The End of the Road, the Start of Another

For the past year and a half, I’ve been having a recurring nightmare that I’m teaching again at the private language school in Los Angeles. I know that doesn’t sound like the stuff nightmares are made of, but it’s far more terrifying than any dream I’ve had of monsters and maniacs. Or it’s more depressing, at least.

I didn’t realize how much that job stressed me until I started having these nightmares. It was the stress of the workload, the stress of putting on the song and dance for apathetic rich kids, and the stress of living on the brink of poverty’s cliff where any unplanned expense would send me over the ledge.

But the darkest part of the dream is that it’s not set in the past, but in the future. Teaching is a career I fell into, not chose. The dream’s backstory is always that I made my best effort to jump to a career field where I fit, but it didn’t work. So I got sucked back in, except this time with the added stress of knowing I had tried to move forward and failed.

The dream opened with getting my car checked at the mechanic. I wanted to make sure it was in good condition before a long road trip from Houston, Texas to Ridgecrest, California for my new job as reporter.

That part was true in real life as well. I really did have to drive to Ridgecrest to start a reporter job.

I was also aware of a backstory in the dream. I was upbeat at the mechanic because the job in Ridgecrest wasn’t just a new job, it was a way out. I felt the inevitability of a career I never wanted sealing me in like wet cement. Every year, as my resume filled with teaching language and nothing else, I felt more powerless to step out.

That part of the dream was also true to life.

So my dream self waited outside the shop, eager to start the road trip and take my first bold step out of the cement. When the mechanic finished, he told me the car’s transmission was shot and would take a lot of work to repair. He may as well have shot me in the foot.

I couldn’t afford the repair, much less another car. The reporter job required transportation, never mind that I wouldn’t even be able to get there without the car. I felt the cement finally harden. I was stuck.

I walked back to tell my family, who my dream suddenly conjured there. They laughed. Not maliciously, but more like the way a family laughs to themselves when the baby brother drops his sucker on the ground and starts to cry. Poor baby Mikey’s car broke down.

I was so mad at them, but the madder I got the harder they laughed. They told me it’s not a big deal, I could just go back to teaching. I walked away.

Through the magic of dreams, the very next moment I was walking into my classroom to start a lesson. I felt trapped. But the moment I crossed into the room, I put on a show of energy and positivity which I didn’t have.

I asked how their weekend was, and they asked about mine. They asked about the reporter job. I said, “Nope, that didn’t work out. Yeah, thanks. It’s a bummer, but maybe next time right? Anyhow, let’s open to page 58 and…”

I had said the same thing in real life after I didn’t get the copywriter job in Boston. Or the reporter job in Nebraska. Or the game writer job in Singapore. Each time, the cement hardened more and more.

The dream faded away as I fell into muscle memory teaching my lesson, knowing I had tried to find a career that I cared for, and I had failed.

When I woke up, I first thought about how weird it is that I keep having dreams about teaching. I wished I could go back to having cool nightmares about werewolves and witches. Eventually, as my waking mind eclipsed my dreaming mind, I remembered where I was.

I was at a Motel 6 in Ridgecrest. Not only was my car working fine, but I had already finished the road trip. I was here and I had the job.

It took years of writing for free or very low pay, a thousand job applications, a score of interviews, and all the while fighting back doubt that I could ever do it.

And now I’m here. The job doesn’t pay much and it’s located out in the middle of nowhere, but dammit, it’s a writing gig. I’ll start climbing up in a field I have passion for and filling my resume with writing experience.

I see this job out here in the desert not just opening up the path to a career in journalism, but also opening potential doors to copywriting, advertising, technical writing or any other writing field I might wish to try later on.

I finally stepped out of the cement, and I’m running. I went back to sleep as relief wrapped around me like a warm blanket.

On Five Months in Thailand

I never know how to summarize long stays overseas, but I feel like I should say something. I planned to stay for a month, maybe two if things were going well. I ended up staying for five.

