Remote Year Ohana month 4: Part 5 - Serbia
14-30th June, 2018: Belgrade and Mokrin
Getting to Belgrade was hard. The first two days I felt very exhausted from traveling for so long, stressed out by the impending US income tax return deadline, sad from leaving Italy and Susanna, and uncertain and a bit apprehensive about reintegrating with the group. It was the toughest few days since coming to Remote Year. I was questioning why would I not be looking forward to joining the group? I felt bad about it, thinking that I "should" be glad to come back because this is the life that I had chosen. After some thinking, I attributed it to having an amazing time at the INSEAD reunion, in Tunisia, and in Italy, and it made me wonder: could I just do this on my own or with a few people? Do I need a big group to do it? In the end I realized that it was a fleeting thought, that it is normal to have such thoughts and it will probably not be the last time I'll have them, and that I am indeed still getting a lot of value from this group - I'm getting the community, a sense of stability, and certainty among so much instability, ambiguity, and movement. Just the fact that I have an apartment and a group to come back to gives me tremendous sense of comfort that is worth more than I can quantify.
First week in Belgrade: 14th-22nd June
The US income tax return was quite a bit of struggle. Thank god in the end I managed to submit it before the deadline. The feeling of stress every year during this time, granted much of it self-imposed for leaving it to the last minute due to my intense dislike (and to think I have a Master in accounting with a specialization in TAX!), made me question for a few moments whether it is worth it to keep my US citizenship or would it be easier if I applied for a Singapore one. In my state of distress I wondered what is the point of filing and paying taxes every year when I haven’t even lived in the country for the past 10 years? Many other countries like Canada and Singapore don't have such rules. Then I quickly reminded myself of the privilege I’ve had for the past 12 years being an American, such as traveling the world, having options, being able to work anywhere I want. What a privilege that is! How many people would do anything to get that?! My parents being one of them. How can I take that for granted now? America gave my parents and me so much, I want to be proud to be American, and I am, but somehow in the last year or so the feeling of pride and connection to the country had faded a bit.
I was thinking why that is. Partly because of living abroad and seeing the great things that other countries like Singapore can also offer, and partly due to the recent political situation which made me question, is this really the country of freedom and dreams that I believed it was. The advancements and the open-mindedness I’m seeing in other parts of the world, especially Asia, is making me reconsider many of the values that I thought I resonated with so much in the US. Then I think I can’t be a fair weather fan. My love for the country can’t have so many conditions attached to it. Just like with friends or family, it’s give and take, and you love them even for their imperfections. Maybe America is like that for me. If that’s the case, my love for China should be the same, after all it is in my blood. Then what about Singapore? I’ve spent almost the same amount of time there as China and US. What is my relationship with Singapore? What is my relationship with all these countries? Do we have to be loyal to one country? Is our nationality and identity more like with a spouse where we can only have one or can they be like friends where we can have multiple? I don't have the answers but enjoyed thinking about it. Perhaps that is why I have so much trouble answering the question "Where are you from?" I also find it interesting how some countries don’t allow multiple citizenship, like China and Singapore, whereas other countries like the US do. What does it say about the values of these counties?
In the end I am keeping my US passport and am proud of it, just like I am proud to be of Chinese origin, proud to have called Singapore my home for 10 years, and proud to have traveled to over 50 countries and to have had all the amazing experiences and tremendous learning and growth along the way.
After the tough initial couple of days I got back into the routine and started enjoying the Remote Year life again. What really helped was a lovely lunch with good conversations and wine with my new roommates Susan and Holly; having an apartment that is very central and a desk in my room where I could do work; running in the morning,
walking during the day,
and exploring the city with good friends;
and having a nice bakery and a small grocery store downstairs from where I lived. I really fell in love with this pastry Borek, which is a pastry filled cheese, spinach and cheese, or meat. My favorite was the one with cheese.
I had it for the first time when I was in Bosnia 4 years ago. My best friend Marija introduced it to me and I have been dreaming about it ever since. Now I finally got to have it again and it is ever so good!
The other thing that has kept my mental and emotional health throughout the trip has been getting coached, both from my own coach and the practice coaching that I've been having with my certification group. I had written in previous blogs about how coaching has changed my life and had led me to Remote Year; during Remote Year the continuous coaching has been about maintaining my mental strength and working out areas that I still stumble upon. It also helps me to process my emotions which can be quite raw and heightened during a period of so much change and uncertainty. During the tough times my coach always manages to lift me up, helps me to look at things from different perspectives, and opens up areas that I wouldn't be able to on my own. One of the biggest values of having a coach for me is to have a person that truly sees me and believes in me, often more than I even believe in myself. Just having that person in my life already gives me the strength and courage to go further than I would on my own.
That is why I am such a believer in coaching and I want to provide that for anyone who is ready. I also think a Remote Year experience is ideal for complementing it with coaching because of the tremendous learning and the emotional changes that happen during this time. In my interviews with Remote Year citizens for my dissertation research, many have told me that they got just as much out of talking to me about their experience as I did learning about it. Answering my questions helped them to process what they went through during the year, and for most, it was the first time that they had a chance to reflect on their experience since they had finished the program.
Weekend in Mokrin House: 23-24th June
One of my highlights of the two and half weeks in Belgrade was the weekend trip to Mokrin House in the north. We went there for a writing retreat that our program leader Danche organized. Mokrin House is a peaceful, tranquil and bautiful place with lots of greenery and space. I went with a great group of people which made the experience extra enjoyable.
