The important thing is just to go

When I was debating where to move after college, I instantly ruled out New York City. I’d gotten a car as my graduation gift and I didn’t love the idea of going someplace where I couldn’t have it – where I couldn’t have the freedom of getting in my car and running away for a weekend at the drop of a hat.

But in all the years I spent not living in New York, I never did that. I never just picked up and left for a day or an afternoon. It never occurred to me to try it.

I don’t know why, but this morning I felt like I had to get away. Being in my own skin was claustrophobic and I needed to dig my fingers in and pull it apart, to feel fresh air hit the hidden parts of me and sun-warm my soul. So I left.

I grabbed my keys and my bag and went someplace I’ve never been. But being there didn’t calm me down – going there did. Just getting out of this place made a difference. I got a chance to be quiet in the way that’s best for me: to be in a crowd of people and not speak to anyone and feel their energy around me. I got to see the first bare branches of the year and feel the way winter is sneaking up on the South. (It’s coming in with a whisper this year, like it can sneak right by us and pretend we never saw it, but I’m not fooled. I’ve seen the signs, I know it’s on its way.)

So often I feel as if I need to force myself to be happy ways that don’t feel quite right as if doing anything unnatural will actually help. Maybe it’s time to accept that often the easiest way to make me happy is to be on the road to somewhere with my music playing and letting my mind wander to wherever it needs to go. The only way I can write is by being places that make me question everything – how and why we do what we do. How to get from A to B. The more I question, the more I write. The more I write, the more I understand.

But I don’t question things here. I know how things work, I know what’s around, I know what each day is going to look like before it happens. So I need days like today – I need to remember that sunlight and autumn breezes exist in places that are not here and that I can go find them on my own and sit in the quiet of everybody else’s conversations and let go. I need to fill myself up with questions and play with them over and over, to see the tiny cracks in them where more questions live, and I need to find answers. Because I’m worried that if I don’t I’ll never write anything that scares me again.


An Answer To The Impossible Question: Why?

15-ish hours ago I boarded a plane and landed 12.5 hours later in a different hemisphere, thousands and thousands of miles away from the people I love.

Why did I do this?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer for months now. I’ve been telling people the same rote answers – because I can, because it’s pretty, because who am I accountable to, because when will I get to do this again? These are all true, but they are not the truth. Until I got on that plane, I don’t think I knew why I had to come.

I’m running away.

I am every child that has ever shoved their stuffed animals and favourite t-shirt into their backpack and walked to the end of the driveway. I am every teenager who stared longingly at their car or stopped a little too long in the train station, wondering what they could put in a note to make people understand why they had to go. Because when you need to run away, when everything in you says, “Go, go, go!” the people who don’t hear that chorus pumping through their veins have trouble understanding just what could make you want to leave. It’s nice where you’re at, it’s comfortable. But there is something in your heart screaming and it drowns out everything else.

I’m not running from people or a place or a situation, though. I think I’m running away from myself. I’m running away from the person I’ve been – I’m going halfway across the world to sacrifice her to the gods of travel and the ocean and the written word. I’m running away from the person that made her decisions because somebody else wanted her to. I feel like I’ve spent so much of my life basing my choices around other people that it feels incredible to make them for me. And selfish. And stupid.

But I keep getting the feeling this will be the last time I run away. This will be the last time I look at my life and say, “No, I can’t do this, don’t make me do this anymore.” Because now I’m not making plans based around anybody else – wherever I go from here, whatever I decide, it will be for me. It will be a choice. I will not fall into a place or a job just because it’s convenient or because I think I should want it. Fuck shouldShould has no place in my life.

I don’t know what I’m doing here. I have pretty much no plan. But I need to prove to myself that I can do this – that I can take off and do something totally unfamiliar and be okay. If I’m ever going to feel like I’m choosing my life, I need to do this. And wherever I go from here, it’ll be what I want and I’ll choose it for my own reasons, and that is far more than enough for me.

So sometimes you end up on an accidental scavenger hunt

So, I have this bad habit of having accidental adventures. They seek me out and I am suddenly in the middle of one before I even knew adventure was a possibility.

