“You’ll never get rich working for somebody else,” my ex-boss, a wealthy, retired businessman, said to me as we soaked our naked bodies in the scalding waters of an outdoor onsen (hot spring) in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan’s four main islands.
“Not unless they overpay you.” For years this man had been CEO of several companies in Japan before achieving financial freedom in his 30s through years of being paid to do work he hated, before retiring to farming in rural Minnesota. I met up with him on his annual visit to Japan and we inevitably turned to talking about my next move. It was obvious to me now that living a life where I had enough time and money was going to take hard work, but what kind of work, I still did not know. It seemed to me that I needed to choose between spending time at a job I hated over a long period of time and hope I would be able to move up in the ranks fast enough to make more money before walking out as my ex boss had, or to start some sort of business. I chose the latter.
A few years later, I would help found an English school in China. The idea of starting a business had sparked after realizing several wealthy people I knew in my hometown were small business owners. “I had taught English in China for a few years, and spoke Mandarin, why not try my hand at an English school?” I thought.
Being a foreign English teacher in China, hardly a week went by without being offered a job teaching English. My business partners and I opened our English training center after spending months making a business plan, pitching to investors, scouting locations, registering with the local authorities, decorating our school, hiring employees, marketing ourselves, and starting our summer program. We thought if we just worked really hard, we would eventually attain the kind of freedom and flexibility we imagined wealthy, small business owners had.
I eventually realized that even if I were to achieve the type of financial freedom I had imagined, it might come with a cost. What if I was stuck in China forever and could only go home for a few weeks out of the year? What if my business partners and I disagreed over things and I had to go along with them against my will? On top of it all, I didn’t especially enjoy teaching English!
When I broke the news to my partners that I couldn’t stay, they understood. We are still good friends to this day.
While there are plenty of business opportunities out there (especially in a developing country such as China), the type of business is very important to me.
Jumping into a new business venture without knowing anything about running a business ended up costing me lots of time and money.
As the snow fell that night over the ocean in Japan, I stared out across it at the lights of the ships in the night, not knowing I would start an English school a few years later.
Tropical Xishuangbanna in southern China’s Yunnan province, borders Myanmar and Laos, and is known for its elephants, rainforests (though we found many of them had been cut down when I was there a few years ago), and its minority peoples.
After spending the last ten days hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge in the mountains of northern Yunnan province, and riding horses through remote villages seldom visited by foreigners, it was time to head two hours south by plane to the moist jungles and rubber tree plantations of Southern Yunnan. When boarding our plane in Dali, a city in northern Yunnan, to fly down south for a few weeks, we
spotted another foreigner. If you have spent any time living in China, or perhaps another country where your skin and hair color sets you apart from the rest of the native people, like many of us “foreigners”, you may find yourself surprised when glimpsing a fellow foreigner. We spied one such specimen before taking off and upon landing.
We took a cab to a café where we could sip some coffee and plot out our next ten days in Xishuangbanna, and by chance the man from the airports ended up at the same café as us. “I haven’t set eyes on another foreigner in months,” the man said “and since I’ve seen you several times now, and we’ve even ended up at the same cafe, I think we are fated to meet, so I wanted to come over and introduce myself.”
The man was about fifty years old, wore a handkerchief around his head, and by his accent we could tell he was also from North America. We told him we were teaching English in Guangdong province, and were traveling in Yunnan over our winter break. We asked him what he did.
“My business is canyons,” he said.
Sure, the canyon business, I know all about that, I nodded, pretending I knew what he was talking about. “What does that mean?” we asked him.
“I travel all around the world exploring remote canyons, mapping them out, and doing research. I’ve spent the last several months up in the mountains on the border with Myanmar studying a lost pygmy tribe there.” This guy easily had the most enviable job I had ever heard of – being a writer on Seinfeld or professional pianist now took a backseat.
“I’m from Arizona originally, and I still spend a few months every year there when I’m not out doing research.” He went on to tell us about how he had explored and helped get the Tsangpo Gorge in Tibet the designation of deepest gorge in the world.
It amazed me that this person was able to take such a unique activity and make it into his job. What sort of path had he taken to create such a job for himself? Was this man born to explore canyons, or had he slowly crawled into this niche over years of experience? We noticed his eyes light up as he spoke of his mountain-pygmy-tribe friends and that he enjoyed what he did for a living. What if it were possible to work doing something I was interested in as this man had? If I did so, would I still be able to have time, money, and flexibility? I didn’t know, and I still don’t know, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying.
Since that time I have worked as an interpreter, done HR work, been a translator, taught math, written screenplays, and produced my own short films. Each job has had its own positives and negatives and my hope is that by trying more things I am interested in, that I will eventually end up on the right route. Or maybe, the perfect balance of time, money, and meaningful work will be made clear as I continue to make mistakes and try new things.
After years of teaching English and Math, and working as an interpreter/translator and cultural liaison at an international design and manufacturing company in China, Nick decided to follow his passion for storytelling through film and writing. Inspired by such writers and directors as Jerry Seinfeld, JRR Tolkien, and Sophia Coppola, Nick is currently producing his first professional-quality short film. Nick now works as a freelance writer and translator of Chinese to English and splits his time between his two homes: Zhongshan, Guangdong, China and Minnesota, United States. You can connect with him via his blog: www.chinalifefiles.com where he writes about his life in China.