It seemed like a long time while I was there. I started calling it home. But now I’m back in the States, watching college football and drinking craft beer. It’s only been a few days, but the memories of Thailand feel like a dream you know you had but can’t remember.

I’ll start with the small details and see what kind of memories those spark.

myCat is a phone service provider in Thailand. I was at their store renewing my monthly phone plan one day. I watched out the window while I waited. It looked across a busy intersection. A large, open bed truck drove by transporting an adult elephant.

There’s a fruit called “durian” that’s popular throughout Southeast Asia. It has a uniquely strong odor which smells exactly like a fart. My local grocery store had a durian display at the front all summer. The whole store smelled like a fart.

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At night, I heard an eerie sound. It was like a frog’s croak, but not as deep. I eventually learned it was a gecko. I heard it every night, but never saw it.

Scooters are everywhere in Thailand. On my first day, I rented a scooter so I could drive around and look for an apartment. I had never driven one before. The building I rented from opened onto the highway, so I didn’t have space to test the acceleration and turning.

I strapped my helmet on tight, waited for an opening in the heavy traffic, then gunned it. I ran straight into the median and had to slowly waddle the scooter backwards, then turn into my lane. The entire flow of traffic came to a stop behind me while I waddle-turned then stutter-stepped to get going. I came home that night and immediately bought traveler’s insurance.

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By the way, I rented that scooter from the nicest lady ever. When I told her that I was new to Thailand and needed to find an apartment, she offered to drive me to a place where an American friend of hers was staying. I didn’t end up staying there, but it was still generous of her.

In general, the Thai people were remarkably warm and welcoming. They smile when they meet a stranger on the street. They don’t mind much where you come from or if you’re a little different, as long as you’re nice.

It felt a lot like the culture in Los Angeles. Maybe it’s something to do with getting so much sun.

Back to my first day, I drove that damn scooter around all day and stopped by every place to ask for their monthly price.

I eventually decided I was doing it wrong. I needed a strong internet connection, so I went to Sinet–an internet service provider. I wrote down the name of every apartment they service, called every one of them, then rented a room with the cheapest one.

My monthly rent was around $135 USD, maybe around $200 after utility bills. It was significantly larger and more comfortable than the room I was renting for $600 in Los Angeles three years ago, which is going for $1,000 today.

I didn’t go in with much of a plan. While teaching in Korea, I was also writing freelance during my free time. As I came to the end of my one year contract, I was planning to move in with a buddy in Arkansas because the cost of living was so low. I found a website that compares cost of living around the world and worked out that I could support myself for a little while until I found a real job.

I got curious about what the cost of living in other parts of the world was like. I spent some time scrolling around their world map, and it turns out a dollar goes a hell of a lot further in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

As I researched it more, I found there was a whole sub-culture in Chiang Mai of people doing this. They’re called “Digital Nomads.” There are writers, programmers, online teachers, and anyone else who can make a buck online. They don’t technically need a working visa as long as they don’t take jobs from Thai companies.

I quickly found a writers group that meets every week. They ranged from rookies like me to travel writers to authors with several published books. A few of them believe that this digital nomad thing is the first step in a movement that will use the internet to revolutionize our relationship to work. A few of them were dreamers.

I spent far too much time alone, even for an extreme introvert like me. This is what my average day looked like:

11am: Wake up. Make a sandwich or get an omelette from the restaurant downstairs ($1). Eat while watching a TV show. Shows watched: Archer, South Park, Peaky Blinders, Narcos.

12-3pm: This was evening in California, so I’d often play computer games with friends from back home. Or if they weren’t on, I would still usually just dick around during this time.

3pm-6pm: Try to get some writing done.

6pm: Dinner. Usually street food. Noodles and chicken. Noodles and beef. Noodles and eggs. Rice and beef and eggs. ($1.25)

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6:30pm-10pm: Teach online. Halfway through my time in Chiang Mai, I started using a Chinese app called “Palfish” to teach online. You click “go online,” then wait for a student to find and call you. You set your own rate and the student pays per minute. Sometimes you get a student immediately, sometimes you wait for hours. Usually I would play a game or practice bass guitar while waiting.