When I was 19 my parents had moved from Singapore to Bangkok and I went home to visit for the summer. It was pretty lonely, I’m not going to lie. I loved seeing my family, but my friends were in Singapore and I didn’t have a whole lot to do to kill time. I went to the gym, I took tennis lessons, I watched a lot of TV. It wasn’t the best way to spend a summer, but I guess it could have been worse.

But given how boring it was, you can understand how, when I found out my friend Nat was going to be in Thailand for a bit, I got excited. Very excited. Slightly unreasonably excited. And when I get that excited, the little voice in my head that says, “Hey, maybe plan things?” goes away. It goes very, very far away.

So Nat and his mom invited me to come hang out with them for a night and I agreed before really figuring things out. My friend was in town and I was bored and I was going to hang out with my friend. Period. I was not going to let teeny, tiny, insignificant problems like the fact that I don’t speak Thai and that my dad would have the car and I was completely unfamiliar with the city stop me. No. I was going to have a night with my friend!

It is at times like this that I wish I was a slightly more practical person. Maybe I could have written down the address of their hotel? Maybe I could have gotten a phone number? I don’t know. Maybe I could have done something is all I’m saying. But I didn’t. The day came and I called a taxi and I got ready. I vaguely knew where I was going in that I knew I would have to take a taxi to the Skytrain and the Skytrain to another taxi to the hotel. Probably.

Well, problem number one was that I did not speak Thai and my taxi driver, for reasons as crazy and complicated as he lived in his own country and spoke his own language did not speak English. Unphased, I said “I need to go to x Skytrain station,” in my barely-rehearsed Thai. He heard “Skytrain” out of my babble, nodded, and away we went! And away and away and away. If Thailand had corn fields, we would have been driving through them. It looked like no road I’d ever been on, but we kept going and, 500 baht later, we ended up at the Skytrain station.

Then and only then did I realise I didn’t know where I was going.

I’m going to let that sit there for as second. I didn’t know where I was going. I. Am. Brilliant.

But I saw two tourists standing on the platform with a map, so I approached. “Hey, sorry to ask, but could I borrow your map for a second?”

“No problem!” they said. “Actually, we have a spare. Here, take it.”

They handed me the map and I unfolded it. It is at this point that I should admit to one of my biggest failings as an adult: I can’t read a map. I mean, I kind of can if you give me two hours and I can spin it around a few times, but otherwise? Nope. No can do. Especially not under a time crunch.

And especially, it turns out, not when the map is in German. Because yeah. It was in German. Because wouldn’t you end up with a map with places names in two languages you don’t read? Doesn’t that happen to everybody? (Tell me yes. Please?)

So I the train comes and I get on the one I assume is going into the city and I sit down and unfold my map and generally look like a completely lost little moron because that’s exactly what I am. The woman next to me takes a look at it and says, “Where are you going?” in a surprisingly American accent given that she is Thai.

I told her the name of the hotel, and she said, “Oh, no wonder you’re having trouble! It’s fairly new so it’s not on that map. I use to work there, though. Do you have a pen? I’ll write down the address in Thai. Get off the train at Sukhumvit and grab a taxi.” She tore a piece of paper out of a notebook, wrote something down, and handed it back to me.

“Thank you so much!”

“No problem! Have fun.”

So I folded the map up put it in my bag, and clutched the piece of paper she gave me for dear life. I got off the train at Sukhumvit station, got in a taxi, and handed the piece of paper to the driver. He read it, passed it back, and away we went!

And away and away and away.

There is a kind of terror I did not know existed until we lost sight of the city. When a city as large and well-lit as Bangkok disappears, that is when your confidence evaporates and you start to think that possibly you are not embarking on an adventures so much as you’re doing something dangerously stupid and you will wind up being a cautionary tale passed from expat mother to expat mother.

And then, out of nowhere, the hotel appeared. We pulled in, I paid the driver, and I walked up to the concierge desk.

