Floating and free-falling: inner transitions supported by a foreign environment

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in career,community,global niche,home,identity,origin,self-image

© Miro Schaap

By ISAO KATO

My safety standard engineer job in Japan was boring but cushy. Nine-to-five in a stable company with reasonable salary, zero overtime. The perfect work-life balance, enjoying scuba diving and a weekend rock-bottom band. But at 27 I lost interest in almost everything.

I got a job that allowed me to fly around Asia, and eventually settled in Taiwan. Five years later, did I find the missing parts in my life? No. But instead of the naked terror of 3 A.M. regret, I’m calm.

Because I’m not trying to mimic my local friends, I’m at peace with our differences.

The Taiwanese view me as “Laowai”, a foreigner. Not Japanese, more like Overseas Chinese. I act the way that feels right to me, and the Taiwanese view me the way that feels right for them, and we both feel fine about not understanding each other’s point of view.

I remember as a 6-year old kid in an expatriate family, I spent three years in the small Mediterranean country of Malta. I had a habit of stomping the ground, not being able to digest the fact that I was in a place far from where I had been born. Everything looked like a fragile dream, a moment that would disappear. I was floating and free-falling at the same time.

I see what went wrong during those years in Japan. I was looking for something to anchor me into my reality. I was an outsider in Malta but when I came back to Japan, I was still an outsider. Everybody else knew how to behave by “reading the air”, the unspoken rules. I was different even though I picked a lifestyle, as if picking a shirt, from the models nearby.

When I left I thought I was going to find myself. What I really wanted was to lose myself, again.

In leaving home behind, what have you found?

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Isao Kato is a nomad technical writer in Taiwan, melting technology and communication in the Asian pot.
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  • Joy

    Just came across this — such a great title and a sentiment I have shared nearly all my life. I am an American but have spent most of my life in
    Japan, always being the “gaijin” but never really feeling like one. For much of my life, being the “outsider”, both in Japan and the US, felt very lonely. I was always wanting to fit in but never really knew how. It took a long time for me to realize how freeing being an “outsider” can be, and that from this experience I can have a stronger sense of self and comfort with who I am. While being respectful and sensitive to the values and lifestyles of those around me, I can allow myself not to need to fit in.

  • http://www.nunomad.com/blog Carmen

    This is really a lovely piece. Thanks for publishing it. I think that being location independent/expat/nomadic whatever you want to call it, requires a very strong core sense of self or else you can feel like you’re free falling. I certainly felt that way traveling in Asia in my twenties and not being sure where my life was leading me. Nomading now with my own children I feel much more grounded in who I am and having family around also keeps me feeling strong and at home even in other countries.
    .-= Carmen’s latest blog ..Pros and Cons of Traveling Abroad with Babies, Kids or Teens! =-.

    • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

      Thanks Carmen!
      I think being location independent also strengthens our sense of self – what happened to me was that I got out of my home country not knowing who I was anymore and hoping to find my “true identity (gosh),” and failed (good for me). Being pressured to establish my life in a foreign country helped me build a strong sense of self. Of course, the Taiwanese hospitality (letting me be myself) helped a lot.

  • http://www.nunomad.com/blog Carmen

    This is really a lovely piece. Thanks for publishing it. I think that being location independent/expat/nomadic whatever you want to call it, requires a very strong core sense of self or else you can feel like you’re free falling. I certainly felt that way traveling in Asia in my twenties and not being sure where my life was leading me. Nomading now with my own children I feel much more grounded in who I am and having family around also keeps me feeling strong and at home even in other countries.
    .-= Carmen’s latest blog ..Pros and Cons of Traveling Abroad with Babies, Kids or Teens! =-.

    • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

      Thanks Carmen!
      I think being location independent also strengthens our sense of self – what happened to me was that I got out of my home country not knowing who I was anymore and hoping to find my “true identity (gosh),” and failed (good for me). Being pressured to establish my life in a foreign country helped me build a strong sense of self. Of course, the Taiwanese hospitality (letting me be myself) helped a lot.

  • Pingback: Why Am I Staying in Taiwain? Because I Am More Me Here. « Multilingual Mania

  • Zoe Chen

    Okay… I read it. But I don’t know what to say. But it seems like u have had a very similar experience as me. Thanks for sharing…

    • http://www.isaokato.com Isao

      I am glad you made it Zoe, and thank you for leaving your footprint. Check stories from other expatriates, TCKs, and global nomads in expat+HAREM. Everybody is unique yet share a global language forged through joy, conflict, and mutual respect. I am sure some of the stories will resonate with your internal soul.