10pm-12pm: Panic and try to catch up on the writing and gig hunting I should have been doing earlier in the day.

12pm-2am: Open a beer ($1.40). Watch a show or play a game or read a book. Call it a night.

I tried to go to meetup groups about once a week so I wouldn’t get completely lost in the digital world and become awkward. Or more awkward than usual, at least.

I had been in a strange, long distance almost relationship with a girl from Macau. We met in California, then visited each other a couple times while I was in Korea.

She said she’d be able to visit often when I got to Thailand because tickets were cheap. I told her that’s great. I told her that I was tired of being on the dating market and I wanted something serious. I told her I wanted that with her.

By the time I left Korea, she still hadn’t told me when she would be able to visit. I told her not to worry about the price, I could pay for her ticket, just come visit anytime even if it’s only for a weekend. But after a month and a half without her starting to make a plan and hardly talking to me, I realized it wasn’t going to happen.

I eventually started dating a Thai girl. She was from a different Thai city, so we were both new to Chiang Mai. We knew I wouldn’t be staying in Chiang Mai for long, so we tried to keep it casual. But you can’t help it when you spend a few months with someone.  It sucked saying goodbye to her.

The dating culture in Korea felt alien to me. No feeling was ever directly stated, even something as simple as feeling tired or not. Every little action felt like a power struggle. But dating in Thailand, again, felt just like California. It was natural. To me, at least.

My writing productivity tanked about half way through. I had been doing copywriting, which is usually writing stuff like advertisements and sales pages. I thought I would enjoy this because I thought I would enjoy any type of writing. I realized something was wrong when I found myself looking forward to my teaching time more than my writing time.

After talking to other copywriters, I got the feeling that copywriting is a different language of writing from the writing I enjoy. It helped me realize what I love isn’t just writing, but storytelling.

I cringe to say this because it feels like a cheesy stereotype, but I think I discovered myself in Thailand. Except it wasn’t because of a minimal education in Buddhist philosophy or due to some drug fueled weekend on the beach. It was because I forced myself every day to do what I thought I wanted to do until I realized it wasn’t actually something I wanted to do.

As soon as I changed my focus to journalism, everything started making sense again. The people in the field were people I wanted to associate with. The writing was the kind of writing I wanted to do. I started to enjoy my work again.

That more or less takes us up to where I am today. I’m back in the US, applying to jobs at newspapers across the country. And until I get that job, I’m staying with my friend in Arkansas, watching college football and drinking craft beer and trying to hang on to the fleeting details of five months in Thailand.

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Here’s the Plan

It’s been a while. A lot has happened since the last time I posted. My Conversations in Korea series is probably finished because I’m no longer in Korea.

I wish the Conversations in Korea series had come to a more pleasant ending. I interviewed a friend of mine in Seoul who also happens to be a North Korean refugee. Unfortunately, the founder of the organization we met through asked me very strongly to take the interview down. It’s a long story, but in short: a guy I always suspected of being a drama bomb bombed his drama all over my parade.

That’s what happened to my last post in the Conversations in Korea series. And I haven’t posted again because I’ve been busy moving to Thailand.

I made some predictions in my first blog post at the start of my year in Korea, but I sure as hell didn’t predict moving to Thailand.

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Here’s the plan.

I spent my year in Korea teaching full time and building a writing portfolio during my off time. Writing is a tough thing to get into because you have to have a portfolio to get any sort of paid writing gig, and  you have to do writing to build a portfolio. So at the start, you simply have to write for free. I did that during my off time, then slowly built my way up to paid writing assignments.

I had a few interviews for full time writing jobs during my last couple months in Korea. I lost one because I wasn’t currently in the US. I lost a couple others because of that bullshit where they ask a vague question and then infer huge meaning from some minor nuance in your answer.