“I’m looking for [redacted]. Can I get their room number?”

“Miss Gundle?” he said.

“Yes?” (I know my own name, but when other people know it and pronounce it correctly, I get very confused.)

“They’ve gone to dinner already, but they’ve left you a note.”

I’d missed them by about 10 minutes. They’d gone ahead to the restaurant, the note said, (Cabbages and Condoms, my favourite place in Bangkok), but they hoped I’d join them there.

Well, I mean, duh. I hadn’t come all this way and risked being sold into sex slavery or killed in a ritual sacrifice, or, I don’t know, ROBBED to not have dinner. Ever helpful, the concierge wrote down the address of the restaurant in Thai and handed it to me so I could give it to the taxi driver.

I went outside and got into the first taxi in the queue which happened to be the same taxi I’d taken to the hotel. Of course. I got in, said a quick, “Sawasdee ka,” and gave him the new address. He laughed. He laughed at me and I had no idea why but I laughed a little bit, too, and we started driving.

About ten minutes later, I understood why he laughed, and I started to laugh, too. The restaurant, it turns out, was a mere two blocks from the Skytrain station where he’d picked me up the first time. Because of course it was.

So at this point, I had a German map, two notes in Thai, and one note in English. And if that’s all I’d collected that night, it would have been fine. But the night kept going.

At dinner over prawn crackers and great curry Nat’s mom asked what we had planned.

“I think we said we were going to stop by Pat Pong,” Nat said. His mom’s eyebrows shot up, and no wonder. Infamous for strip clubs and pirated goods, it was not exactly where well-raised teenage boys should be hanging out. (Did I mention Nat was only 15? 16? Something like that? Because he was.)

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of them. My mom banned me from taking them anyplace seedy.”

“Okay, good. Well, we’re headed to Chatuchak tomorrow, so don’t let them buy anything, okay?”

“No problem!”

Now, it was true that my mother had banned me from taking the boys (Nat and his 20-year-old cousin, Seth) to a strip club. But it is also true that banning me from doing something is the fastest way to make me want to do that particular thing more than I’ve ever wanted to do anything in my life. I had absolutely no desire to go to a Thai strip club, especially one famous for a Ping Pong Show, but being told I absolutely could not under any circumstances take my friend to one meant that my whole evening was planned around doing exactly that.

His family left us after dinner and we decided to have the full tourist-in-Bangkok experience. We took a tuk-tuk to Pat Pong and were horribly overcharged. The first guy that said, “Ping Pong Show?” got a firm nod and we followed him like oversized ducklings. We got to the door of the club and they told us the cover charge. 500 baht.

“I’m not paying 500 baht,” Nat said. “No way. I don’t want to see it that much.”

At this point, I thought we were lost for sure. We weren’t going to go and I was going to keep my promise to my mother and I could pretend to be a good daughter for another day.

I should have had more faith in Nat. I should have known that a teenage boy mere inches from a strip club could be trusted to find a way in.

Dude started to bargain like a champ. In the end we agreed to pay 200 baht but pay full price inside if we ordered anything to drink. We passed our money over and walked in the door to the seediest, most disgusting strip club I could have imagined. Bored girls with numbers attached to their bikini bottoms were swaying onstage, lightly holding the poles in front of them and rolling their eyes when they thought they could get away with it.

Honestly, I’m not even going to describe the show except to say that about halfway through it, Nat leaned over to us and stage-whispered, “Um…am I supposed to be turned on right now?”

“NO!” we both said. “No, trust me, this is NOT what sex is.”

“Oh. Okay. Good.”

The instant the show finished, we bailed and went to an Irish bar (because isn’t there always an Irish bar?). Before we left, though, I nabbed a coaster just to add to my collection of random stuff I’d accumulated over the course of my accidental scavenger hunt.

A few drinks later, we grabbed a taxi and went back to the hotel. The next morning at breakfast the boys were at the buffet and Nat’s mom and I were sipping coffee.

“Did you kids have a good time last night?” she asked.

“Yeah, it was a lot of fun!”