  • Zoe Chen

    Okay… I read it. But I don’t know what to say. But it seems like u have had a very similar experience as me. Thanks for sharing…

    • http://www.isaokato.com Isao

      I am glad you made it Zoe, and thank you for leaving your footprint. Check stories from other expatriates, TCKs, and global nomads in expat+HAREM. Everybody is unique yet share a global language forged through joy, conflict, and mutual respect. I am sure some of the stories will resonate with your internal soul.

  • Briget Murphy

    Isao, the title of your piece resonated deeply with me for several reasons, none of which quite relates to your own experience except for the fact that we were both looking for a way to anchor ourselves.

    “Floating and Free-falling” is how I felt after the death of my beloved father and surviving parent. No matter what age one is, when one’s last cherished parent dies, there is a feeling of free-falling and floating…as if the tether that held one to one’s history and identity is gone. My father’s death was the impetus that propelled me into leaving behind all I knew, to wander a strange city in a distant land where I knew nobody, in the hope that I might find my solid ground again…in Istanbul. There, I found my anchor was within myself, and I learned so much more than that. I enjoyed reading your story very much!

    • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

      Hi Briget, we hope changing our environment to see how we can transform our lives but often end up finding a timeless element inside ourselves, just like you have described or I have experienced. Thank you for sharing your story.

      Lea Woodward has recently written similar (but more practical) stuff.
      Why You Don’t Need To Be Location Independent (And Neither Do We)
      http://ow.ly/1sQqT

      • Anastasia

        ….and yet, Alain de Botton (author of the philosophical book The Art of Travel) reminded us in a tweet yesterday: “The reason to travel: there are inner transitions we can’t properly cement without a change of locations.”

        Thanks Isao for the link to Lea Woodward’s post about being able to get what you need and want where-ever you are. I believe it’s true that location is not a magic pill. But like Briget points out in the comments at that site, I also know that it’s simply not true that you can get what you want and need wherever you may be, locally. That is what expat+HAREM’s neoculture is all about. We’re all seeking our global niche, a psychic solution to the limbo of where we are and who we are. We’re looking for our place, and our people and our lifestyle — and we wouldn’t be looking for it if it were a location. Since we’re a pretty mobile group, we’d all be there by now!

        • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

          I agree that sometimes we can only see certain things clearly, no matter how obvious they are, after moving our locations. I also think that in order to “internalize” that moving expereince, we need to spend some time and go through ups and downs in the new location. Until our body changes (and it takes time) we can’t declare that we have changed…otherwise we would be repeating the glorified version of reading self-help books but not acting through them. I love expat+HAREM because this community allows us to consciously go through the internalization process through listening to stories (including our own) and engaging in conversations. Our path won’t become less challenging but we can welcome challenges more.

  • Briget Murphy

    Isao, the title of your piece resonated deeply with me for several reasons, none of which quite relates to your own experience except for the fact that we were both looking for a way to anchor ourselves.

    “Floating and Free-falling” is how I felt after the death of my beloved father and surviving parent. No matter what age one is, when one’s last cherished parent dies, there is a feeling of free-falling and floating…as if the tether that held one to one’s history and identity is gone. My father’s death was the impetus that propelled me into leaving behind all I knew, to wander a strange city in a distant land where I knew nobody, in the hope that I might find my solid ground again…in Istanbul. There, I found my anchor was within myself, and I learned so much more than that. I enjoyed reading your story very much!

    • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

      Hi Briget, we hope changing our environment to see how we can transform our lives but often end up finding a timeless element inside ourselves, just like you have described or I have experienced. Thank you for sharing your story.

      Lea Woodward has recently written similar (but more practical) stuff.
      Why You Don’t Need To Be Location Independent (And Neither Do We)
      http://ow.ly/1sQqT

      • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

        ….and yet, Alain de Botton (author of the philosophical book The Art of Travel) reminded us in a tweet yesterday: “The reason to travel: there are inner transitions we can’t properly cement without a change of locations.”

        Thanks Isao for the link to Lea Woodward’s post about being able to get what you need and want where-ever you are. I believe it’s true that location is not a magic pill. But like Briget points out in the comments at that site, I also know that it’s simply not true that you can get what you want and need wherever you may be, locally. That is what expat+HAREM’s neoculture is all about. We’re all seeking our global niche, a psychic solution to the limbo of where we are and who we are. We’re looking for our place, and our people and our lifestyle — and we wouldn’t be looking for it if it were a location. Since we’re a pretty mobile group, we’d all be there by now!

        • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

          I agree that sometimes we can only see certain things clearly, no matter how obvious they are, after moving our locations. I also think that in order to “internalize” that moving expereince, we need to spend some time and go through ups and downs in the new location. Until our body changes (and it takes time) we can’t declare that we have changed…otherwise we would be repeating the glorified version of reading self-help books but not acting through them. I love expat+HAREM because this community allows us to consciously go through the internalization process through listening to stories (including our own) and engaging in conversations. Our path won’t become less challenging but we can welcome challenges more.

  • http://www.dutchessabroad.com Judith van Praag

    Isao, I love your words: “Everything looked like a fragile dream, a moment that would disappear. I was floating and free-falling at the same time.” With those words you pretty much describe the feeling of youth that adults are too scared to experience or invite. I recognize the feeling from having been in totally different cultures, and often times try to recreate the sensation even in what’s familiar territory.
    The UK/US architect Ben Nicholson (not to be confused with the painter) once said, “Artists are people who try to remain in the sandbox as long as possible.”
    The sandbox is a rather grounded image compared to that of your free floating one, but I think the art of seeing is similar, whether you’re building sand castles or flying.

    • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

      Thank you Judith!
      Any reasonable kid knows that exciting games involve the smell of danger. So probably when I was enjoying the floating experience in Malta I was also facing the haunting height. As we get old we get (1) scared – we get much more to lose and (2) clever – we find more shortcuts. As a result we start to trick ourselves into believing that we could enjoy floating with safety net. And we find it not that interesting and then leave the floating experience at all. I don’t think we should always risk ourselves, but I definitely think we can remind ourselves that float/fall always comes together. Even the sandbox artist (that is, all of us, as a kid) agrees, I guess.

  • Anonymous

    Isao, I love your words: “Everything looked like a fragile dream, a moment that would disappear. I was floating and free-falling at the same time.” With those words you pretty much describe the feeling of youth that adults are too scared to experience or invite. I recognize the feeling from having been in totally different cultures, and often times try to recreate the sensation even in what’s familiar territory.
    The UK/US architect Ben Nicholson (not to be confused with the painter) once said, “Artists are people who try to remain in the sandbox as long as possible.”
    The sandbox is a rather grounded image compared to that of your free floating one, but I think the art of seeing is similar, whether you’re building sand castles or flying.

    • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

      Thank you Judith!
      Any reasonable kid knows that exciting games involve the smell of danger. So probably when I was enjoying the floating experience in Malta I was also facing the haunting height. As we get old we get (1) scared – we get much more to lose and (2) clever – we find more shortcuts. As a result we start to trick ourselves into believing that we could enjoy floating with safety net. And we find it not that interesting and then leave the floating experience at all. I don’t think we should always risk ourselves, but I definitely think we can remind ourselves that float/fall always comes together. Even the sandbox artist (that is, all of us, as a kid) agrees, I guess.

  • http://www.bazaarbayar.com Catherine Bayar

    Thank you Isao for this compelling post, and welcome to the Harem!

    Your title has been circling my brain since I first read this a few days ago. I used to float through life, taking the next interesting design job as it appeared, not always taking a more proactive approach to finding jobs that suited me better.

    I lost that directionless persona by relocating to Turkey and getting involved in pursuits that were really “me”. Yet lately I’m haunted by a notion of free-falling, the sense that I’ve been losing valuable time and must take a firm grasp of the controls to chart the plan to get me where I now want to go…enjoying the journey along the way, of course.

    Your NYT link is brilliant: “One of the hardest things to look at in this life is the lives we didn’t lead, the path not taken, potential left unfulfilled.” Yes, those looks take courage and can create a few regrets, but the occasional glance in that rear-view mirror can also remind you of how wonderful the road looks ahead.

    • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

      I have also had the “eternal beginner” dilemma due to my changing careers so frequently (floating era) – but recently I have started to focus on writing which I believe is the central theme of my life, and suddenly all the doubts–unskilled, unestablished, too old, so on–have started to pour in (falling era). I have just read an article about Margaret Moth, a photo journalist who had passed away due to cancer, and she said: “The important thing is to know that you’ve lived your life to the fullest” http://bit.ly/cnvvem
      I never thought I could hear that tired phrase with authenticity. And that is what I am going to do; stick to the path which I believe in, not which I THINK is the easier way, and treat each second as if it is the last in my life.
      Thank you for your comment, I am honored to be in this community.

  • http://www.bazaarbayar.blogspot.com Catherine Bayar

    Thank you Isao for this compelling post, and welcome to the Harem!

