11 Life Lessons I've Learned in my 26th Year of Life

A jellyfish aquarium in Yamagata Prefecture, Japan. (website)

Happy Birthday to me! What better way to celebrate a birthday than by doing something I love--blogging!

I've always dreamed of one day coming up with a manifesto for my children's children's children or my friend's friend's friend to read. I thought of one day sitting down and penning the perfect compilation of lessons learned and tentative suggestions as to how the world could be a better place, perhaps as an old lady with a full head of snow-white hair writing in pen and ink on yellowed pages in a leather-bound, encyclopedia-sized book.

Then I realized, 1) why do I visualize my future as a scene from the 1600s and 2) by the time I'm old and gray (God-willing), I'll have forgotten all of the wisdom that I had wanted to bestow unto my future readers.

So here it is, present readers: a working manifesto, now, for my 26th birthday.

11 Life Lessons I've Learned in my 26th Year of Life (in no particular order)

1. Strive for a minimalist lifestyle to reduce stress. Back when I was a mere zero through twenty-five-year-old (an infant, really), I prided myself on my thirst for maximizing, ahem, EVVVERRYTHINGGG. I thought I was being extra-terrestially productive and living life to the fullest and MORE. In reality, I was often late for engagements, if not flaky altogether. I was scatterbrained and tired. I was directing 10% of my attention to ten different things at once. While in class, I was making appointments for evening meetings. While walking to meetings, I ate dinner on-the-go. At those meetings, I reviewed flashcards for the classes that I wasn't paying attention in earlier. Life was somehow too much while being not enough. 

Now, I make one engagement per evening at most. I carefully give myself plenty of time between meetings or tasks. In that time, I clear my brain and put everything that I was just doing on pause by reading, listening to jazz music, or purposely thinking about nothing while looking out the window or people-watching while on the bus or train. I use this time to forget of any stresses from earlier and to properly focus my attention toward the next upcoming task.

I also try to cut out distractions such as open tabs in the background of my internet browser, a phone out at dinnertime, and unnecessary clutter at my work space.

For more tips on how to lead a minimalist lifestyle its benefits, read "The Simple Guide to a Minimalist Life" by Leo Babauta (pdf).

2. Best friends aren't always needed for life's memorable moments. Choose something fun to do, invite one or two people, and let everyone invite whomever they like. When I moved to Japan, I thought that I was temporarily suspending any semblance of a wild social life. I anticipated making maybe one good friend and otherwise mostly spending time by myself, reading, writing, or doing little arts and crafts. I didn't expect to make a lot of friends and didn't even know how such a thing would be possible out in rural Japan.

Instead: I went on a road trip with 3 near-strangers to climb Mt. Fuji over night; I approached and introduced myself to a group of 20-something-year-old Muslim girls in a parking lot at a national park in Malaysia and ended up climbing Mt. Kinabalu with them; I attended a BBQ at a Japanese friend's family's house with a ragtag group of foreigners, have of whom I hadn't met before; I hiked the Great Wall of China with a couple of guys who I'd met a week or less prior; I, along with new friends and friends of friends and their friends, unofficially started "foreigner day" on Thursdays at our local bouldering gym by slowly inviting more and more friends to come climb with us; I watched the sun sink into the Indian ocean off the coast of Australia with a group of locals after a hearty dinner of fish and chips; I sand-surfed in the Great Outback of Australia with other foreigners and sand-surfer newbies.

Certainly, nothing can quite compare to, say, your group of six, tight-knit friends/roommates/couple who meet at a coffee shop in New York, have been friends since high school, and laugh and cry over one friend's latest impossible slip up, sexcapade, or break up. However, you definitely do not need to constantly stick by your lifelong friends in order to have a good time and enjoy great company. You just need an open mind for meeting people and trying fun things.

