of raising a child to adulthood is huge. The cost of a failed marriage or business is large and lasting. Which of these bullets did you dodge? Each direct hit takes it toll'”stress, lost assets, more debt, failure. Even near misses can be mentally destructive. We find ourselves “ageing” and starting to look back at the “good ole days,” not just forward anymore.
Many of our setbacks linger and linger and eat at us forever. If not careful, our failures seriously affect future decisions. A divorce and its ramifications and scars last a lifetime. Effects from failed business ventures and bankruptcies linger. The more of these bullets you dodge the better. My father was fond of saying: “it is easy to get into trouble but hard as hell to get out of.” How true! Sometimes it was even fun getting into trouble (the taste of honey is hard to resist), but escaping was always hard, costly, and time-consuming.
By now, after experiencing this journey we call life, time has flown. The past can’t be undone and reminiscing can be happy or demotivating, depending on whether you are dwelling on your past accomplishments or failures. Regardless, we can’t live in the past and sure can’t rest on our laurels. We must continue, do more, strive for more, fill our time satisfactorily. Of course, easier said than done, I know. If you have to ask yourself: “is this as good as it gets?”‘”you’ve got a problem, unless you are willing to settle for less. I wasn’t, and I am now in Bangkok. We all know that time is flying; we are mortal, and we have unfulfilled dreams and goals.
We will all die. The question is: “how will we live?” The rest of your life is beginning now. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer and certainly not the dullest either. Some bullets I dodged; others struck me right between the eyes. Yes, this is my story, for I followed the usual path'”college, military, professional careers, wives, children, businesses. Seems like I did it all, and sometimes it seems like I did very little. The obligations and expectations of living life have taken their toll. At various points in time, I began to wonder if this is all there is for me; my best years are gone, and now is it time to settle for rocking the grandchildren on the front porch? If yes, I had worked, accomplished, struggled, and sacrificed, but at a very big price'”personal excitement. Time for a change, finally I’m taking time for me'”carpe diem.
Fully aware of my impending mortality and divorced (again) at 50, I couldn’t help but look back, evaluate, and conclude that with my remaining years things would change, things would be different, there would be excitement, challenge, and romance in my life again. I am not too old to take the bull by the horns and “Just Do It.” Sometimes I think maybe I am just crazy, maybe I should be happy sitting on that porch rocking those wonderful grandchildren. But, I have too much energy and suppressed excitement, curiosity, and spirit of adventure to settle for this yet. Until then, off I went, in my case, all the way to Bangkok, Thailand.
I wanted it, and I got it an exotic land, upside down from Western culture, Buddhism, a strange and challenging language. Into the Land of Smiles I rode, a place where even a smile does not necessarily mean you are happy! Yes, I got my wish. Of course, my family thinks I am crazy for having left the protection of the motherland. I have traded the familiar for the unfamiliar, the known for the unknown and unknowable, literacy for illiteracy, the West for the East.
The choice of moving to Bangkok was a double whammy. Not just was I retired for the first time in my life, but I was also living outside the motherland for the first time. In many ways, it has been as if I never retired. While finding myself, I was becoming acclimated to life in a new country. During my two years here, it has been constantly go, go, go. From sightseeing, exercising, partying to relaxing, writing, and making new friends, these have been some of the best years of my life.
The only regret I have about moving to Bangkok is that I didn’t do it sooner. As is human nature, however, the other pasture always looks greener. Once we get there though, we soon see brown spots everywhere. After moving to Bangkok and enjoying some free time, I eventually started asking myself: “Is this the meaning of life, the purpose of life?” Then came the question: “What’s next?” Does this sound familiar to you, or am I the only expat retiree experiencing this introspection?
Having previously dreamed about doing nothing while being retired, what a rude awakening I had. It was easy to physically stop BUT nearly impossible to turn off my well-trained, finely-tuned, hardworking mind! Yes, I was physically retired, but my mind did not agree. What a realization: retirement is not stopping but rather it is having the freedom to choose what to do next. Time to be productive AGAIN, time to figure out what to do with the rest of my life AGAIN. The “journey” continues on this train called “life” until I arrive at the final destination.
NOT TO BE PUBLISHED WITHOUT AUTHOR’S WRITTEN CONSENT
© 2011 by Ronald Estrada. All rights reserved. Author may be reached at [email protected]