The writing sessions that Danche led were fantastic. They allowed me to tap into the creative part of me that I hadn’t had a chance to develop very much. It’s almost like the time in Cape Town when I did that painting on the rooftop where I was so apprehensive before but ended up loving the experience and producing a painting that was not bad. This time our task was to write stories. In the first session Danche gave us a prompt and asked us to free write. The prompt was “By the time I reached the train station she was gone.” We were told to continue free writing from that sentence based on anything that came up. All that came up for me was my own feelings that trains stirred up and my own memories related to trains. When we took turns reading it out loud I realized we were supposed to write fiction. That made me realize how difficult it is for me to imagine things, to get out of my own mind and into another’s. No wonder I’ve heard that reading fiction can help people develop empathy, which is basically feeling what another person is feeling.
I have a lot of difficulty reading fiction though, because the learner in me always wants to learn something concrete when I read a book. I know in theory we can learn a lot by reading fiction but because it's not as concrete as non-fiction and since I'm not a fast reader I find myself feeling that I could do many other things that would be more productive. And since many good books get made into movies, I feel it'll be much faster to just watch. On Remote Year I feel I have even less time so my desire to read more fiction has not materialized.
In the next two sessions I stretched myself to write fiction, then I realized again how difficult it was and how everything I wrote were things that I have gone through or could connect with. For me to write about something that is completely out my own experience is so hard. But it was such a good exercise and something that I think will serve me a lot to continue doing. Maybe starting to read fiction will be a good starting point.
After each free writing session, we also watched videos that teaches us the elements of good story writing, which helped me to relate it to my own blog. I’m thinking, does my blog have these elements? Definitely not all. That’s why it’s not really a story, perhaps just a compilation of different events, which may or may not be interesting for others. In fact a coaching client gave me the feedback that if I wrote my blog as stories I could capture the audience’s attention more. At the same time, the maximizer in me wants to document everything that was significant. But I could certainly get better at it. I tried to weave in stories in my blog about the INSEAD reunion and Paris and found myself enjoying the experience more. I would love to know whether you like it better. Also the previous blog about Italy seemed to have gotten unusually high number of views. It took me by total surprise and I'm overjoyed and feel so grateful. All of this has given me a lot more confidence and motivation to keep going.
In between writing sessions we also got a chance to explore the surroundings of Mokrin on a bike. It was a beautiful day and we rode through gorgeous sunflower fields and country side of Serbia.
The ride started out great as you can see here.
After a while however, the zooming cars behind me, the less than comfortable bike I was on, and later the strong wind really got to me. I normally love biking but this time I was not enjoying it so much and couldn't wait for it to be over. But now in hindsight, that brief experience of displeasure seems so minuscule compared to the rest of the amazing weekend. That is often the case for me, when I'm in an unpleasant moment it feels such a big deal and all I can focus on is that. But when I look back, those bad moments don't even come into the memory or it seems silly that I even let it get me down. So now when I'm in a bad space I ask myself, is this going to matter in the long run? What is something beautiful I can focus on instead that can change my feeling to a pleasant one? It's similar to some of the tools and skills I use with my clients when they feel stuck, I get them to view the same topic from different perspectives or see it from a meta-view, and almost always they come out feeling less stuck and having more options.
Last week in Belgrade: 25-30th June
My last week in Belgrade I finally got to see Marija, my best friend from INSEAD. It was so amazing to have been able to live in her home city for sometime, albeit short. My first time in Belgrade was over 5 years ago in between a meeting in Milan and another one in Basel, back when I was managing Asia Pacific corn portfolio for Syngenta. It was only a short weekend, although I remember being really taken by surprise by how lovely the city is. This time, being able to spend more time here and getting to feel the lively vibe and the warmth and genuineness of the people, I grew to like it even more.
It was so good to spend some time with Marija in her and her parents' apartment outside the city, to walk around the city with her, seeing the city through her eyes, to have her join me for a group dinner one night and meeting many of the important people in my current life, and to have one last stroll through the city and passing by the park and restaurant where she had her wedding reception. It was truly a special experience and my heart still feels warm when I think about it.
Another huge achievement I made in Belgrade, also big thanks to Marjia, was to get my luggage down to a carry-on suitecase and a backpack. It may not seem like a big deal but if you can imagine I came on this trip with close to 60KG, and now to get it down to less than 20KG is quite monumental for me. The idea that it is even a possibility started from conversation with a friend and Remote Year citizen Matt in Marrakech, where he said he had been traveling the world for 3 years with a carry-on and a backpack. I was amazed and said I could never do that, I even wrote about it in that blog! But that planted a seed in my head.
After 4 months being on the road, I managed to do it and I'm quite proud of myself. But it wouldn't have been possible without the many friends who have helped me along the way. I'm so grateful to Susan who took about 15KG when she went back home to Orange County California (my parents live in Los Angeles so I figured it would be a close drive), to Grant who took about 7KG when I saw him in Porto, to Antoine who took my big suitcase when I traveled in France, Tunisia, and Italy and who made it possible for me to experience what it's like to travel light and to realize that I didn't actually miss anything in my big suitcase except for one dress, and to Marija who took my gigantic suitcase and is storing it in her apartment in Belgrade.
So now officially my stuff is in 4 locations on 3 continents around the world - Singapore, Southern California, the country side of Portugal, and Belgrade. These are all places I love so it won't be hard to go back, although the utility of anything that is not with me at the moment is questionable. It feels so good to know that I can travel the world and be completely happy with less than 20KG of things when I thought I needed so much more. I don't know how long I can do this for but for now, to know that I can carry everything I own and need onto a plane and take any side trips I want without worrying about what to do with a big suitcase is so freeing and empowering that I would absolutely not trade it for a few more pieces of clothing or a few more pairs of shoes.