“Oh, good! You didn’t let them buy anything, did you?”

I flashed back to the girls dancing and all the different things you could pay them to do and shook my head.

“No, ma’am. I convinced them that anything they could buy last night they could find cheaper someplace else.”

When a big step forward looks like a giant step back

Tonight it felt like I was living my old life, the one where I was trapped on a conveyor belt being judged on my value-for-money for a global corporation and not on what I wanted to do.

That part of my life was so necessary, but I also was ready for it to be over. So I’m sure you can see that going straight back to it wasn’t exactly my dream when I signed up for my MSc. I wanted a different path entirely, and I was ready to drop everything for it. And, in the end, I did. I dropped my job and my car and my friends and my fear and my pretence. I dropped it all and became somebody who had learned to strip herself bare and expose the scariest parts to the world. Sans context, of course, but has that ever made writing less scary?

But adventures have a way of being more stubborn than I care to admit, and so I’m back, standing on the bridge I was careful not to burn, looking back on Scotland and waving. It looks so far away from here.

What I know now, though, that I didn’t know the last time I was here, is that this is a bridge. This is not my whole life, this is not my island. This is the place I can rest and save and enjoy the company of people I love dearly. This is no longer a restless place – it is a supremely restful one. And I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful that I am lucky enough to have a place like this, and friends like this, and a world like this. All too often we let things slip through our fingers before we even realise what we were holding, let alone that we’ve let it go.

So I will sit here and hold this part of my life gently and carefully and when the time for it is done I will set it aside very carefully so that, when I’m ready or when I have to, I can pick it up again and know that everything will be just fine.

A brittle kind of peace

I’ve been trying to think of the word “brittle” lately. I knew we had a word that meant more than “fragile”, that implied that something was easily shattered, but it wouldn’t come to mind. It ran and I chased it, and I only just caught up.

Brittle is how I feel. The peace in my life right now – the knowledge that I did what I could, that the path I wanted isn’t meant for me – could shatter at any second and cut everybody around me when it breaks.

Most of the time, I’m living an adventure. Exploration has always been the name of the game, after all. Most of the time I think about the wide world opening up in front of me and I’m happy. Excited, even. For a while I let myself lose sight of it, I let myself think that settling down and putting down solid roots could be an adventure. I thought that it was going to be okay for me, that I’d be able to do it just right. And maybe I could have. Maybe I could have settled in, gotten comfortable. But visa restrictions being what they are, I couldn’t do it. I had to leave. And so I boarded a plane and told myself I’d be back one day.

I hope that’s true.

I’ve been in Sweden for the past week, recuperating. I’ve been sleeping as long as I need to, feeding my body good food, laying off the booze. I’ve been reading and writing and letting myself dream. And I’ve booked a ticket home.

What a funny word, “home”. What odd implications. I always thought it was the place you wanted to go back to. The place your adventures started from. But I think maybe Robert Frost is right – it’s the place that can’t turn you away. Scotland doesn’t want to be my home right now. I don’t want North Carolina to be my home. I want the whole damn world to be my home, I want Edinburgh to be my home. Can I have both? Can I explore and be rooted, especially to a place that won’t have me? I don’t know. I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know.

The people that tie me to a place have always been important. I’m going back to NC and I get to see some of the people I love most in the world – my family, my friends, my Amazons. I get to spend time with them and snuggle babies and meet new boyfriends and girlfriends and pets. And I get to do it knowing this is a temporary stop, and that makes it scarier and more precious.

I have a growing allergy to things. I am getting rid of them, giving them away, selling them when I can. I can’t stand the idea of stuff clogging up my life. I want to buy a backpack and wander. I wish I’d done it earlier, actually. I wish I’d downsized ages ago, then maybe it wouldn’t be so hard. Maybe I wouldn’t be so restricted. But I believed in the path I was on, and I embraced it whole-heartedly. And I believe in this path even more.

And so I am heading off into a world of adventure with a restless spirit and the knowledge that if I look back, I’ll turn to salt or shatter, and I think that maybe that’s exactly how it should be.

