Living Abroad Gave Me the Space to Solve My Problems

Krista Aoki
Jan 23 · 9 min read
Photo by Heather Lo on Unsplash

Two years ago, I was on a plane from Thailand to Indonesia, crying more tears than rain falls annually in Seattle. This was the start of my first solo travel experience.

My boyfriend at the time had recently flown back home to the mainland USA. I persuaded him to move to Asia with me, working from our laptops whilst living regular lives abroad.

Laptop lifestyle didn’t suit him, so he bought a ticket back home.

So there I was, on an AirAsia flight crying because I didn’t know where my relationship with him was going. Plus I never intended, nor wanted, to travel alone.

And it turns out there were things I needed to learn living away from my home country and meeting people on my own:

Like how I was raised in a culture that avoids talking about conflict or accepting criticism — so if I want to experience truly deep relationships, I need to relearn how to communicate with others, be upfront, and accept criticism.

Or the reality check that most people around the world do not appreciate Filipino cuisine the way I was raised to.

Staying in your home country or city surrounds you with people who operate similarly to you by default.

Living abroad taught me I have a lot to learn.

The American Dream is Being Redefined

The “American Dream” of paying off your student loans, buying a car, preparing a downpayment for a mortgage, all-the-while playing politics just to climb the corporate ladder, never made sense to me.

But I wanted the status that came with climbing the corporate ladder. The more I worked, the more worthy I felt. I landed a position at a Los Angeles law firm bragging about how I came from a “family of workaholics.” But that was because all I knew was finding value in work.

Before I moved abroad, 2–3 hours of my day, 5 days per week, was spent on a soul-sucking commute to and from work. I felt like I had an inflexible working schedule. Even though I worked to spend time with family and friends, my schedule only allowed me limited time (or energy) with those I loved most.

I was caught up in the daily routine of work, socialization, sleep…and, repeat. It felt like I was living the same month… every month.

Life didn’t make sense to me, and I couldn’t figure out why. Even as an Asian-American who grew up seeing work as self-value, I knew there had to be more to life than just living to collect paycheck after paycheck.

So I built a location independent lifestyle. I’ve spent two years living abroad figuring out how to carve space professionally online. I own a freelance website design business that doesn’t require me to show up to work at a specific office in a specific city.

Instead, I live abroad chasing summers in different cities throughout the year. My work is done from the standing desk of coworking offices or afternoons at cafés.

Photo by DoDo PHANTHAMALY from Pexels

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though. Paychecks and getting paid as a freelancer is a lot like travelling with Dora the Explorer. You need a map, and if you don’t set aside money for taxes it feels like Swiper is there to swipe all your hard-earned cash away.

Some months yield more than others. I decided early on to pay myself a consistent wage and keep cash set aside to make it rain even when the well of work felt dry.

During most of my time abroad, I’ve worked for agencies. The agency would find and take care of the clients, and send projects to me to complete. As a freelancer, the recurring work from an agency gives the comforting feeling of home. But as a contract worker, I’m not given the same set of protections as an employee in case the agency stops having work to give.

In exchange, I have the freedom to design my days.

And I wouldn’t trade this freedom for anything.

When I first moved abroad, I still worked a lot. The workaholic lifestyle was all I knew.

But living abroad shifted my definitions of wealth and success. Instead of being surrounded by people also caught up in the rat race for the American Dream, I met people who valued other things: self-care, balance, and the “doing the work.

People kept reminding me over and over again to take care of myself first and I had no idea what they meant about that. And what did it mean to “do the work?” I do the work — on my laptop!

Having client requests to answer all the time made me feel like I belonged as a human being. And when I wasn’t working, I found so much of my self-worth going out of my way to make sure everyone around me was happy and comfortable.

Hello, world, do you see me giving to everyone around me?! I’m so generous and accommodating!

The risky part of finding your worth in external things like your work is if you suddenly lose a work contract, your self-worth plummets. And during a time you need to think clearly and be confident in yourself, you’re drowning in a sea of self-hate instead.

Maybe they didn’t intend it, but these people telling me to take care of myself were onto something.

Last year, I learnt about the word “boundaries.” As someone who constantly felt overextended and unappreciated for “everything I was doing,” learning what boundaries are was the slap in the face I didn’t know I needed.

Defined by Mark Manson, boundaries are:

“Taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, while NOT taking responsibility for the actions or emotions of others.” — Mark Manson

Living abroad gave me the space to unpack the fact that a lack of boundaries are common in Asian-American families.

