[UPDATE: I rewrote this draft in the morning when my head was a bit clearer]
I’ve been practicing to be a digital nomad while in Taichung, a city of 2.7 million people in the democratic nation of Taiwan. I’ve been here long enough now to realize that the challenge is more than just having the right power adapters and high speed internet; I’m also working through some ghosts of my past and my own introverted nature. Here’s the breakdown.
The Nomad Test: technically successful, but not natural
Originally I thought the Digital Nomad Test would be won by successfully work remotely on various technical projects I was doing in the United States. I had my minimum technology kit comprised of high-speed internet, a powerful laptop, and a few selected pieces of gear. I also figured I would get a chance to practice my Mandarin Chinese and learn to navigate the city by myself (albeit with the family lifeline available in case things didn’t work out.
THE GOOD NEWS is that my laptop-based kit works. I can do design work, programming work, and even live-stream to my YouTube channel as I do at home. Some of the programming work is difficult to do without extra monitors and servers, but I can still do it. In the cases where I need the specialized gear, I can choose to work on high-level thinking on paper which is probably more useful.
THE BAD NEWS is that my physical environment is not conducive to work. It’s nice to spend time with my dad and have family around, and it is this interaction that is the primary reason I am in Taiwan in the first place. However, I’m finding it’s actually quite difficult to stay focused to work while at the house. This probably shouldn’t be a surprise, as a LOT of people have trouble working at home with family around and have a separate office outside for just that reason. I have lived alone for a long time so my house IS my sanctuary of silence; I’d forgotten that critical issue.
There are a few other surprise insights. For example, I don’t have a usable workspace — Maybe I am spoiled, but I am accustomed to more interior sunlight or high-quality lighting in my workspace, and my standing desk was a bigger part of my workflow than I thought. The dim lighting and non-ergonomic dining room table is making it very difficult to work for more than an hour before I get a splitting headache.I’ve started to shift around some furniture to make more space, but I’m still finding it pretty uncomfortable. The best I’ve been able to do is sit on the hard Chinese-style couch and type on the laptop without using my fancy Roost Stand, but it’s not good for any kind of work for which I like to use a keyboard + mouse. The lack of light has also been bumming me out; I realized a couple days ago that though Taiwan is just starting to roll into summer, it’s so dim inside the house that I feel like I’m getting seasonal affective disorder. While it’s really bright outside, the entire building is being resurfaced (buildings in Taiwan are covered with tile that are replaced every once in awhile to ‘refresh’ it) and the scaffolding has dimmed the entire building even darker than usual. The lights are ancient fluorescents that flicker in the greenish-orange spectrum, and it is driving me nuts.
So if it’s so dark inside, WHY NOT GO OUTSIDE or find a sunny coffee shop nearby? I’ve found that I’m not very inclined to explore for some reason, though the opportunity is clearly here and I should take advantage of it. As far as I can figure out, it’s due to (1) the stress of dealing with “character growth” challenges and (2) the lack of time and space to recharge by myself. Let me go into these a little deeper.
The first subject is dealing with those character growth experiences. These come in two categories: the old childhood phobias that I used to have here, and the new adventure/digital nomad challenges. Most of my character-growing challenges are really of the former type: speaking Mandarin, not feeling self-conscious about speaking unintelligible Mandarin, not feeling like I’m being judged constantly, and not worrying about being laughed at by strangers as I am unmasked as a illiterate foreign kid. Being in Taiwan right now, by my own choosing, is itself a big deal for me. I’ve been able, I think, to work through many of these issues as an adult now by owning my identity as an American, not a Taiwanese. When I was a kid, my strategy was the same except I was much angrier about it and rejected every aspect of the culture. As an adult, I accept I am an outsider but don’t use this as a reason to push people away. Instead, I try to just be “me” and maintain a positive attitude toward learning the culture while stumbling over the differences with a light laugh.
The reason I bring this up is that there is an energy cost to overcoming these challenges, and apparently there is a limit to how many I can do a day. I am not energized by challenges that question my sense of identity or require me to overcome self-limiting beliefs and doubts. If I am given the opportunity, I will retreat to a sanctuary of facing the challenge and need to “process” the events of the day. This is pretty typical people who are inclined toward introversion in the Jungian sense. It doesn’t mean “shy” or “scared”, just that we tend to “process” the world internally in our way instead of just bumbling around in it for excitement.
The second subject is directly related to introversion and recharging. As one who tends toward introversion, I need to have a lot of alone time with the independence to set my own schedule and environmental conditions. I suspect that introverts like myself find adulthood a great relief because we can finally have our own space. This hadn’t been a problem before when visiting Dad or Dad visiting me, because we are both pretty introverted and keep largely to ourselves doing our own thing. On this trip, though, there’s another person in the house and it feels much smaller. Combine this with the lack of good workspace, lighting, and the personal challenges I’m facing down, I need to recharge more than ever!
I didn’t realize that recharging was a big deal until I headed to Taipei on my first-ever solo trip here; this was a huge (for me) personal challenge to meet! I had been really concentrating on being prepared for the trip, concentrating on not screwing up and suppressing anxiety when several things went wrong in the morning, and so when I finally rolled into my hotel I was quite relieved. As I put my things down and checked-in with my high school friends who I hadn’t seen in over 20 years, I was suddenly struck by a delightful realization: I had a whole hotel room to myself and there was no one to tell me what to do or when to eat. I immediately took an hour long shower, then flopped up and down on the freshly-made beds and took the most restful sleep of my trip. I just flopped around in bed for a while, reading news on my iPhone, until it was time to get ready for dinner. I took another shower and bounced out in quite a good mood, had a great time seeing my friends and making some new ones, and then took another long shower and went to sleep. I woke up late and figured I would just head back to Taichung, but for some reason I was just curious enough to just walk down the street. I kept walking, letting my curiosity and dim memories guide me around, and actually enjoyed exploring by myself. I hadn’t done this AT ALL in Taichung, and I think it was because I hadn’t been able to mentally recharge. The Taipei trip is just one data point, of course, so my conclusion is perhaps hasty, but I do sense there’s some truth to it in there.
