Life is a journey with no destination, so make sure there are no ordinary moments.
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
In 2008, I quit my job, traveled the world, and trained martial arts. That was never my plan, just that, in hindsight, that became the quickest way to explain it. Prior to all of this, I didn't know what I was doing; that was what made it so great. People love goals and plans — well, I don't know if we really love goals and plans — we are told to love goals and plans. I particularly don't. I'd like to believe I have some modicum of freedom in my life where I can do the things I feel like doing when I feel like doing them. Goals and plans predetermine the whole thing. Where's the fun in predeterminism?
I used to be a successful loan officer; before that, I was a successful financial advisor, all for the same company. I just transferred departments when I saw how much money the mortgage guys were making. This was before the financial collapse, of course, and when my former employers, Washington Mutual, were still in business. It's important to note what I did and who I worked for because I had this sense that I wasn't helping anyone yet I was cashing in.
One day I was at my desk, looking at a spreadsheet, when it occurred to me I should quit my job. Then I wrote a resignation letter. I didn't leave that day, of course; I gave them enough notice to find a replacement. They asked if I had been recruited by another company; I told them I hadn't. Then I got a call from HR. I think they wanted to know if I was having a breakdown, if I needed some support from the company in some way. To them, why would someone walk away with money on the table unless there was another table with more money? Don't get me wrong, money is cool. And it'll always be around for me to make it later.
A young girl who was doing my exit interview asked, "Is this some sort of midlife thing?" Which is funny because I was still in my 20s at the time. I told her I was doing it because I felt like it. I remember she paused for a moment (kind of to ask herself if she could do the same thing) and then she said, "You are so hot."
The day after my last day of work, I took my car for a tune-up. When the job was done, I ate lunch, threw some clothes in a bag — then I saw all my martial arts uniforms and thought, "Well, just in case" — and threw them in another bag. Then, I got in my car and drove. I didn't know where, I didn't know for how long. In hindsight, this could have gone terribly wrong. I hit several blizzards, was snowed in, was trapped in my car once, almost ran out of gas and water in the middle of nowhere. A lot of bad things almost happened, but they didn't. Musashi said, "Do not regret what is done." So why worry about things that never happened right?
My first night on the road, I wrote this in my journal:
I would stop at a town for the night somewhere. If they happened to have some interesting places to train, I would go there the next day and train. If I liked the training, I stayed a few more days. Sometimes, I just stayed in a town if I liked the food, or it had a good vibe, or I liked the people. I didn't have any deadlines, you see, so I did what I wanted to.
I kind of zig-zagged through America since I wasn't trying to do a round-trip around America or some coast-to-coast thing. I wasn't attempting to do anything really except live.
I wrote this in my journal:
I have some tips. Always have duct tape. I don't know why, I can't predict what for, but you'll need it. Also, if you're doing it the way I did with a lot of physical training, you need lots and lots of athletic tape. Learn how to tape your fingers and your wrists. Also, get some body spray for the times you can't shower. When visiting a new school, be nicer than you have ever been. You've got no posse, no friends; you're on your own. Even if someone wronged you, why would they take your side — someone they've known fifteen minutes over someone they've known fifteen years? If an experience sucks, cut your losses and leave. If you happen to train Brazilian jiu-jitsu like I do, and you meet other people who train, a lot of doors will open up for you. It's kind of like meeting cousins. It's all about the love. Just don't expect them to waive any visitor's fees...
I began to write online about my adventures on my personal blog. Everywhere I went, I wrote about it on Yelp. For a while, all of Yelp was abuzz about what they called my "Nationwide Yelp Tour." One of the highlights was playing ping-pong with the founders of Yelp. It got a bit of momentum online; a lot of people began following me, drawing maps, trying to figure out where I would show up next. People began inviting me to their town, offering to donate me money. While in San Francisco, I spent a lot of time with startup types, people who helped launch PayPal. Perhaps the Silicon Valley gods heard their ideas. Who knows, but if I had waited a year, there would have been Kickstarter.
My body still gets warm when I think about all the random acts of kindness and generosity I received. Strangers welcomed me into their homes, invited me to dinner, introduced me to their friends and family when they barely knew me. (Perhaps they felt they knew me from reading my reviews and journal entries.) The vast majority had no idea I trained martial arts. They thought I was doing my own version of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Some thought I was emulating Jack Kerouac. But most projected their own ideas onto my journey. They came up with their own personal reasons why someone would just get up and leave like I did. I didn't mind; most of the time their explanation was a lot cooler than mine — which was: I don't know.
