How a Chinese Muslim Helped This American Atheist Realize That No One Escapes The 20-Something Struggle

Beth was part of my plan to get out of Thailand. She was a means to an end. I needed to make some extra cash to quit my teaching job, pack my bags and move to Bali for a new start.

Plus, teaching Beth would be easy. She was a 25 year old translator in China with incredible English skills and I would only have to make conversation with her via Skype a few times a week. I took the freelance job with only my bank account in mind.
 From our first lesson I could tell that she didn’t like me. I messed up the time difference and was an hour late for our call. Beth said it was alright, but I could tell by the tone of her voice that it wasn’t, especially when she mentioned that I disrupted her praying time.

Lessons after that became a little like pulling teeth. I prepared as many conversation topics as possible, trying to fill the 45 minutes with sterile questions on international news.

Sometimes there was silence, often it was awkward and I consistently fumbled my words, searching for something to say when I ran out of material too early.
 I got a giggle out of her, that was my break through. Conversation got easier, deeper, more interesting and we finally started to open up about our personal lives. I told her about my travels and she told me about her religion.

I never really took the time to understand what a Muslim believes in and never really cared as I’m an atheist myself. However, I listened to Beth with an open mind and an open heart and because, well, she was paying me to.
 I wasn’t liking what I was hearing from her, but I kept quiet and tried to understand when she told me that she couldn’t travel alone, wasn’t supposed to be involved with musical instruments and dancing and got up every morning at 4 am to pray.

What bothered me the most was that she attributed many of her accomplishments to being a good Muslim and many of her failures or mistakes to being a bad one.

She couldn’t even give herself credit for waking up early and being productive; she said she wouldn’t be able to do it if it weren’t for the fact that she had to pray.
 Religion talk started to fade into the background with every lesson and eventually we got to the juicy bits of Beth’s life. She started opening up to me about her dreams of being a successful translator and her parents who just wanted her to get married and become a teacher.

Beth told me of her boy troubles, tales of falling in love with a non-Muslim and giving up on the relationship to stay true to herself.
 She told me about a new man she had met and how she was struggling to decide whether to marry him or not. I listened to her weighing her options between a man and following her dreams and tried to give her the best advice I knew how.

Many times, I forgot that we were supposed to be having an English lesson and that Beth was a girl that I’ve never even met in person. We felt like long time friends.
 One of our lessons fell on a day that I was having a particularly rough time with my personal life. I felt overwhelmed by a venture towards a new career path, missed being near my family and was worried about my debt and possible failure.

I was worried that my negative energy was going to make the Universe turn against my favor and lead me down a spiraling hole in the wrong direction. Beth felt like someone I knew and could trust and for the first time, I finally opened up about some of my worries.
 She could relate to every one of my issues and told me tales of how she focuses on her goals to change herself for the better every day. She gave me tips on learning from my bad experiences and we agreed that everything happened for a reason.

Beth told me that she thinks life is beautiful and sometimes we just need to change our attitude to see that. We talked about “The “Secret” and I agreed that putting your desires out into the Universe is the best way for them to come true.

Beth agreed and said that everything that happens is within Allah’s plan. It was that moment that I realized that her Allah and my Universe were really just the same.
 I want to improve myself, work towards my dreams and find happiness in my life, just like Beth. She struggles with self-doubt, boy troubles and a family that “doesn’t understand” her, just like me.

We both suffer from the 20-something struggle even though we are miles apart in both distance and religious beliefs. We believe in different things, but really, they are one in the same and so are we.

Originally published at on December 30, 2015.