How do you measure time?

I was talking to my mom today and I was telling her that I’m trying to get out there and date again. After having my heart broken and nursing the wounds for almost a year, it’s time to think that maybe, possibly, somewhere out there a guy exists who is better than the one who left me. The one who will tell me he still loves me but can’t be with me, as if that will somehow make this easier instead of pouring an ocean’s worth of salt on the wound.

And at some point in our conversation, she told me I measure time in relationships. That my dad measures it in music – he will remember a time in part based on what songs were popular, as if his life has a playlist only he and the top 40 charts can remember – but I measure mine in men.

This is frighteningly true.

In a lot of ways, I’m fiercely independent. I will do what I want, when I want to – unless there is a guy in my life to take into consideration. And, spoiler alert: there is almost always a guy in my life. I remember some better than others, and some weave their way in and out of my life at different times, but there is almost always some guy at least in the background.

And that’s a weird thing to acknowledge. I want to say that I don’t need a guy, that I can live a perfectly happy life without one, and I am determined to make at least the latter half of that true. But I think I’m the kind of person that does need somebody – I think I’m better in a relationship. I’m more considerate, definitely. I have to squash the petty annoyances and selfish habits that I am prone to when I’m on my own, and I think that’s a good thing.

If things don’t work out the way I want them to – if I don’t get to stay here, if I can’t make Scotland see me the way I see it – I have a back up plan. And this is the first plan in 10 years that isn’t dictated by a guy. When I moved over here (partly for the guy I was seeing at the time), I said to anybody who would listen that New Zealand was my back up plan. If I couldn’t find a way to stay here, I’d go there.

“New Zealand is our back up plan,” my then-boyfriend once corrected me.

“Oh, yeah. Our back up plan. Sure.”

(You could say that’s proof that I *don’t* actually squash the selfish part of me when I’m in a relationship. I say it’s proof that I was already starting to understand that the relationship I was in wasn’t a good one.)

I still hope it doesn’t have to happen. I still want to stay here. But it’s nice to think that I could make a decision for myself for once. Because when I think about this year, there are two things that define it for me. Writing is the first – it was the primary goal when I came here: to give myself time to write and time to be around other writers. But the second? The second is an Irish guy with bright blue eyes who always remembered the things I told him (but let me tell him the same stories over and over anyways) and made me laugh even when I didn’t want to.

If I have to get over him, if I have to give up the place that I love most and move past the person I still want the most – well, I’m going to do it from someplace breathtakingly beautiful.

Two more weeks to the end and the beginning of everything

So there is this thing coming up called a dissertation deadline and it’s really putting a cramp in my style. It’s also making me panic in a million different ways.

You’ve heard me talk about how much I love Scotland, right? The dissertation deadline is the thing that says, “Hey, that reason you’re here? Doesn’t exist anymore. Figure something else out, stat.” Which freaks me out, because to be honest, I love it here. I almost kinda sorta never want to leave. I mean, for trips and stuff, sure. But man oh man do I love it here.

But two weeks from now could be the beginning of something, too. Well, actually, a little less than two weeks. You see, I don’t know if I said this before, but I’m reading at the Book Festival. As far as these things go, this is a big deal. This is the largest book festival in the world. I’m reading on opening day. Am I scared? Yes. Am I going to do it anyways? Heck to the yes.

In truth, I have no idea what my life is going to turn into in the next few months. I have an ideal scenario, and it’s surprisingly modest. I want a job that will enable me to stay here. I want to keep writing and become a known face in writer-type events around town. I want to keep making good friends and meeting cool people. I want to publish a book in the next few years. I’d like a serious relationship.

I think there is space in the world for big dreams, for people who want to change everything and have everything. But the more I think about it, the more I want a life that has all the things I care about (family, friends, writing, travel), without too much craziness. Maybe because I’m on the edge of a change I don’t know that I want, I’m craving stability. It’s weird for me, I know. Maybe the wanderlust will come back if I get a job and I can stay here for a while. Maybe the ache to go away and explore for a while will rise up and overwhelm me and I will choke on all the places I could have gone and didn’t.