No joke, I asked them for feedback when they told me I didn’t get the job. It was the nuance thing. One of them was a gaming company back in the US. They told me that I must not be the kind of person who integrates well with local cultures because I play their game on an American server rather than playing on the Korean server.

If they had simply asked about it directly, they would have learned that I was working with a 100% Korean staff, wrote in depth cultural analysis pieces on Korea, and hardly even spoke to any non-Koreans during my whole time of living in Seoul.

I hate job interviews. They’re like a test in small talk.

It was only a month before my teaching contract finished and I didn’t have much of a plan. But the top item on the list of that half-assed plan was written in bold font with all caps:

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I had a conversation about the cost of living with a friend who lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Down there, it’s about half of what it costs to exist in Los Angeles. I asked if it’d be possible to move in with him while I figure my life out.

He said that’d be fine.

I told him I’d like to take advantage of how cheap it is there to try freelance writing for a bit, though I’d still be looking for full time work as well.

He said that’d also be fine. He’s an easy going guy. His name is also Michael. We were going to be Mike and Mike. 

One night I was looking up how much money I’d have to make to survive in Arkansas. The site I was using had a US map with little colored dots from green to yellow to red, depending on the cost of living. Fayetteville was greenish-yellow. Los Angeles was dark red.

Then I had an inspired moment. I zoomed out to see the world map. I realized that if I just wanted a cheap place to live, I could do way cheaper than Arkansas. I’m a young (ish), single (ish), man (ish) and the writing I do is all online. I could go anywhere.

That, my friends, brings me to Chiang Mai, Thailand. A city among the world’s lowest cost of living for a modern place. Most meals are about $1-2 USD and my rent is $135 per month, ~$205 after bills. The plan is to be here for three months, but I’ve already demonstrated how poorly I do at sticking to a plan.

I came here prepared to write or starve, but it turns out that I saved a lot more money from Korea than I expected and I can live in Chiang Mai a lot cheaper than I expected. This is good for my peace of mind, not as good for lighting a fire under my ass and making me write.

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There’s the plan. A good plan? I’ve never been able to tell. But it is in fact a plan. Now the story of the next three months will be the battle against my kryptonite: self-motivation.

And who knows. Maybe we’ll see a new interview series. “Talks in Thailand” has a nice ring to it.

 

Illustrated by: Melissa Beth Rose 
Written by: Michael Smit

A Whole New TheLegitSmit

We’re going to have a change of pace. Friends have been on my case because I haven’t posted recently. My response is that I’m busy with writing articles, volunteering, and my YouTube channel. While that is true, it’s only part of the truth.

The real issue is that the novelty of being out here has slipped into the normality of being out here. I leave for work at eight. I get home at five. I check Facebook and Youtube, then maybe get some McDonald’s or sushi. What’s there to talk about? Sure, a kid bowed to me instead of waving at me. Woohoo. Maybe I can spin that into a whole post.

The heart of a travel blog is learning about people. Something deep in readers wants to know “Are people there like people here?” The answer: Yeah, they are. My life out here is not that radically different from your life. I doubt life in any major city is much different. This isn’t bad. It’s comforting, really.

I strongly believe that a blog should have a theme and stick to it. But I believe even more strongly that I need to get on my ass and write, as theme-less as I may be. This brings us back to the beginning. We’re going to have a change of pace. 

I’m going to write once a week, and I’m not sure about what. There may not always be something I want to say about Korea, but dammit, I got a lot of things I want to say. Maybe a new direction will emerge for the blog. Maybe not. However, I can at least guarantee you this: The next two posts will hold your attention.

Why I’m Teaching in Korea (again)

What can I say that hasn’t already been said? So many have done this before, including myself. But writing isn’t about saying new things, it’s about looking at the same thing in a new perspective. So here‘s my perspective on coming to Korea again, this time a little older and a little wiser. Though the latter remains unproven.

Back in the U.S., some people didn’t understand why I was going to Korea again after I had already taught in Busan from 2009-2011.

Oh, didn’t you go there before? My co-worker asked when I said I was leaving.

Yeah, for two years.

