Here I am writing under a red-headed tree, enjoying the perfect winter weather – sunny with a crisp, cooling breeze. Brown ducks and white geese are waddling in the pond on my left, the warm sun shining through is making sure I don’t shiver in the cold, the cool winter air making sure I don’t sweat in the sun. A half-moon is hanging shyly against the blue backdrop on my right.
I’m literally surrounded by birds right now, and I’m slightly afraid that they are gonna attack me.
This is the perfect Auckland winter afternoon, one to be cherished as I’ve come to learn. In the three weeks since I’ve been here, I’ve clenched my shivering teeth at 24-hour rains and icy winds so strong it made umbrellas useless.
Three weeks ago I had a promising job writing for a big online news portal in Malaysia, and now here I am hoping to at least score a minimum wage job as a waitress in a cafe somewhere.
I am in New Zealand on a six month Working Holiday Visa (WHV). People on WHV are typically hired as labourers for farming, housekeeping, and such odd jobs while they travel the country. Usually, they are offered a minimum wage, or work in exchange for a place to stay.
**UPDATE: I extended my stay in New Zealand and ended up staying for a total of nine months!
The decision to come to New Zealand was not an easy one to make. I had just started my career as a writer and was slowly building a reputation. Quit my comfy well-paying office job and take up something like waitressing? I could hear the collective gasp of a thousand Asian parents. This is not what ambitious Asians do.
Convincing my very conservative Cina family was not easy.
“This is what people do when they are in college, you are not in college anymore.” My mother had a point. This sounded like a gap year thing and I had already done a four-month work and holiday stint in the USA when I was 19.
“Going back to waitressing sounds like a waste of your talent. Why not take up a course in London instead?” My banker brother offered an alternative.
My friends, on the other hand, were more supportive. They celebrated my cest la vie, admired my boldness, hope they could do the same, but “giving up” their career was not something they were prepared to do.
Two days after I cleared my office desk, I boarded a plane to Auckland. But the truth is, I’m not that brave in giving up my career. I did not quit my job to go to New Zealand for six months; I came to New Zealand because I was quitting my job.
This is simply a case of serendipitous timing and good luck.
After two years of working at SAYS, I felt that it was time to move on as my growth curve had plateaued. I was browsing JobStreet on one hot early January afternoon when a friend told me that application for the NZ Working Holiday Visa opens in only a few weeks’ time. I checked the NZ immigration website and there the announcement was – Application for the Malaysian Working Holiday Scheme, limited to only 1150 people, will open at 5am on 28 January 2015.
Instead of sending my resume to JobStreet, I decided to wait and see if luck was on my side. There was nothing to lose. If I get it, I have an opportunity; if I don’t, I already have several vacancies bookmarked.
I wasn’t expecting to get it but who knew Lady Luck actually liked me. Two days later, the NZ immigration sent me an email congratulating me on securing the much sought after visa.
Cue dilemma, long discussions, and rationalisation on whether to stay or go. It felt like I had to make a choice between my career or my wanderlust.
I was afraid I’d regret it if I missed this opportunity, but at the same time, I was afraid that it would be a foolish move.
“I think it’s great, it would be a very humbling experience. And that will make you a better person. Richer in life experiences and character. Some people study lots and are smart on paper, but they don’t know the world.” James, a guy who was interviewing me for a writing gig, said when I asked if waitressing in NZ would be a waste of my talent. James was full of good advice.
A week later, I saw a TED video by Stefan Sagmeister and learnt of how a mid-career sabbatical can rejuvenate and refresh your creativity. “We spend about 25 years of our lives learning. Then there are about 40 years reserved for working. And then, tucked at the end of it, are about 15 years of retirement. I thought it might be helpful to cut off five of those retirement years and interspersed in between those working years.”
Though Sagmeister meant taking a year off every seven years or so, his message on the value of taking time off stuck with me.
It hit me that going to NZ need not be a choice between my career or my wanderlust. The travel and see the world plan quickly became much more. It became a mission of personal growth and learning.
New experiences, environment, sounds, colours, smells, and feelings, just like this very moment, give bouts of magical inspiration for writing. I already have so much from my last two weeks of travelling this crazy beautiful country that I want to write about. The plan for the next six months is to immerse myself in volumes and volumes of reading and feverish writing. I would also have more energy to focus on my freelance portfolio, and if I have more time, there are a few online MOOCs (massive open online course) that I’ve been wanting to join.
To afford living in this very expensive country, I’ll also need to get a job. The fact that I can only get a menial position has not gotten me down. I’ve set forth to challenge myself by learning a new skill – selling. The first job I applied for was a sales position, simply because I’m afraid of selling, even more so than of a bird attack. I see this as an opportunity to become a salesman and crush this fear once and for all.
My reason for New Zealand has surpassed more than just giggles and jealousy-inducing photographs on Instagram. It’s grown from exploring a new place, to exploring my capabilities. Hopefully, when winter turns to spring, my time here will prove to be fruitful and I will return to my bak kut teh richer in both experience and expertise.
Now the biggest challenge is keeping to the plan.
Wish me luck!
Update: I’ve returned to Malaysia after nine months of travelling! Did the plan work? Read what happened at the end of my trip.
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