But maybe not.

Leaving the Elephants In: Life as a TCK

So, for the most part, TCKs tend to be well-adjusted, comfortable with change, confident, and filled with wanderlust. Sure, there’s a part of us that longs to settle down – many of us do! – but there is something deep in us that says, “Are you sure you want to stay here? I mean, really sure?” If we found home, I’m not totally convinced we’d know what to do with it. We are geographic commitmentphobes. But you’ll never see somebody walk so confidently through an airport they’ve never been to, I can guarantee that. I can navigate strange airports more accurately than I can navigate around cities I lived in for years.

But there is loneliness that comes with being a TCK, too. It’s isolating. It’s feeling like everybody around you is marching along, perfectly in sync, and you put your shoes on the wrong feet.

Today I am living a life I am perfectly happy with, a life I chose and worked hard to make happen, and I broke down crying because I’m missing major events in my friends’ lives. My friend Brit got engaged. My friend Dre’s babies turn one next month. People are buying houses and getting promoted and doing the things that make up a life, and I am so far away from them I can’t just pick up the phone to talk to them. I hear their voices in Instagram videos, I see their faces on Snapchat.

But then, yesterday a friend I haven’t seen since I was 14 suggested I be his +1 to a wedding in Thailand this fall. My life is a balance of feeling so far away I could cry and feeling like we all have the potential to be right back together again within 24 hours.

You want to know what being a TCK is really like? That sums in up in a nutshell. It’s lonely, but it’s wonderful. I’m constantly aching to see the people I love, but I’m connected to so many people I can’t think of a continent where I wouldn’t have a friend.

You want to know what it feels like, though? Well, when I’m around non-TCKs (especially in the States), it feels like I am a fuzzy version of myself. I don’t have clearly defined edges, because that would imply that my borders are impermeable, that they even exist, that people understand them when they see them. No, I fade, dissolving bit by bit into the space I’m in. My core is visible, but you’d never be able to exactly trace the transition from shoulder to sky if you were looking at a picture of me. When I’m around TCKs, I’m vivid, boldly outlined, all bright colours and clear memories. I expand and take up all the space in the room because I am so full of stories and laughter and the ease that comes from being allowed to tell a story and “leave the elephants in” as one friend put it.

You see, when I tell stories to non-TCKs, I edit them. I don’t talk about the frustrations, because that looks ungrateful. I don’t talk about the initial weirdness because I neither want to convince people that travel is scary nor exoticize the places I’ve lived. I don’t talk about the luxury, because that makes me a snob. So when I talk about the traffic problems in Bangkok and how construction slows everything to a stop and you sympathize, what you’re not hearing is that I always enjoyed it because I could watch the elephants drag steel beams around. But if you’re German but grew up in Tanzania, Singapore, and Mexico, then you know how bizarre things get and I can relax. I can leave the elephants in, because I know that somewhere in your stories, there’s something you’re used to leaving out, too.

Maybe what it comes down to is I want to be able to live both lives. I want to be able to live all of my lives – to live out every life I’ve left behind, every corner of the globe I’ve been forced to abandon or have abandoned of my own free will. I want to see who I would have been had I stayed in each place. I never feel whole – I always feel like something is missing or that I have more than enough. My heart is hollow or overflowing, and it changes from hour to hour.

That’s what being a TCK is. It’s never, ever being able to be just any one thing. It’s never being able to stop and just be normal, because part of you thinks that normal is boring and the other part of you thinks you’re not strong enough to be normal. It’s being proud of being different and wanting to fit in so badly you think you’ll explode every time you try and fail. It’s feeling like if you have everything, if you are everything, you can be nothing, too. It’s seeing that in claiming every identity you could have, you no longer get to leave any behind, and that in never feeling entitled to claim any identity, you might not even have a self to express.

So, if you want to know what being a TCK is, it’s all of that. I know it might not seem positive if you haven’t lived it, but trust me – I wouldn’t change it for the world.