It reminded me of one of my favourite quotes by Andre Gide: “You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
It wasn’t from a biography about someone who changed the course of history. Or about someone’s death-defying act.
It was a simple, self-reflecting thought from a stranger’s blog about how she was working up the courage to make what must have been a very important decision. However, she was questioning her courage to do so.
Her uncertainty reminded me about a time when I found myself on the edge of having to make my own significant decision. One that may not have changed the course of history, per se, but it certainly changed the course of my life! At the time, I had to choose whether or not I should literally cross an ocean (the Atlantic, to be precise).
Since I was a little girl, I have been fixated with everything that has to do with England.
I think a lot of it stemmed from when I was first introduced to The Chronicles of Narnia, which I still re-read regularly now. Then, I started devouring Sherlock Holmes, Austen, Bronte…you name it. At the time, I never even realized the common theme to my literary diet originated from English and British writers. As a result, all the people and places became so real to me that I knew I would live there some day. Yes, not just visit, but live.
As I grew up and real life attempted to tame my nomadic spirit, I tried to fulfill this long-time dream in practical ways. I considered doing the proverbial, backpacking “Euro” trip after high school. But, my parents weren’t happy with that idea so they packed my younger brother and I off to Canada’s West Coast instead (we have family in Vancouver that could look after us.)
During university, I looked into an international student exchange opportunity that didn’t pan out because I took some bad advice to leave travel till after I’d gotten the degree. Then I tried to apply for seasonal or summer jobs available to student types that weren’t worth it because after the exchange rate, I could never justify the cost for the airfare let alone the living expenses (why does the GB pound sterling always have to be so strong, eh?)
As life carried on, so did the duties and obligations that kept preventing me from my gazing too longingly across the Pond. After much blood, sweat and tears and I had my fancy Honours BA gracing the wall, I was faced with the typical demands and pressures that a firstborn Asian is always up against:
1) Grad school options preferably in law, medicine…or maybe a MBA (my mom would have been happy if I had decided to marry someone who had already successfully made it through the first 2 tracks and was already practicing).
2) Start that first, entry-level career job at some respectable place where one can climb quickly (in anything that my mom could boast about to her other Asian friends with similarly aged kids facing these exact same options)
3) Take over the family business and grow it to untold heights of profitability (my family owned a Vietnamese restaurant that downsized to a chagio [springroll] franchise that my mother operated at the local farmer’s market, fairs and other public event venues…so as someone who is a disaster in the kitchen or with numbers, this was definitely never a viable route for me).
To my family’s dismay, I chose neither of the above.
Instead, I got accepted to a post-graduate ministry internship (with The Navigators) where I had to raise my own salary. And where my achievement was based on how well I immersed myself into Jesus’ model of incarnational living and downward mobility (e.g., living with the homeless in an inner city and with abandoned children at an orphanage built over a dump site in a third world country).
What a martyr, you may be thinking…so what did all this have to do with my courageous decision to cross the Atlantic?
Through my yearlong internship away from my family for the first time alone living on less funds than I had from my student loans and amongst others who had literally nothing, I still never forgot about this dream of mine. Maybe it’s because the majority of my internship took place in “Beautiful British Columbia.” And maybe because it was during this time that an international exchange student — from a quaint market town named Tring in Hertfordshire, England — ended up in the student resident Bible study that was my task to lead (where the others first mistook him for an Aussie, hehe!)
Ironically, I was still trying to build a sinking sandcastle on the shore of my indecision another few years later when I found myself fighting deep cynicism, racism and capitalism in the heart of Texas (yes, eventually, I gave in to Option Number One above and tried to give law school and a stint at a law firm a good go).
It was during this season of much despair over “what I was going to do with my life” because Texan civil litigation was fast draining my will to live when England again beckoned. This time via the actual voice of my English buddy all the way from Hertfordshire (back in the day when MSN Messenger was still all the rage). He kept insisting that it was about time I checked out his homeland.
So, despite my English pal’s encouragement and Monsieur Gide’s deceivingly simple advice, I still hemmed and hawed at the shore, tasting the salt in the air and willing myself to become a seagull so I could at least leave the sand. Everything within still warred against the pull that was getting stronger than the tide.
Where would I live? How would I support myself? The facts became sticky seaweed inside my mind that refused to let go. After all, let’s face it, it’s nearly impossible to land a decent job in another country without any experience, connections or work visa! Especially in one of the most expensive countries in the entire world!
Well, my friends, call it spontaneity, insanity, immaturity, super spirituality…whatever.
Because I did it.
I dared to leap off the shore and I dove into the ocean…and I crossed it.
With two suitcases, a second-hand coat I discovered at a Value Village (after all, I made the decision to head over in late autumn, and all I had with me were Texan climate appropriate clothes)…and a one-way ticket with the following destination on it:
LGW (that’s London Gatwick Airport’s code in case you were wondering)
And, thus, my childhood wish came true.
I ended up in England for six years. Where I got to visit the homes and favourite haunts of most of my favourite childhood writers (like having tea across from Jane Austen’s home in Hampshire and dining several times at the pub in Oxford where C.S. Lewis and Tolkien used to hang out).
And where I ended up sort of figuring out “what I was going to do with my life!” After several years of struggling to make my way through the English job market, I was offered the opportunity to use my degree (with the odd double major in political science and religious studies), and get paid to write about the incredible children and their families who were breaking through the vicious cycles of poverty through the global relief, advocacy and development work of a respected Christian NGO (that eventually led to my being transferred to its American HQ where I still am today).
So…if you’re still reading my extra long ramblings right now, then I hope you’ve been inspired, encouraged and motivated wherever you are living and with whatever decisions you are wrestling through in your own life right now.
Listen to your heart…take courage.
And, start by maybe dipping your toe into that ocean. I hope that it will entice you to eventually leave the shore because crossing it may just be what you’ve been waiting for.
Then, the rest, as they say, will be (some fabulous!) history.