I’ve been on the writer’s journey since I was a kid. In the second or third grade, I can remember writing a short story in class which involved a certain alien race known as the “Clingons” being used to convince a teaching aid that there was nothing wrong with my reading or writing. If only she knew the truth!
They thought there was something wrong with me, at that time, because my family had just moved from New York City to Maine, and the change was overwhelming. Overnight I went from a happy, high-achieving kid with plenty of friends to a loner with unimpressive grades. I picked up a few friends here and there, but my teachers complained in my report cards that I spent all my time staring out the classroom windows. I was dreaming of escape.
I wrote, read, and played constantly with legos and computer games. I come from a literary family—my great-grandmother is Gertrude Berg—so I had plenty of guidance and encouragement. But it still took me years to get used to the change. In high school, I picked up some of my closest, lifelong friends, and confirmed my passion for books and science. I wound up attending hippy school—Hampshire College—where there were no grades and no tests, but plenty of outcasts like myself. It was paradise.
In my third year there, I became infatuated with a girl, and decided, for some reason, that it would really impress her if I volunteered somewhere abroad. A few months later I wound up in rural Bali at a wealthy patron’s vacation home. I had arrived to teach English, but things were so out of control that I was told to pack my bags one day and offered the job of leading operations there the next. This was another huge change for me. I had set out to stay in Bali half a year, but I only made it three weeks.
(Bali itself was amazing. The program I joined, not so much.)
The return home was even harder than my arrival in Bali. No one had told me that culture shock follows you back like a maniacal specter if you don’t conquer it in the foreign land you’ve gone to in the first place. I was clinically depressed for half a year—sleeping all the time, but always exhausted; never hungry, but devouring tons of food; unable to think of anything to say or do; finding joy in nothing; and, worst of all, no longer writing.
At home on vacation, with the help of more than one therapist and a few months of medication, I set about to recover who I was—exercising and forcing myself to read and write (even if I loathed every word that came out of my pen). It took a few months, but by the time I returned to college for my final year, I was fully recovered, and more resilient than ever.
At the end of my time at Hampshire, I decided that the best I could hope for in America was an office job, and that didn’t appeal to me in the slightest. Traveling the world while learning new languages and cultures sounded far more interesting. The college career office told my that my best bet, if I wanted to travel more or less permanently, was to get an English teaching job in South Korea. A month after graduation, I was in an airport at Busan, extending my hand to greet the people who had come to pick me up.
I should have known better, but man, those first six months were hard. Aside from moving to Maine, they were the hardest in my life. The full experience is recounted, perhaps a tad too harshly, in my book, The Hotel of Insanity. In short, I came close to giving up and leaving again, but my experience in Bali—my knowledge that culture shock does not magically vanish as soon as you flee the shocking culture that caused it—forced me to stick it out.
Things got better. I traveled through Indochina, Turkey, and Georgia, and, back in Korea, met an incredibly awesome woman who revealed to me, several months later—after we had confessed our love for one another—that she was pregnant. Oops! A few months later we were married in a traditional Korean ceremony involving a live rooster and enough bowing to power a sewing machine (or two), and then the next incredibly difficult change in my life began—being a husband and a dad in a foreign country.
That was over six years ago. I have two kids now, and my wife and I have survived tribulations that would make a live rooster’s feathers turn white. My oldest spawn has almost reached elementary school age, and much as my wife and both love living in Korea, we can’t abandon either of our kids to the hagwon machine here. Students spend—no exaggeration—every waking moment memorizing trivia for multiple-choice exams, sleeping five or six hours a night six days a week. Only a few manage to make it through this gauntlet with anything resembling intellectual passion or curiosity intact.
As I write this, I have less than a month to go before we move back to Maine. This may wind up being the hardest change in my entire life. I’ll go from a cushy university job—where I’m respected (or appear to be respected!) and paid enough money to live far more comfortably than most people in history for just a few hours of pleasant rewarding work each week—to the wilds of Maine, where it’s restaurants, lobsters, or decapitating mice, all the time, or you’re on welfare. My only hope lies in books.
I love writing, but I’m not going to be able to do it without your help. If you’ve made it this far, check out my latest sci-fi book. You can download it onto any device for only 99¢.
Thank you for reading all of this. I hope I’ve managed to entertain you—that we successfully dreamed together—and that I can continue to do so in the future.