3. Send your childhood best friend a long, thoughtful email. Call your mom. Send your dad a postcard. Spend a Saturday doing nothing in particular with your roommate. One day, after years of no contact, a college friend of mine randomly sent me a "Happy half-birthday, April!". It actually was my half birthday at the time. To this day, I don't know how he realized that it was my half birthday at all. I was very touched that he found an excuse to send me a message. We caught up on all that we had been doing in life--jobs we'd worked, lost, and gained in the time since we last met, places we've been, and things that still hadn't changed over the years. We even sent each other postcards since then and, when the time came up that I was looking for a place to stay, he so happened to have an apartment available for sublease.

Similarly, being so far away from home, I make it a point to call my mom at least once a week. What we talk about isn't always important--what I had for lunch that day, how the weather's been, or one of my students' latest achievements. What's important is that she knows that I'm thinking of her and that I want her to continue being a part of my life in some way.

On the flip side, is there someone in your life whom you see every day, yet don't seem to spend any quality time with? As much as Brian and I see each other and as many adventures as we seek out together, what makes our relationship strong are the days that we set aside to just be together... Our favorite "nothing" things to do are having big, hearty, homemade meals, watching comedies or heartfelt movies, and spending hours upon hours recording one acoustic cover of an overplayed pop song.

All in all, I learned how important it is to proactively maintain your relationships. It was easier to do as a kid because you lived with your family and you saw your friends every day. Now, you have to actually reach out and do something to say hello and remind someone that you care about what's going on with them. The good news is, reaching out and contacting someone takes as little as a few seconds. So, go do it! Do it now!

4. Be the most YOU that you can be; keep the friends who stick around, forget the ones who don't. As a foreigner, I often did things and got things completely wrong when it came to my interactions with my Japanese coworkers and neighbors. I took for granted all of the social capital I had accumulated when I lived in the States--namely, how to appear friendly, professional, polite, and likable.

Here, I did my best to act appropriately according to each particular social situation. Despite this, I'm sure I dropped the ball a few times, whether I knew I was messing up or not. In the end, the best I could do was just try to be happy and content on the inside and let it show on the outside. Japanese are notorious for expecting citizens to act and carry themselves in a particular way in society--that particular way was not always clear to me. Because of this, I may have driven some people away by not being quiet enough, or polite enough, or dressed up enough, and on and on. Oh well. What's more important is that I made great friends who like how loud/quiet/talkative/not talkative/active/relaxed/(fill in the blank here) I am enough as is. That's an awesome feeling. Pursue that feeling. Be you, accept the love that you receive, and forget about the love that you don't.

5. Realize that a teacher is not only about setting and meeting goals, it's also about the little interactions you have with students every day. As much as I wanted to be organized and effective in my teaching by establishing learning goals, making the content accessible to students, and periodically assessing students progress... I had to throw all of that out the window when I became an "assistant language teacher" as a foreigner in Japan because I am an outsider, teaching and learning is done differently here, power structures and one's own agency and responsibility are completely different here than in the States, and I had too many students and too many schools to properly keep track of what students were learning and struggling with.

At first, this frustrated me. A lot. I lost confidence in myself, I questioned my decision to come to Japan, I questioned my ability as a teacher, I doubted the usefulness of any of my efforts or even presence at work.

Then, last week, all of my schools had some kind of grandiose goodbye ceremony for me. It was actually quite embarrassing to be made such a big deal of, particularly because lately I hadn't felt that I'd met any of my goals of being an effective English teacher to my students.

To my surprise, many students approached after these ceremonies and on their own time to tell me about a way that I helped them or a memorable moment that they had with me. Their messages ranged from thanking me for having lunch with them one time when they were having a bad day with their friends, excitedly recounting a time in class when they correctly answered a comprehension question I asked on a San Francisco presentation I had just given (she remembered the question, answer, and type of candy that I gave her as a reward!), thanking me for meeting with them once a week for 20 minutes to have simple conversations with them in English...

