Life in Laos through the lens of a diplomatic wife raising twin toddlers.
I have a big anniversary to celebrate this year. It’s the 10th year anniversary of starting my life completely over again by quitting my investment banking job and buying a one-way ticket to Nairobi. It may have been one of the many new ‘beginnings’ in my life, but to me it was the most significant.
My first new beginning took place was when I was six years old when my family moved from Thailand to the United States. I quickly picked up English in school. I legally changed my Thai name adopting a more ‘American’ first name and took my American step-father’s surname. I grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods and attended predominantly white schools. I fit in pretty well, probably because I thought I was just like everyone else. Until I was in 5th grade, I always envisioned that my future babies would look like the blond-blue-eyed Gerber baby on the front of baby food jars. But I remember one day sitting in the back of a classroom and realizing vividly that I was the only one in the entire room with jet black hair. Oh, I’m not blond? Shoot. I had to start looking at myself a little differently after that and wasn’t surprised when my middle school teachers selected me to be in the advanced science and math classes with my Japanese classmate, the only other Asian in my class (because we’re all oh so smart *pat pat on the head*). I was, however, bewildered by college and financial aid applications where I had to tick ‘Pacific Islander’ when Thailand wasn’t really an island. I digress…
After graduating from college, I wanted to work with non-government organizations (NGO’s) doing international work, so I started managing scholarship programs for PhD research in Asia. It turned out to be fun work that took me to Japan frequently, fulfilling my wanderlust desires while allowing me to help doctoral students fund their dissertation research. But after a few years of living in New York City making next to nothing, I decided to try working in a large international bank on large finance projects overseas, projects like building roads, bridges and other infrastructure that developing countries desperately needed. At least I would make more money, get to travel and still be helpful to society. (Little did I know at that time that those large infrastructure projects were often times implemented to support natural resource extraction for large foreign corporations.) Well, I didn’t get into project finance right away, but I did land a job in a large international bank selling financial derivatives (I can hear the “booos” now). Yup, I helped sell derivatives just to get in the door. But behind that door, they paid me well and banks have a lot of doors that open up and lock you in. They paid me an annual bonus determined by my previous years’ performance. So if you worked hard and earned a lot of profits, the bigger your bonus would be at the end of the year. Who wouldn’t stick around for more money? This system trapped me in for years. They even sent me from New York to Singapore to help Asian companies raise capital by issuing bonds in various markets around the world. Woo! Hoo! My dreams had come true for travel. I was living the life but somehow I was super unhappy and unfulfilled, both an understatement for that decade of my life.
So I quit my banking job on the day my bonus cleared in my bank account. I walked into my boss’s office and said, “This is the perfect time for you to find the right person for my job.” I packed up my apartment in Singapore and bought a one-way ticket to Nairobi. Why Nairobi? Because the last passion I remembered truly having was during my college studies of international development when I would researched inexhaustibly about why there was such divergent income inequality in the world, particularly among the resource rich countries of Africa. I wanted to do something about it but I had gotten completely sidetracked by my banking career so the only way to ‘catch up’ was to just go straight to Africa and find the passion that got left behind in the revolving door of banking bonuses. And because I had no idea how long that would take, or where my travel would lead me, I did not know from where or when I would buy my departure ticket. Nor did I know the next destination for that ticket. The only thing I knew for certain was that I had to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro before I did anything else in Africa. I didn’t want it to literally loom over the rest of my journey. Once I reached that summit, I was ready to take on the continent and find my new beginning.
Then after five months of roaming around nine countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, I determined that I really needed to get my feet wet working with rural communities and joined the US Peace Corps. When they asked me to go to Uzbekistan I had to look it up on a map before I said, “Why not?!” Turns out that’s where I met and married my American husband. We were in the same volunteer group together and had made a very similar decision to join Peace Corps after ending our corporate careers. It marked the beginning of yet another beginning, and in a lot of ways, it was a dream come true. We both began pursuing careers in humanitarian aid and development together. We worked in Sudan and Indonesia doing exactly what I had been wanting to do all my life, and I was doing it with someone I loved who also shared the same passions and values. I’ve since become a full-time mother of twins as well, which is a whole other beginning altogether that I’ve dedicated to a whole other blog.
All of these beginnings have been significant in my life, but the one that really stands out and lead to realizing my dreams and reconnecting with my passion in life was the decision I made 10 years ago to buy that one-way ticket to Nairobi.
What decision(s) have you made that turned your life towards your true passions?