    Your title has been circling my brain since I first read this a few days ago. I used to float through life, taking the next interesting design job as it appeared, not always taking a more proactive approach to finding jobs that suited me better.

    I lost that directionless persona by relocating to Turkey and getting involved in pursuits that were really “me”. Yet lately I’m haunted by a notion of free-falling, the sense that I’ve been losing valuable time and must take a firm grasp of the controls to chart the plan to get me where I now want to go…enjoying the journey along the way, of course.

    Your NYT link is brilliant: “One of the hardest things to look at in this life is the lives we didn’t lead, the path not taken, potential left unfulfilled.” Yes, those looks take courage and can create a few regrets, but the occasional glance in that rear-view mirror can also remind you of how wonderful the road looks ahead.

    • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

      I have also had the “eternal beginner” dilemma due to my changing careers so frequently (floating era) – but recently I have started to focus on writing which I believe is the central theme of my life, and suddenly all the doubts–unskilled, unestablished, too old, so on–have started to pour in (falling era). I have just read an article about Margaret Moth, a photo journalist who had passed away due to cancer, and she said: “The important thing is to know that you’ve lived your life to the fullest” http://bit.ly/cnvvem
      I never thought I could hear that tired phrase with authenticity. And that is what I am going to do; stick to the path which I believe in, not which I THINK is the easier way, and treat each second as if it is the last in my life.
      Thank you for your comment, I am honored to be in this community.

  • Hanimeli (kari m.)

    RT @BelaLumo: Another thoughtful and insightful essay from the expat harem. Can totally relate to this. Floating & free-falling http://tinyurl.com/yzm92c5

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/theskaiangates Catherine

    That’s a thought-provoking post Isao. The idea of having to leave (again) before you can make peace with home is touching.
    I’ve found that home looks different from different perspectives. As we’re exposed to a range of attitudes to our homeland, our understanding of home may change. In a sense we are forced to mature our attitudes and admit that home of our childhood is a more complex animal, when viewed as merely another country among many.
    .-= Catherine’s latest undefined ..If you register your site for free at =-.

    • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

      I can relate to your idea on home of our childhood as a more complex animal… Years ago I revisited Malta as a lost adult trying to find his mojo (roots) back. I thought re-experiencing earlier events of my life would help. It didn’t. I learned that as a kid I exaggerated all the actual events, people, and scenes with my imagination, plus over the years I had mutated those memories into something entirely different. Maybe we are redefining ourselves each moment, including our past memories.

    • http://anastasiaashman.wordpress.com/about/ Anastasia

      Interesting how the ‘other country’ of childhood morphs for those who leave that nation behind in more ways than simply through time — with a Third Culture Kid’s lack of continuity of context-and-culture as an extreme adventure in liminality.

  • http://www.skaiangates.com Yazarc

    That’s a thought-provoking post Isao. The idea of having to leave (again) before you can make peace with home is touching.
    I’ve found that home looks different from different perspectives. As we’re exposed to a range of attitudes to our homeland, our understanding of home may change. In a sense we are forced to mature our attitudes and admit that home of our childhood is a more complex animal, when viewed as merely another country among many.
    .-= Catherine’s latest undefined ..If you register your site for free at =-.

    • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

      I can relate to your idea on home of our childhood as a more complex animal… Years ago I revisited Malta as a lost adult trying to find his mojo (roots) back. I thought re-experiencing earlier events of my life would help. It didn’t. I learned that as a kid I exaggerated all the actual events, people, and scenes with my imagination, plus over the years I had mutated those memories into something entirely different. Maybe we are redefining ourselves each moment, including our past memories.

    • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

      Interesting how the ‘other country’ of childhood morphs for those who leave that nation behind in more ways than simply through time — with a Third Culture Kid’s lack of continuity of context-and-culture as an extreme adventure in liminality.

  • http://anastasiaashman.wordpress.com/about/ Anastasia

    I forgot to mention this: I want to welcome you Isao as the *first male guest blogger* at expat+HAREM! We welcome your pioneering presence here.

    • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

      Really? I looked up the word “harem” in the dictionary and oh gosh, it was meant only for women! I thought some alpha males were allowed, ha ha. Well, thanks to my ignorance I am here and I am honored to be the first male guest. The stories told here all resonate with my identity – that’s what attracted me in the first place and I will continue listening and contributing to the conversation that goes here.

      • http://anastasiaashman.wordpress.com/about/ Anastasia

        Hee hee, ignorance is bliss when it comes to boundaries that aren’t meaningful to us!