None of these things that students were grateful for were things that I had planned or worked towards. They were all things that just... happened. These are the small things that actually made up my students' experience with me--not necessarily the grammar points I taught or the pronunciation practice we did. If it weren't for my students pointing these things out to me, I would have thought of my two years here as an English as a failure. I would have thought "my students still can't say this or do that, no matter how many ways I tried to teach it". Instead, I can be proud of the fact that in some way, my presence and my effort made someone's day--even if just one day--better. In a small way, I've helped in shaping a young mind's view of the world, how it works, and what the world can be in the future.

6. Speak to others in broken English/Japanese/Tagalog/Spanish/French/whatever is their native language. Know that the goal is never to prove your skill in that language; it's to form some kind of relationship with that person as your coworker, neighbor, host, or new travel buddy or it's for you to improve at least a teensy tiny bit in that language.

My favorite moments with students was when they got creative with the English words that they did know in order to convey more complex ideas to me than "hello-how-are-you-I'm-fine-thank-you". My favorite moments when attempting to speak Japanese was when people patiently saw past my grammar mistakes and waited for me to recall more difficult words in order to carry my end of the conversation. Ultimately, I was able to bond with people across language barriers, which in turn made this little city feel more like home to me... not to mention, I was able to learn a new language from zero.

7. Count every penny, nickel, and dime to your name. Monitor your cash flow and opt for spending money on experiences rather than on things. This was my order of priorities for my monthly spending this past year:
    1. Rent, utilities, groceries, transportation
    2. Pay off debt
    3. "Fun" fund (travel and nice dinners)
    4. Save $______ per month in order to have saved $_____ by August 2014.
Of course, life doesn't always go according to plan. Other expenses come up that are more difficult to plan for--friends' birthday dinners, spontaneous treats to yourself after long, hard days, and so on. To accommodate for this, I did things like tricking myself into believing I had less money than I actually had (by rounding my monthly salary down), counting business expenditures as personal spending (so that reimbursements could later come in as "surprise" income), and budgeting for celebratory dinners towards that month's "Fun" fund.

Besides keeping track of and itemizing my cash flow, I also was frugal to a damn fault when it came to expenses on myself. I walked and biked to work instead of taking the bus. If I wasn't going out to dinner with friends, I cooked rather than eating out by myself. I then made extra for my lunch the next day. When possible, I opted for free fun activities, like hikes, BBQs, and beach outings. When traveling, I first researched a reasonable budget and kept to that budget; then, I spent hours thoroughly shopping around for budget airline flights and promotions, I opted for sleeping on people's couches, airport benches, and cheap hostels instead of hotels, and I opted for cheap local food and a paper map and personal walking tours of the city rather than fancy restaurants or expensive, comprehensive package tours.

What made saving and spending successful (in my eyes) for me was that I made it enjoyable for myself. Because I'm goal-driven, I made little goals, like "walk to or from work at least 3 times this week", "Pay XXX amount towards my student loans this month", and "end up with XXX in my bank account by next pay day" (each pay day is actually marked in my calendar and on the previous day, I've written in "have $xxx saved"). For those who are process-oriented, I recommend setting up habits like walking to work every Monday and Wednesday or putting a set amount of money into your savings account FIRST after pay day.

8. Keep your living space clean as much of the time as possible. This is important because you can have guests over at a moment's notice, your things are easier to find, and your home becomes more comfortable to relax in on the weekends and after work.

Keeping my place clean has required a bit of a mix of processes: doing small tasks daily (making my bed in the morning, picking up clutter after coming home from work, making sure that things at home are in their designated place (such as fruits in the fruit basked and not in the grocery bag on the counter)), jumping at free moments to take on bigger tasks (such as doing laundry, vacuuming, and wiping down surfaces for dust and grime), and forcing myself to deep-clean as soon just before something gets too dirty to tolerate (as opposed to tolerating soap scum or cooking grease for too long).

9. Keep up with evolving technology. I'm really lucky that I don't have your stereotypical tech-illiterate mom and dad. In fact, my dad's the one who's always bringing home new gadgets and teaching the family how to use them. My dad helped me get my first email account, taught me how to use my first smartphone, and taught me how to properly maintain my computers and online identity and personal information.

