Sabbatical Travel Takeaways

Patrick Lin
8 min readDec 15, 2019

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Was I transformed from my three month ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ trip in Southeast Asia?

It’s been over two months since I returned from my sabbatical to Asia. The brown stripes of my Keen sandal tan lines are finally fading, and the tropical, sticky summer feels like a lifetime ago in the SF winter rain.

In that time, I’ve regaled many friends with stories from abroad and am often teased with questions like ‘so are you enlightened now after this eat pray love journey?’ I’d joke about how I learned to appreciate having a mattress after 4 days of sleeping on the floor in a monastery and some vague self-congratulatory statement about being independent, but the question is legitimately worth deeper reflection. It simultaneously feels like a lot and nothing has changed. Upon return, I dove straight into blurred weeks of intensive interviewing, work, and a new job, and slipped back into the familiar routine of home life. Aside from my previous article on Asian-American identity, I never took the time to really synthesize my experience.

How much have I actually changed? What were my cultural/educational/introspective moments, and how much was just participating in Asia’s rampant tourist consumerism and collecting cool pictures to flex on Instagram with?

I’m wary of the stereotype of disillusioned urban millennials who ‘solo travel to Southeast Asia for X months and become transformed’ and as I think on my experience, I can’t say it’s really fundamentally remade me. But it did test my character in new ways and teach me about myself — how to be more adaptable, patient, open-minded, and appreciate the common humanity in people.

Some of this post might be me wrestling to quantify an intangible impact and rationalize traveling was a worthwhile experience, but it’s been a valuable exercise nonetheless. Besides, what better way to round out my ‘existentialist techie who started a travel blog’ persona than to write out my first listicle?

So here’s a non-exhaustive list in no particular order:

1. Appreciation for my identity.

As I discussed in my previous article, I’ve traveled internationally many times before, but this trip was the longest time I’ve spent outside of the Bay Area. Breaking out of the SF bubble and mixing with people from legitimately different backgrounds contextualized how unique my cultural and professional identity really is.

At home, it’s common to feel like yet another Asian-American tech employee with immigrant parents who pursued the American dream through self-sacrifice and a tiger-parent, education-focused upbringing in order to climb the social ladder through wealth acquisition, etc. etc. Yet abroad, I was a confusing anomaly straddling two cultures that many had never seen before.

I won’t rehash everything I’ve already written, but I grew to value the perspectives I could bring to people, having grown up with both Eastern/Western cultures and developed an insider view of how tech companies think. As the ‘Silicon Valley representative’, there were plenty of times where I would field questions ranging from industry regulation to ‘does Instagram really record my microphone without me knowing?’ At times, it was exciting to see how widespread the impact of this industry has been, but also unnerving to see how poorly understood it is.

2. How to be in awe of nature again, and finding wholesome, simple joy.

After roaming hundreds of miles through Asian countrysides, I also realized how locked up in city life I’ve been, particularly this past year. It’s incredibly easy for me to stay in SF for weeks on end — there are always friends to catch up with, birthdays and concerts to attend, and new hipster places to eat at.

It’s not that nature isn’t readily available — California has tons to see. I just haven’t bothered to visit Yosemite in years, stopped snowboarding in Tahoe, and haven’t been to any other national park since my post-graduation road trip. Even going over the bridge to Muir Woods requires finding someone with a car, which has been enough to dissuade me.

But nature is beautiful. Seeing straight-up jaw-dropping (though my reaction is usually muttering ‘holy shit’ and then pulling out my camera) skyscraper-sized caverns and alien rock formations in the world’s largest caves in Vietnam, and unending jungle expanses from giant treehouses in the Laotian jungle really slapped me to my senses with Earth porn. And hiking through tropical storm downpours in leech-infested jungles reopened my eyes to nature’s extremes after a lifetime in the always mild Bay Area. I really should make more effort to urban detox once in a while.

In another form of nature, I experienced some of the purest, most childlike giddiness of the entire trip at the Duck Stop in Phong Nha National Park. For context, this was the top TripAdvisor attraction for months in an area that has tours of the world’s largest cave systems. I won’t spoil exactly what happens (happy to send videos upon request) but the entire experience was a reminder of how bizarrely entertaining life can be without any hedonism.

3. How to enjoy being alone.

It’s kind of crazy to think about how easily today I can drop myself into different societies where I can barely communicate, don’t understand any social customs, and dive into another culture on my own. Sure, the cynical side of me will criticize how much immersion actually happens when sticking to well-trodden backpacker trails and socializing primarily with other English speaking, globalized travelers, but without discussing ‘authenticity’, I certainly connected more with local people, culture, and history when traveling alone versus insulated by a group of friends.