        True, the concept of the Expat Harem came from a feminine experience — but as I envision it, it also stands for cultural peers tied together in the virtual realm, and this hybrid soul blog expands on our initial community of foreign-women-in-Turkey. expat+HAREM is for everyone who can relate to the issues we discuss, including men, and non-expats, and people who have nothing to do with Turkey.

        • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

          I really like the openness of this community – it motivates me to live that way too. Well I love drinking Turkish coffee, was a fan of Hakan Sükür, and listened to this Japanese oldies “Tonde(flying to) Istanbul” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdOaJalyu0U, which makes me an expert on Turkey.

  • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

    I forgot to mention this: I want to welcome you Isao as the *first male guest blogger* at expat+HAREM! We welcome your pioneering presence here.

    • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

      Really? I looked up the word “harem” in the dictionary and oh gosh, it was meant only for women! I thought some alpha males were allowed, ha ha. Well, thanks to my ignorance I am here and I am honored to be the first male guest. The stories told here all resonate with my identity – that’s what attracted me in the first place and I will continue listening and contributing to the conversation that goes here.

      • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

        Hee hee, ignorance is bliss when it comes to boundaries that aren’t meaningful to us!

        True, the concept of the Expat Harem came from a feminine experience — but as I envision it, it also stands for cultural peers tied together in the virtual realm, and this hybrid soul blog expands on our initial community of foreign-women-in-Turkey. expat+HAREM is for everyone who can relate to the issues we discuss, including men, and non-expats, and people who have nothing to do with Turkey.

        • http://www.isaokato.com/ Isao

          I really like the openness of this community – it motivates me to live that way too. Well I love drinking Turkish coffee, was a fan of Hakan Sükür, and listened to this Japanese oldies “Tonde(flying to) Istanbul” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdOaJalyu0U, which makes me an expert on Turkey.

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  • http://anastasiaashman.wordpress.com/about/ Anastasia

    Isao, I really appreciate that you’ve shared with us how you found peace with your difference.

    In particular, I’m haunted by your description of picking a lifestyle like you choose a shirt from what’s on the racks. I remember in my 20s feeling like I was leading a life by looking in my side-view mirrors rather than at the road ahead — because it wasn’t my road. I was driving according to what other people were doing. Heck, when I was in college I took the GRE (a standardized test required for graduate school) even though I couldn’t wait for school to end. Why? Just in case one day I figured out why other people were doing it.

    • http://isaokato.com Isao

      Thank you Anastasia for providing me with a place to let these feelings out. I never realized how important for them to be out there until I published them. Writing them in a journal is one thing (we reinforce our old idea) but making them public is a different issue (we realize our reinforcement).

      Gosh I can relate to the “cannot stop comparing with others” still in my 30s. When I acquired the title “manager” in my workplace I started to give my business card out more often. Lame, I know, but that’s part of me ;)

  • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

    Isao, I really appreciate that you’ve shared with us how you found peace with your difference.

    In particular, I’m haunted by your description of picking a lifestyle like you choose a shirt from what’s on the racks. I remember in my 20s feeling like I was leading a life by looking in my side-view mirrors rather than at the road ahead — because it wasn’t my road. I was driving according to what other people were doing. Heck, when I was in college I took the GRE (a standardized test required for graduate school) even though I couldn’t wait for school to end. Why? Just in case one day I figured out why other people were doing it.

    • http://isaokato.com Isao

      Thank you Anastasia for providing me with a place to let these feelings out. I never realized how important for them to be out there until I published them. Writing them in a journal is one thing (we reinforce our old idea) but making them public is a different issue (we realize our reinforcement).

      Gosh I can relate to the “cannot stop comparing with others” still in my 30s. When I acquired the title “manager” in my workplace I started to give my business card out more often. Lame, I know, but that’s part of me ;)

    • http://www.isaokato.com Isao

      Hi Amy
      Thank you for your words. We are eternally sandwiched between the Eureka moment of gaining freedom and the fear of losing our anchor.. Liked the gorgeous photos in your blog. Belgium seems like a place where winter is tolerable just for its beauty.

  • http://twitter.com/BelaLumo/statuses/10613144093 BelaLumo (Amy)

    Another thoughtful and insightful essay from the expat harem. Can totally relate to this. Floating & free-falling http://tinyurl.com/yzm92c5

    • http://www.isaokato.com Isao

      Hi Amy
      Thank you for your words. We are eternally sandwiched between the Eureka moment of gaining freedom and the fear of losing our anchor.. Liked the gorgeous photos in your blog. Belgium seems like a place where winter is tolerable just for its beauty.

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