Life: Real and Imagined

Growing up in the United States as the child of immigrants who didn’t know or care to know about the quintessential American childhood experiences and rites of passage, I didn’t get to take pilgrimages to what are considered iconic vacation destinations for families, including Disney World. Nevertheless, I eagerly looked forward to the Disney movies on Sunday evenings —The Wonderful World of Disney. My eyes glued to the television, I would dreamily stare as the beautiful castle appeared, evoking images of “happily ever after” and magical childhood days.

Many years later, I had a chance to go to Orlando, Florida, for a few days for a work conference. My husband and I visited a couple of theme parks. Watching the visitors swarming around me, I observed a complete disconnect between my idealized visions of being at Disney and reality. While good-looking, well-dressed, smiling families with well-behaved children happily enjoy the amusement park in television commercials and magazine ads, reality was quite different: the grown-ups, many of whom were unkempt and overweight, looked tired, sweaty, and frazzled; kids were crying and screaming everywhere, also tired, sweaty, and frazzled; and everyone looked like they just wanted to go home.

For most of my adulthood, I had ideas, pictures, dialogues, and even movies, in my head about my own life and how it’s supposed to be, whether conscious or not. And I’m certain I’m not alone. Since birth, we’re inundated with messages from our families, the world around us, and the media, about how things are “supposed” to be, and it’s truer than ever today because of the proliferation of the Internet and electronic devices. From smaller and more mundane matters, such as the color of clothing and children’s toys, to bigger, more momentous occasions such as the Christmas holiday and childhood milestones, we are taught from an early age what these “events” should look like.

Then there’s life—in life, we’re supposed to (and we’re supposed to want to) “achieve” certain things, from getting well-paying jobs to home ownership to marriage to becoming parents. The list goes on and on. And even though we don’t consciously plan out every detail of everything we do to make our lives “just so,” I believe our actions and decisions are at the very least unconsciously influenced by expectations and judgments.

A while ago, I came across this article by Oliver Burkeman discussing the disconnect between our plans and reality, and how setting goals can actually kill our creative selves and push us farther from our goals. The article resonated with me; it articulated for me the reason I had become so goal-oriented in my adulthood. I was reminded of my younger self, who allowed herself the freedom of dreaming and imagining, taking risks, taking each day as it came and seeing what was in store for her, and being open to what life had to offer. I realized how limiting and damaging our internal life stories can be, and how much unhappiness they can create in us when they don’t correspond with our realities, which they usually never do — because, let’s face it, life is messy and chaotic, and our inner dialogues allow for neither.

Then Thailand happened. Living there was very liberating for me. I felt content, freed from the confines of all the expectations and judgments that encumbered me throughout my life. I took each day as it came and went with the flow. Being able to let go, I could enjoy the adventure for what it was, and being able to accept the unpredictability of life led to more inner peace and self-acceptance than I had ever felt in my life up to that point.

Living in Thailand also empowered me. Being in a new country, surrounded by the unfamiliar—the culture, the language, customs, foods, even how to get the groceries from the market to home—goes a long way in instilling confidence and self-reliance. It also dispels any notions one might have of how life should be lived. It’s difficult to have preconceived ideas about how something should go when one has no idea of the norm or what’s possible.

After two years at “home” in the United States, I admit that I have forgotten a little bit of what I had learned about myself and life while in Thailand. The frenzy of the daily grind that is typical of life in an American city has returned me somewhat to a survival mode of sorts, to a state of complacency and laziness. Life is hectic and I have no time to stop and smell the roses. I have again become uneasy and hesitant about uncertainty and unpredictability, neither of which can be avoided in life.

But we’re venturing overseas again, this time back to my birth country of Taiwan. Because of my connection with, and knowledge of, Taiwan and its language, customs, and culture, it won’t be quite the same adventure as Thailand was. I know there will be expectations and presumptions about me that won’t be easy to overcome, simply because I’m “M.I.T.” (“Made in Taiwan”). There will be bittersweet memories and the baggage that comes with it. I will be expected to live a certain narrative on occasion, behave in a particular manner. Nevertheless, I resolve to re-learn and keep in my mind and heart all the hard-earned lessons I gained in Thailand, so that I will again feel free to be who I am, to embrace the unknown and welcome life’s possibilities, and to live life with optimism and hope, as I have already forgotten how to do.

Author: Ann Kreske

As a Third Culture Kid, I was born in Taiwan, but raised in the United States, and have lived in over ten cities and towns in three different countries in my lifetime. In 2013, my husband and I decided to fulfill our lifelong dream of living abroad, and, together with our son, moved to and lived in Thailand for two years. I felt I had arrived “home” living abroad, and we were all bitten by the travel bug. Formally trained as an educator and lawyer, I have worked in the fields of education, editing, special education and disability rights advocacy, and veterans law.

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