The trip was also a rare occasion for me to be completely and unabashedly selfish. Over time, I’ve become more conscious of my tendency to prioritize others’ needs, as I’m often mediating between the group’s competing interests and constraints when traveling with others. A great skill for product management, sure, but often at the cost of compromising my own wants. On my own, I was able to meander around museums as slowly as I wanted while taking notes, and eat or skip meals whenever I wanted without worrying about others. This relieved a lot of my self-imposed stress that typically comes with travel, and also let me dedicate days to solitary activities like meditation or writing guilt-free.

4. How to better socialize, and appreciate the spontaneity and ephemerality of travel friendships.

I mentioned in my last article how traveling built up my social stamina. In bustling backpacker hostels, I had to push past my tendency to pre-emptively ‘other’ myself as a self-defense mechanism, taking the initiative to approach instead of automatically assuming I wouldn’t be welcome. Over time, I learned to streamline small talk, organize groups ad hoc, and steer conversations. During introductions, for example, I could give a different ‘fun fact’ about San Francisco — 1. how the SF fog is named ‘Karl’ and has its own Twitter handle or 2. how SF spends $30 million a year on cleaning human feces and needles off the sidewalk, depending on whether the audience seemed interested in discussing city trivia or serious societal issues.

I also mentioned the challenges of shedding my social circle with each new city on the backpacker trail. It wasn’t uncommon to be discussing deep stuff — geopolitics, life callings, or existential struggles within hours or even minutes after meeting someone, only to part ways a day later and never see them again. This high turnover was demoralizing at first. Each person I met had a unique perspective, another puzzle piece I could combine to build a broader picture of the world! But while I couldn’t stay in touch with every individual directly, I began regularly reflecting and journaling to make sure I cherished these memories without clinging to them.

Going solo opened me up to more risk at times, but also to the kindness of others. Sure I didn’t have someone watching my back the entire trip, but I learned how quickly I could find people who would. When I look back at some of my most memorable interactions, many of them are from acts of kindness from near-complete strangers — the people who picked me up and shared first aid after I crashed my bike, the hostel that baked me a cake for my birthday, or the hostess who made me congee after I puked my guts out from food poisoning.

5. Affirmation in my own self-resilience and adaptability.

Some of that ‘resilience’ is physical — I’m definitely grateful I did this trip while my body could still handle 13-hour bus rides, multi-day muddy jungle hikes, and copious overeating in stride, for example. But the way the trip has shaped my mindset, and by extension, my personality is far more significant.

For one, it forced me to be less neurotic. While I’ve never extreme enough to plan every segment of a trip down to the hour, I’ve realized I was always implicitly optimizing aspects of travel. For each destination, I’d have a checklist of top tourist sites and must-dos that I would force myself to cross off, constantly striving for the most efficient way to maximize some ‘value’ or novelty out of a trip. The paradox of choice was in full force. If I chose one attraction in lieu of another that turned out to be underwhelming, I’d feel FOMO and regret making the wrong call. If I had failed to anticipate a closed business, paid too much for a ticket, or missed a faster transportation option, I’d beat myself up for lacking foresight.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not sustainable to do this for three months. While there’s certainly value in preparedness, I learned this trip to also appreciate planning in room for spontaneity. One luxury of traveling for an extended period during low season was that I had the flexibility to change plans as I saw fit. If a city was underwhelming, I left early. If I found a group of friends I liked, I could join them for their next destination. In addition to honing my decision-making intuition, this lack of rigid plans also let me enjoy some of my favorite destinations, like Pai and Ha Giang which were planned on the fly after hearing about them from other travelers.

Asia also taught me to be comfortable with idleness. On shorter trips, I feel the time crunch to get through that list of checkboxes, but grinding through TripAdvisor for three months straight really didn’t appeal to me. There were days where I’d just hide in a cafe all day and write, or wander around town, and it was in these moments of relaxation that I found some of my most insightful times.

Lastly, I learned to be kinder to myself. When I’m solo traveling, there’s nobody else to trigger my people-pleasing nature — my own enjoyment is the only thing I have to attend to! So why not give myself a break (and also a pat on the back) for handling all the social challenges, travel mishaps, and ambiguous plans, on my own? It’s certainly not something that just anyone could do. ‘Self-compassion’ is trendy nowadays, but I’ve learned that it’s not always productive to unleash my harshly critical, contrarian side onto myself. It’s ultimately important to set an intention, not an expectation, and be open to life as it unfolds before me.

Originally published at https://www.patricklin.net on December 15, 2019.

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Patrick Lin

Often wandering and wondering. Personal musings on identity, philosophy, and travels. Photography and more at patricklin.net