Oh, her eyebrows pushed together. Okay…

Some didn’t understand why I was travelling at all.

A twenty-five year old German student asked me during class, Don’t you think it’s strange to get up and leave when you are twenty-nine years old? Don’t you have a life settled down by your age?

I feigned confidence because I was in class, but his question haunted me. I did think it was strange. When I was a kid, I had dreams of different scenarios for my future. Floating ESL teacher with no roots anywhere was not one of them.

Here’s the deal. Last time I came to Korea for the adventure. This time I came because it’s a better job in every way for where I am right now.

Where am I? I’m a nearly thirty year old man with a resume full of a career I don’t want. I chased a few writing jobs in California, and I got close a couple times. But each time, they wanted someone with a better writing portfolio. That’s why I’m here.

Does that make sense? It didn’t completely make sense to me until this conversation I had with my Korean co-teacher. We were talking about my work schedule in Korea. I teach between three and five classes a day. Each class is forty minutes long, so that’s two to three and a third teaching hours a day. No matter how many or how few classes that day, I still have to be at school from eight forty to four forty. That time is used for lesson planning, which isn’t difficult because the books are detailed and I only see the same students two or three times a week. Therefore, many lessons are repeated in a week.

Compare that to my job in California. I usually taught two general elementary classes and two general advanced classes. Sometimes I had an elective class as well. Each class was eighty minutes, so I was in front of my class for six to seven and a third hours a day. That’s almost full-time hours just in the class, never mind all the prep and grading. And as far as prep, I taught the same students in the elementary group every class, every day. Same with the advanced class. No lessons were repeatable in a week. Lesson planning was a constant weight on my mind even after I had the plans written down.

On top of all this, I save more money here, which will be an indescribable relief. I spent the last three years living in a kitchenless studio apartment with no heat or AC, washing my dishes in the shower, storing what I could in a mini fridge with no freezer, and despite living there I was only able to put away enough money to save up for the inevitable next car repair. The need to get out became tangible once my car died and I had to bike to work. I felt it with each pump of the pedal. PUMP gotta PUMP get the hell PUMP outta here, as I pull into the parking lot where my school’s rich kid students park exotic sports cars I don’t even know the names of.

With my workload cut in half and financial stress eased, this is where I need to be as I head into my thirties. I know where I want to go in my career, and I need to use my free time to write for a while to get there. That will be much easier to do here than with my job back home.

So yes, I came back to the same country, but the objective is different this time. Or rather, there actually is an objective this time.

At least that’s why I think I’m here, but another thing I’ve learned about writing is that you have no idea how the story will end until you get there. You don’t even know what it will be about. Then you finish and go back to edit the beginning so it looks like you knew what you were doing all along. This gives the effect of the storybook ending where the climax comes back around to ideas introduced at the start.

This blog is the story of my sloppy second time in Korea. I probably can’t give you a storybook ending because I don’t know where this is going. But I’ll try my best to fake like I know and maybe I’ll nail it.

I’ll get involved with a Korean girl. Language and cultural differences, as well as yellow fever stigma, will make me regret it. So will my fear of commitment.

Where I spent the last time in Korea getting drunk and chasing girls, this time I’ll get involved. I’ll do some volunteer work. I’ll take Korean classes and my ability to progress will not nearly match my ambition to understand everything around me. I’ll get out and see more of Korea.

I’ll teach here for two years despite only planning for one. In my first year I’ll apply for a writing gig out here. It’ll fall through, but it’ll be close enough to prod me into another year. I’ll refocus my efforts on getting a job back in the States. I’ll land something on the east coast. It’ll pay horribly, but I’ll do it because I’ll see it as a stepping stone.

Or maybe I won’t. I’ve been obsessed with learning about indigenious cultures of America for the last three years. I’ve been daydreaming for months about moving to South America as an English teacher and living with a native group who speaks a dying language. How cool would that be?

Maybe that’s the kind of story this will be. A Choose Your Own Adventure, except only if you’re me.