An Easy Way to Pay for an Asian Adventure

Nine years ago I threw in the towel on a 25-year business career and a six-figure income to go in search of adventure. My life changed forever on September 11, 2001. Friends and business associates died that day. They hadn’t needed more money— they needed more time.

Suddenly the savings I was working to accumulate for retirement didn’t seem so important. A year later I was on the road and since then I’ve worked in rural China, cutting-edge Shenzhen and sexy Shanghai.

I spent three years in a lazy Thai coastal town and recently moved to Jeju Island, Korea.

It was easy to get a job as an English teacher. I had no qualifications except the most important one–I was a native speaker. I did a quick online search for ESL jobs, emailed a few resumes, and within a week I was on the phone with a school recruiter. I accepted her $500-a-month offer to teach in northern China.

Getting the job was easy. Paring down 48 years of accumulated belongings to one small storage unit and two suitcases was not.

When I stepped off the plane, chap-faced Chinese abruptly stopped working and stared. The van that picked me up veered into oncoming traffic on an icy bridge. And a voice in my head whispered that I could get my old job back in Arizona. A second said I would never survive on $500 a month. But a quiet, insistent voice in the background assured me, “This is the life of adventure you’ve always wanted.”

It turned out the $500 a month from that first job was more than enough. I could afford northern Chinese delicacies like spicy silk worms and steaming donkey hotpot. Every week I had a traditional body massage. On Mondays a giggling Chinese woman made quick work of cleaning my apartment. During holidays I headed off to a student’s village or traveled the country with expat co-workers. Meanwhile, I had a ringside seat for China’s dramatic 21st-century makeover.

When I took a job in Shanghai, I found construction was happening at such a frantic pace that people joked that construction cranes were China’s national bird. Renowned international architects flocked to the city, and on my salary I was able to enjoy all that this fast-paced world city had to offer in terms of food, entertainment, and art.

After a month’s vacation in Thailand I then decided to move there. I returned to Shanghai, packed my things, and took off for “the Land of Smiles.” I had no job and little savings. But it didn’t take long to land another teaching job. I picked up writing, too, to supplement my income. Mornings I was in the classroom and afternoons I wrote in beachside cafés while sipping fresh mango shakes. Travel notes scribbled on scraps of paper turned into website copy, travel articles, and even an e-book.

For $300 a month I rented a two-bedroom townhouse and a ringside seat to boisterous local parades. I was ferried around town on a bench in the back of a lime-green pickup for 25 cents a ride. Neighbors showed me how to choose perfectly-ripe mangos from a nearby temple market. For $5 I could buy more than I could carry. The good life cost around $750 a month.

I loved Thailand, but China still whispered my name.

Returning, I went to Shenzhen, a modern melting pot for villagers from around China. I watched in amused fascination as shy country kids dropped their guard and partied the nights away, safe from the prying eyes of family and friends back home. Down alleyways I discovered delicious meals for about $5 per person: spicy steamed crab and crawfish, barbecued garlic eggplant and salty noodle soups.

Until I moved to Korea last year, the most I made in any year was $20,000. Meager by U.S terms, it was more than enough to provide the adventure I was looking for. I’ve traveled to Borneo and Bali, walked the Great Wall, and climbed some of Asia’s highest peaks. I’ve simmered aromatic spices beside bent Chinese grandmothers and young Thai wives. I’ve seen shy students bring honor to their families by heading to graduate school in the U.S. and Germany.

And best of all, I can’t remember a single day when I haven’t learned something new.

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