What I learned from all this is that there is a certain innate goodness in human beings. It's within us all; in some folks it's buried deeper than others. I feel like I'm proof of it. Most of the bad things in my life can't be blamed on people, even though I wish they could be. Most of the time, it was bad luck, bad timing, or circumstances beyond anyone's control. All the good things, however, came from people.
It's sort of sad to think that with a lot of the people I met, if I saw them on the street, we wouldn't recognize each other. I'm embarrassed to say, for the bulk of them, I don't remember their names or faces or what we talked about. So much time has passed; what we will remember is a younger image of ourselves, a different personality.
There is a certain bittersweet nostalgia to travel; you meet some people for only a day, sometimes only an hour. What remain are feelings. Ghosts, imprints that people have left in you. That is part of it. Nothing will be permanent; you can't keep any experience, and you can't collect people. You have to be there when you're there, and then set it aside and move on. Some call this melancholy, but it's not — it's wanderlust. Anyone can go on a vacation, but to truly travel — it takes a certain kind.
One day, somewhere in New York, I came out of the subway terminal for Rockefeller Center and was greeted by bagpipe music. A parade — bagpipes, kilts, uniforms, dogs, children, and people of importance. I don't know what the occasion was, however. To be frank, I wasn't even sure what day or month it was. I was out of it. My travels became a blur.
I walked for a while, and then I saw the most impressive church I had ever seen: St. Patrick's Cathedral. I sat down. There was an event going on. There were families of organ donors who had passed away and the people whose lives were saved by them. When they all stood up and I saw the number of families affected, it was quite moving: people coming together, beyond race, creed, beliefs — for lives saved. From suffering comes unity.
I didn't know where I was and what I was doing. I knew where I was physically, but I didn't know where I was in existence. For that moment, I was lost — or was I just lost in the moment? I thought about everything that led me there and why I took this trip. I wanted to be liberated. I thought if I had no attachments, I would finally be free. I now realize I have been free all along. What I couldn't answer was, what do I do with this freedom? I was free to make interesting choices every day, to make every moment out of the ordinary.
I got in my car and headed home, back to Los Angeles. It took me another two weeks, and when I was back home, I was met with a lot of mail and bills. I did, however, mail my rent checks every month so I wouldn't lose my lease, which in hindsight was pointless because I moved out shortly after that. I'm not saying, "Do it like me," or that you should take this as a travel guide. I'm just telling you how I did it.
There are a lot of articles and blogs telling you how easy it is to travel and be a vagabond, how anyone can do it, how inexpensive it is — all you have to do is sign up for their easy online money-making program so you can make money from wherever you are. Listen, it's not easy. And it's really expensive. I was able to do it because I had a high-paying job with a lot of savings. This post is also not meant to inspire people to do the same. People who do and have done trips like mine don't need inspiration. The people who do these sorts of things are the people who tend to do these sorts of things anyway. If you want to do these things, change your mindset first. Change your priorities and your value systems. You also have to be somewhat in love with thinking and philosophy because you're going to be spending a lot of time by yourself. You'll also need to be used to saying goodbye all the time. The good part is, there are also a lot of new hellos.
There is a certain arrogance, though, when people say, well anyone can do this. No, economic hardship is real. Responsibilities are real. I was fortunate and blessed to not only do this, but to end up traveling outside the continental US to Hawaii and other countries — Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Bali, and more. With only a gi and my credit card. I was also single and had no kids and no house or car to pay off — and was in excellent health.
On a Budget
If you're creative, you may be able to self-fund this endeavor. I have seen people do the same thing as I, but work deals with apparel companies for sponsorships. So wherever they go, they rep the brand, and get some income. You can also work deals with places you go before hand, teach some classes or clean the mats for travel coin. For places to stay, you can look into couch surfing or house sitting (or sleep on the mats). There are also crowdfunding platforms you can now use to have friends and acquaintances donate — however, the campaigns that are successful do an excellent job with writing copy, filming, and video editing. Some have created fine mini-documentaries of their travels and make money through YouTube and ad partners, the same is done (but to a far lesser extent through blogs). If you do have some writing chops, you may be able to get paid by a magazine and turn this into a travel writing assignment. All these things, however, requires the traveler to be versatile; not just a talent for learning, but other skills that can be monetized. Maybe you can pitch a book idea and get an advance for your travels. If you're creative, you can probably think of some things I didn't think to list.
