Gap Year

Gap Year

A few months ago I was at a bar with friends visiting me in Hong Kong.  I had just left work for this sabbatical.  I was then (as I remain) cautiously optimistic about my decision to take a sabbatical.  I was talking with a random stranger at this bar.  I told him my position.  And he said the following: “the problem with you Americans is that you have no gap year.”

So much of the civilized world takes breaks after college or between other big life changes.  Americans generally stitch different phases of life together tightly without a pause.  Then we hit our midlife and wonder how we got there.

I know how lucky I am to enjoy this sabbatical.  Not many people can try the same.  But I suspect the benefits of a gap year apply to smaller projects and changes, too.

We find ourselves on ladders placed in front of us at a young age.  We climb the ladder daily trying to improve our lives and those of our loved ones.  But we rarely step away and ask if we are on the right ladder.  Our actions became habit.  And our habits allow us to sleepwalk through the same program day after day.

How often do you take a different route to work?  When did you last participate in a hobby or activity that was radically different from your previous activities?  Have you ever told a sushi chef to bring his best food without offering any suggestions or limitations on his decision?  These little breaks in behavior and changes in habits can open our eyes and minds to new possibilities.  And, indeed, nurturing a habit of change can become part of our character.

Having a gap in our lives to ask about the last 10 things we did helps us think of the next 10.  But the gap need not be a year.  It could be a moment behind the wheel at an intersection.  A minute in a park considering our destination. My sabbatical is going to come to an end. But I hope my ability to step back and see the big picture remains.


Cultural Awareness (or: How I Learned to Understand Chinese Traffic)

Americans make jokes about Chinese drivers*.  I never knew if an American joking about a Chinese driver was an astute observer or a racist. It can be tough to tell these things apart with racial, national, or cultural generalizations. But I admit in California I surely saw my saw my share of strange behaviors initiated by Chinese drivers: stopping on highway on-ramps, backing up on the highway to turn off an an exit that was accidentally passed, etc.  As a open-minded Californian I resisted the urge to associate these behaviors with any race or culture.  And then I visited China.

Chinese Traffic JamWhen I moved to Singapore I found myself visiting China for business regularly.  As others that have done the same will testify, the roads there are absolutely fucking insane.  In Shanghai I saw a woman slam on her brakes while in the fast lane of a highway. Her tires locked up, smoke billowing out from under the car, the vehicle leaning forward and sliding slightly on the friction of melted rubber, all so she use an exit she was passing. After stopping she gingerly turned the car 90 degrees to the side and idled across the highway through honking 100 KPH traffic.

Taxi drivers entering roads in China usually do not even look to their sides before doing so.  They act on the faith that another driver that might hit them will raise alarm by honking to call attention to the extreme danger they are about to put themselves in.  God knows what happens when horns fail.

But it was in Singapore that I noticed an even stranger phenomenon.  {Read More}