I need a lot of space for this. There’s a lot to unpack.

And this is the kind of work people refer to when they talk about “doing the work.”

Learning how to set boundaries means I’m learning how to identify, let alone communicate, what I need. That means, yes, communicating “rules” about how I interact with others.

I’ve practiced setting boundaries in both personal and freelance relationships. Per Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, freelancers can set client relationships without boundaries because we want to please the client.

It feels counterintuitive. But I love making people happy!

The question I had to ask myself was: are you making people happy at the expense of yourself?

What I learnt was as a people-pleaser, you are making others’ wants and needs a priority above yours. This can ultimately lead to resentment — and yes, feeling drained. What happens when you can’t make the other person happy?

Your self-worth plummets.

So I’ve learnt how to be transparent with both my clients, and my friends, about where my boundaries are.

  • “I’m available to schedule a meeting at these times, but let me know if I should open up time slots for you.”
  • “I can’t complete this project immediately, but I can address this first thing tomorrow morning.”
  • “I prefer not to have visitors right now, but I’d love to spend time with you while you’re in town.”

At first, boundaries seem scary. Assertive. Selfish.

Boundaries are knowing what you need to take care of yourself, and acting on it. When you put yourself first by taking care of yourself, the love you can give to others multiplies.

Setting boundaries comes from a place of loving yourself so much that you feel comfortable drawing the line — because you deserve that respect.

Suddenly you no longer feel drained.

You don’t resent hopping on the client meeting at an odd time, because it’s within your boundaries. You don’t resent your freelance work because you’re tackling it during a time your mind feels fresh. You don’t resent your friend because you set boundaries around time spent with each other.

Instead of resentment, you feel respect. Instead of resentment, you feel love.

People telling me to take care of myself were onto something. And living abroad gave me the space I need to unpack inter-generational baggage around boundaries.

Design Life Based On Your Values

Everyone has an opinion on what I should do. But, one of the privileges of managing a freelance business abroad is I get to design life based on my own rules.

I decide when I work, if I work on weekends, or if I answer that client email in the evening. I decide when I go on holiday, how long my afternoon coffee dates are, or how long I stay out on a weeknight.

Even with the freedom to design my days, I’ve found I need discipline.

As a website designer, it means understanding I should set aside an entire day to actually design and build a website page (if I schedule anything more on that day, I’m mentally overcommitting).

Even though I have the freedom to set my own work hours, on a normal day I start work in the morning (anywhere between 8 and 10) and stop at dinnertime.

I also need routine. It can take me ages to read through the reviews in search of the perfect café, so once I find one I enjoy, I tend to go there every day.

I spent a lot of trial and error perfecting the way I work and live abroad.

When I travelled too quickly, I had trouble finding time to focus on work. So when I need to focus, I make a conscious effort to stay in places longer. Sometimes, I’ve ended up in places where it was easiest to make friends with travellers who were coming and leaving the city every few days. Having to constantly invest time and energy into new friendships left me feeling drained. Now, I stay in places where I can prioritize long-term friendships.

I’m creating my lifestyle based on what I value.

I’m actually taking the CEO role in my life, whereas before life felt like I was running on autopilot.

Photo by Wanaporn Yangsiri on Unsplash

One of the most important lessons to realize is that living abroad is not a cure.

It opens my world. Through life experience, it’s given me time. But unless you tackle the root of your problems, living abroad won’t cure the empty feelings you have.

“It’s less about starting over. And more about starting open.” — John Kim, The Angry Therapist

Living abroad and moving around can be unstable.

I’ve had to be proactive about creating stability for myself. If I have a negative experience in a place, I reflect on why.

And I’d be lying if I said I went through these two years without doubting myself or wanting to run back to the “safety net” of home.

People have asked me if I’m scared of what happens if I lose my clients, but to be honest — even though the idea is scary, I trust myself enough to be able to figure it out.

And I’m privileged enough to have the resources to be able to take care of myself.

I am still learning, I still make mistakes.

Like the time I was given the wrong passport and ended up missing a flight whilst I waited for my passport to be delivered to me the next day.

Or ending up in Otres Village, Cambodia during monsoon season — surrounded by flooded, unpaved streets with pressing client deadlines and no Internet.

But learning from those mistakes, and solving my own problems, is all a part of this beautiful journey.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment in mind, body, and soul.

Krista Aoki

Written by

I’m a website designer writing about freelance, personal development and identity. Learn more:

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment in mind, body, and soul.

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