I learned to evolve the way that I consume media with technology. I love reading real, physical books as much as the next bibliophiliac, but owning a Kindle has allowed for me to read about 50 more books in two years that I've owned it than I probably would have without it. It's taught me to love reading more than loving books.

CDs and buying songs one by one on iTunes are out, in my opinion. I use music-streaming stations almost exclusively to not only enjoy music I love, but to learn about new music and try out other genres of music.

Journaling is great, beautiful, and fun, but typing up notes and entries on any computer or smart device and uploading it into a cloud is even better. There's no excuse to skip jotting down moments of inspiration because you don't have a pen or paper handy and your notes are never scattered or lost.

Don't pay for comprehensive cable packages if there's another way to get just the TV shows that you like. I use Netflix, networks own streaming websites, or own or rent series that have come out on DVD.

Whenever you have a question that no one around you can help you with, think first of how the internet can answer your question. Seriously. One of my aunties once told me in passing that she's always wanted to bake cookies, but doesn't know how. I Googled "Nestle Tollhouse Chocolate Chip Cookies Recipe" and sent that to her. I used Youtube and hobbyists blogs to learn how to maintain my garden. I research hiring manager advice and resume samples whenever I apply for a new job. For travel advice to remote countries and towns, I posted questions in online forums and as questions on travel blogs. I found plenty of books that I had wanted to read for free and in their entirety uploaded as ebooks and PDFs.

I remember in college, when the last in our group of friends got a smartphone. He said "from now on, no more questions. We only speak in statements." He was joking of course, but it reminded me that few facts need remained unchecked and few scientific curiosities need remained unanswered. When you want to learn about something or how to do something, assume first that the answer is at your fingertips until proven otherwise.

10. Be punctual and don't be flaky. I can't give any tips or shortcuts on how to be punctual or dependable short of saying "just do it". Be strict with yourself. Give yourself extra time in preparing to go out; plan for traffic or not being able to find a parking spot; don't try to squeeze too many tasks in before your planned time to meet someone. If you start to feel lazy to go out and honor an arrangement, kick yourself in the butt and meet them anyway. Make it a goal to have near 100% followed commitments rather than making it a goal to have as many planned social outings as possible. It's more important to say no to your friend for drinks on Friday night if it means being able to commit to your previously planned Saturday morning hike with your other friend than to try to do both and end up flaking on one of those friends. Also, in Japan, often the only excuse for cancelling plans or staying home from work is because someone has a fever. Don't have a fever? Don't have a sick child or grandmother with a fever? Then follow through with your commitment.

11. Iron your clothes, dress appropriately, comb your hair, and wash your face for work. Seeing as how I arrived in Japan at the earliest time in my working career, I don't know if all of the above is specific to Japan or of it's specific to appearing professional at work. All I know is, before coming to Japan, I almost never ironed, I wore my hair in pony tails, I rarely wore makeup, and I did not wear a skirt or slacks every day.

I quickly became very self-conscious of how everyone around me looked ready to teach and I looked ready to run out to the grocery store to grab milk before settling in on the couch in front of the TV with a bowl of cereal.

Back home in California, more people may try and even succeed in getting away with the T-shirt and rumpled jeans look, but why not dress up a little? Here, huge emphasis is placed on dressing appropriately and dressing well (when I asked students what they thought of the old adage "don't judge a book by its cover", many students disagreed, saying that appearance is very important for judging one's character). I don't believe that one should be judged by how professionally they are dressed and I don't think that Americans judge based on one's attire as frequently or as harshly as Japanese do. That being said, there's no harm in dressing up a little and keeping your appearance clean and tidy. I feel better, older, more experienced, composed, powerful, and attractive when I don my working-woman skirt, blouse, heels, and makeup.


Alright folks, that's all I got for ya. I was hoping hammer out a nice, rounded 26-Life-Lessons list for my 26th birthday, but the reality is, I'm not that wise yet.

Here's to many more years of big and little failures, epiphanies, great fun, and new and healthy relationships.