The Multiplicity of a Virtual Life Abroad

“I feel like I need to go home, not like I want to, but I need to. Like maybe we’re missing something by not living in our native country while we’re in our twenties.” The many pixels that construct my friend Ty are speaking to me as we bridge hemispheres with our Skype phone call.

I allow my thoughts on the matter to buffer. I find my brain grasping for the words I hear too often as a rebuttal to my homesickness from living abroad, “Yeah but nothing’s changed here. We’re all jealous of you.”

I consider regurgitating a version of these things to my computer, but the words fall short of truth. I scan the screen in front of me, and my eyes stop on the square in the top corner. Inside this square is a small, virtual me, and she looks confused, a little scared, and not the least bit familiar. I have to stop myself from saying hello. Her eyes demand honesty. I speak to both 2D humans before me when I say, “it does feel like we’re missing something.”

I hang up the Skype call and sit alone with myself. I do not try and hide from the self-intervention that erupts from within. This time, I listen.

I’m not that kid who bragged about and then stuck to my dream career path since Ben C’s 9th birthday party, so when I graduated college last year with a BA in Creative Writing, I knew it was time to find myself. How exactly does a modern day twenty-something go about finding herself? I didn’t have to wonder for long, it turns out everyone has a voice on the matter these days.

I gathered up the readily available patchwork of spoken advice from my peers and elders and highlighted the recurring themes. A majority of this advice had an undertone of mockery hidden in statements like, “You’re so young. Stop worrying so much about it, you’ll figure it out,” which had me internally rolling my eyes and tuning out. But some of this advice echoed things that I could listen to. Things like the importance of travelling to “expand your mind,” and “experience the world while you’re young.”

Travel. Of course. I needed to see the world to better see myself. I quickly summarized these ideas down to the essential keywords so I could digitally verify their validity. After a deep vortexing session filled with blog scannings, and self-help book reviews, I couldn’t agree more. Travel was the next necessary step in my life. So nine months ago, I left the United States, my home, to live in Asia, teach English, travel, and find myself.

Soon after arriving in my new life abroad, the shock and loneliness tried to have their way with me. They never could quite take hold though, for I had forged my escape routes long ago. Pre-departure, I had downloaded the necessities: all the top-rated WiFi communication apps, guide books, language translations, Tripadvisor, Meetup, and a few zen books on travel for my Kindle. Not to mention, a multitude of promises to keep in touch and friends spanning the full range of timezones to fit my schedule. When I didn’t know how to do something, or what to do, or I was feeling scared, alone or homesick, I could just leave. Physically, I might have been sitting helplessly on my first big girl bed in my first big girl apartment in Bangkok, but virtually, I could be anywhere else, and normally that anywhere else was home.

Scrolling Facebook, something I used to pride myself for rarely indulging in back home, has quickly become my preferred mode of escaping from my loneliness and self doubt. When I’m not hearing about familiar lives of my friends or family, I crave a digital witness account via the lazy upward motion of my thumb. I realized I can’t control my physical presence making an imprint on my home-life, but I can control my virtual presence, and my connection with others’ virtual identities has become my medicine.

All this time, I’ve still been trying to find myself, as I was certain to do after enough time and adventures in faraway lands. People have asked questions like: “So, have you decided what you might want to do when you get back?”, and “Do you think you’ll keep this up for awhile?”, all of which result in some feigning calm rendition of “I don’t know quite yet.”

And now, when the response is, “you’re young, you have your whole life to figure it out, don’t worry so much,” I don’t roll my eyes. I attach myself to that statement like it’s my most prized possession and I wear it on my mind like a golden banner to get me through the week. Yeah, I think, who says I gotta know everything? I’m traveling, I’m young, I got something figured out here.

But, despite all my escape efforts, medicinal digital indulgences, and coveted encouragements from home, something about the whole thing has been making me uneasy. It wasn’t until I sat here, on my new big girl bed in my second big girl apartment in Japan, staring at my[virtual]self and Ty’s[virtual]self, as they looked back at my[real]self, that I realized what that something was. I finally saw my image in the video screen, the one who was unfamiliar and afraid, as me.

My problem, one that afflicts many in this technological age, is of outsourcing myself.

Way back when, after Ben C’s ninth birthday party, I came home jealous of that kid with a plan. Before I could internalize these feelings, though, I asked my parents about it. I needed input about what they believed I should become. That trusty old response to stop worrying reassured me that these things come with time and I was still so young. This continued throughout my youth as I tried to piece my future together. Someone near me would make a stride in their forward progression, and I would stress myself out until someone reminded me that they didn’t have everything figured out when they were my age either. As the internet became more mobile and accessible, I was quick to adopt it as both my source of anxiety and solace from the jealousy of the digital lives taking shape within it.

When I still hadn’t figured it out, I felt the need to make some drastic life adjustments. I decided travel was the best way to get out there and run towards myself, but I had no idea I had set myself up for running farther away. This whole time I’ve allowed the voices of others to reflect me, no matter how far away they might be physically, I’ve managed to keep them in my pocket. Even though my passport has been filling with foreign ink, and my Facebook has been projecting #wanderlusting depictions of me, I’m not any closer to discovering my place in the world because I haven’t truly left yet.

My presence at home, thanks to my virtual identity, is still there, and she’s just as lost and confused as she was nine months ago. My friend Ty, when he said he felt we might be missing something by not being home right now, was referring to ourselves. There is still a fragmented part of ourselves that is so deeply rooted in home that we are living double lives, and we miss being whole. By looking at myself on that screen, I was able to remember that I am only one person. There is only one now, and to find myself I need to start by recognizing myself right here and right now.

Technology has helped us advance in so many miraculous ways. Travel is now more accessible and convenient than ever, and it seems the whole digital world is in on its secrets of self-discovery. But, with all these independence-giving travel benefits, technology has also afforded us the duality of never having to really leave the comforts of home. Living abroad provides the perfect platform for a distraction-less, eye-opening personal growth journey, but this potential is stunted when we pack all of our connections with us in our carry ons.

I’m going to try and travel lighter now. I’m exhausted from attempting to keep up multiple identities on different continents. Thanks to technology, I was finally able to meet my digital self, and invite her to join me in my present reality. My virtual connections with home are still important, but I do not need to depend on them for assurance about my personal progress. I’ve been lost my whole life, and today I realized that lost is a place, and that place is right here; the only place I can truly be found. #Travel #LeaveHome #HelloHere #HelloMe