So…I’m pretty sure I’m not a natural explorer who thrives on challenges and newness. I’m more of a homebody that likes to see how people live toward their most satisfying lives, observing from a good vantage point. I suppose I am more of a nerd anthropologist than adventurer. I like being in new places and seeing what is different, but I’m not interested in sightseeing or having extreme experiences that I can boast about. I like seeing the little details that come about from how people live in a particular place. I also like talking to people to share these observations; it was really great to reconnect with high school friends and listen to them talk about business and the pursuit of their entrepreneurial dreams here in Taiwan. I have really missed this kind of talk, and Taiwan is full of such people. I forget who told me this (I think it was Sunil or Sunil’s friend Angela), but it’s said that the Taiwanese dream is not to have a good job at a good company, but to be one’s own boss. I can totally identify with that.
Backup Plan: Have a Vacation!
So I haven’t put in many billable hours at all for the big programming project, and I will have to adjust my development schedule by a month when I get back. So instead of feeling bad about it, I’ve just allowed myself to relax and catch up on television and books. This has been FAR MORE IMPORTANT than I thought it would be! Being back in Taiwan raises a lot of old memories and dreams, particularly in the area of personal identity and purpose. Here’s a few of the major media influence from the trip so far:
RuPaul’s Drag Race was the first thing I binge-watched while recovering from dental work that left me feeling a bit sore and cranky. I watched season 5 on NetFlix after randomly clicking on episodes from seasons 2-4. After adjusting to the unfamiliar world of drag, I started to recognize that there was a theme here that I connected with: I have an affinity for people on the fringe who just want to be themselves. After a few episodes, I stopped seeing men in drag and just saw them as people with dreams and difficulties, banding together to create their own community where they could affirm their own values. I love that kind of stuff. I had thought the show was all about drag queens back-stabbing each other in some kind of awful competition to win by any means, but by the end of the season I started to detect a pattern where those people are slowly weeded-out to promote what I imagine are RuPaul’s underlying beliefs about community and acceptance. Bravo!
Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams is a video that new acquaintance Angela passed to me here in Taiwan, having sensed that it might be something I would like because of my history with video games. And boy did it ever click with me! I believe I have seen this video years ago, but did not have the maturity to really understand it as I do now. I found it very eerie how t was really eerie how closely Pausch’s values and interests mirrored my own, except at a much higher level. His legacy is the people he helped elevate themselves and organization he built to carry the mission further while having the most fun his way. Inspirational, and he is the first real-life person I can think of that shows me that my mix of interests is not only legitimate, but can really work in the way I suspected it might.
The book Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir was recommended to me by my high school buddy Sunil. It’s an autobiography written by this well-known Taiwanese-American chef who grew up in Orlando. He was an angry outsider misfit thug drug-dealer law school unmodel-minority, which I found new and somewhat shocking. What impressed me was how IMPASSIONED he was about where he came from and how he represented himself and his blend of hip-hop, basketball, punching people in the face who had it coming, and now great food. It unlocked memories of how I felt being a third culture kid, not Taiwanese or Chinese or American, and therefore something of a misfit before tentatively taking ownership of it. The empowering takeaway was that Eddie Huang, despite how different his life is from mine, has taught himself to be “real” about himself and in the process turn that into success on his terms. It’s a theme that I’ve been pussyfooting around for a year, and Huang’s brash writing shocked me into seeing that more clearly. I can see why he hates the sitcom based on his book; it’s nothing like what he wrote except in the most superficial way, drained of all its potency for the sake of mainstream audiences.
Serenity17’s Rainbow Six Siege Videos — When I feel like turning inward to recharge, I often turn to PC games. Lately I’ve been playing one called Rainbow Six: Siege with my younger cousins in California, but I don’t have a gaming PC here in Taiwan so I’ve been unable to play. To tide me over, I started watching YouTube videos about how to improve my play, and Serenity17’s videos really struck out. He’s this 20 year-old guy in Quebec who plays at the pro level, and his videos are wonderfully concise and informative. His audience has grown to nearly 100,000 subscribers as of this writing, which is not a lot by YouTube mega-creator standards but is really respectable for a niche game like Rainbow Six. I’ve been inspired to try to do better with my own videos now because I love his approach and his high level of competency.
So on this trip, I haven’t been very adventurous by going out every day and meeting tons of new people. I’m a mild introvert back in the States, but with the number of challenges I’m facing I’m finding myself being more introverted than usual. That said, I have overcome a lot of deeply-buried childhood anxieties about language and being an outsider in the culture, and that’s fantastic!
I’m no longer as self-conscious at speaking terrible Mandarin, and I now even believe that I can pick it up if I’m immersed in a Mandarin-speaking environment. My dad’s house is NOT that environment because everyone speaks Taiwanese or heavily-accented country-style Mandarin, which I just realized was a major contributor to my confusion. I need to seek a better immersion strategy if I want to pick up Mandarin more quickly in the future.
While I haven’t gotten many billable hours down this month at all, I did read books and watched videos that have helped realign my sense of direction. Coupled with the realization that DAMN THINGS TAKE A LONG TIME FOR REAL, and I might be ready to kickstart a more productive round of personal project work. Also, now that this trip will be out of the way, I won’t have quite so many worries on my mind. June will hopefully be a productive month.