It's very hard on the body to travel and train continuously (I took ice baths every night). Your body, your spirit, and your bank account have to be well prepared.
I talked to many traveling martial artists, and we all had similar experiences. We love it, will always do it, but some places see visitors as fresh meat and will try to tear your head off. Now no one will come out and say that this is their school. It's not that they're denying it; it's just that they're unaware. It's the same as the guy who goes aggro when you spar after agreeing to go light — he has no idea. So it's not like you can contact a school and ask. I mean, who will say yes? But these schools will exist. You won't know until you get there and see the culture, see how the instructors are, and see how they run their school. It starts from the top down. When visiting a new school, if you end up sparring, don't try to win — try to learn. You have other places to visit, and you need to preserve your body.
If your primary goal is to get really good, then believe it or not, training at many places all the time will actually hurt you. To be good, you do need a primary master and regular training partners you feel safe with. Sporadically training at other places, though, will be beneficial. When traveling, just enjoy yourself and let things be. It won't be about being the best; it is about the best experience and having the best life possible.
To be the best, they say you live in the gym. Consider that for a minute — to be the best you live in the same gym in the same town. You're tied to it. But, there is a lot to be said about going places, making new friends, and seeing the world. As a person and as a teacher, your perspective will grow. It's not mutually exclusive. You can do both.
For a long time, I didn't have anyone to promote me in belts. That's what happens when you're a wanderer without a master. But, you get to live the life of a wanderer without a master. That's not bad either.
So where am I now, you may be wondering. I never did end up getting a real job. My old company? You probably heard. They went bankrupt and were taken over by Chase. I lost tens of thousands of dollars that I had invested in the company. People who were there longer than I did far worse. If I didn't leave when I did, who knows what would have happened to me. That's the thing, there is no safe path. It's almost spooky. I took my trip early 2008, and by that fall, the economy collapsed, and my old employers were gone. I felt like the islander who was sick of their island and left right before the volcano erupted. (Or rather, before the bubble erupted.)
I ended up moving in with some friends. Rent was really cheap this way. Since I was so used to living out of my car, my cost of living was really low. I didn't really own anything.
I volunteered for a while; I wasn't quite ready to be tied down to a company yet. And I really wanted to help people this time. I began organizing health workshops since health seemed the most tangible way to improve people's lives. In my travels, I learned a lot about healthy lifestyle design and positive outlook and, of course, all the different ways to physically improve the body. I, at first, saw this as an extension of volunteering and wasn't charging people anything. But I wanted to help as many people as possible, and turnouts weren't so good; people were kind of flaky. For most, money equals value. They don't trust free. So I began to charge, and then more people showed up. It snowballed into a full-blown business. Perhaps not as lucrative as my previous life, but at the same time, it never feels like work either. In hindsight, it all seems clear how one event led to the next to where I am now. But it's nothing anyone could plan for or see before it happens. That's the magic of hindsight. I told you: this isn't a how-to guide.
One of the things my late father told me when I was on my travels was that no matter where I am or what happens, I'll survive because I am highly skilled. That gave me a lot of confidence. It still gives me a lot of confidence. I am confident because I don't need to rely on motivation or inspiration; as long as I keep accumulating skills and knowledge, I will always remain valuable. I ended up working for myself, but I never had a dream of being self-employed or never working for someone else again. I don't care. Either way, I'm highly employable. If my father told me I was special, the outcome would have been different. But, he put the focus on things I could control, which are skills. This is what we have forgotten and what I learned again in my travels. Kung fu doesn't mean Chinese martial arts; it means highly skilled through perseverance. (No seriously, it does. Look it up.)
Miyamoto Musashi in The Book of Five Rings said: "The true science of martial arts means practicing them in such a way that they will be useful at any time, and to teach them in such a way that they will be useful in all things." I'll probably spend the rest of my life trying to teach this lesson to people.
2016, I'm Doing It Again
Now in my mid-thirties, I'm planning another trip around the world. This time, I'm going wherever I'm personally invited (this is open to any martial art and any movement-based school, even if it's not a martial art). I've learned from my last trip, and this time, I want to make it about building relationships. Now with Facebook and social media, it's much easier to keep in touch. (You can also subscribe to my updates.) I've been writing since 2008, many folks I've known for years online, I just haven't met them yet. I still plan to write about my experiences. (Contact me if your school is interested in having me as a visitor.)
I consider martial arts a universal language. I'm interested in all the different ways it can be taught; all the ways it can be expressed. Not only in movement: but in principle, in culture, in method, and in philosophy.