Few things drive home the thought of leaving like booking a one-way plane ticket. After spending most of the last four years in Jakarta (save that brief spell in Beijing), I now have 27 days left in the place I've called home the longest since leaving Grand Island in 1999. It's Korean Airlines from here to Incheon, Korean again to Las Vegas and Southwest back to Omaha -- just one way this time, unlike last year.
The four months after that are roughly sketched out, with more college classes online taking up most of my time in addition to hopefully working part-time for one of my old papers and seeing family. I will certainly keep my eyes open for intriguing opportunities, but most of what I'm seeing so far are entry-level prep sports jobs (don't want to go back to making $20,000 a year) or high-level college and pro football beat positions (don't have the chops or interest for those).
It's what will happen after the calendar flips to 2013 that's weighing on my mind now. I have a rough idea of what I do want, a better idea of what I don't want and a vague plan for how to go about it.
What I don't want is to stick it out just for the sake of sticking it out -- the path of least resistance, if you will. Even if I'm not wanted here, I could head back to the States and scrape out an existence covering high school sports again, making entry-level wages for the five, 10 or even 15 years before I join the ranks the those deemed too old (and thus expensive) for the business model or the newspaper industry collapses as a whole. Then what? I'm still in The Bubble with at least another 15 to 20 years ahead of me before I can even think about retirement.
Sure, I don't have to keep living overseas. I could just as easily save money by getting my Associate's at the local community college and finishing up the Bachelor's at Nebraska-Lincoln, walking away knowing I took the sensible, economical approach to a sheepskin. This is about so much more than money, though; it's also about experience, lifestyle and long-term planning. Any knucklehead can get a BA in Asian Studies back in the States and spend a semester or two studying abroad, so if I'm going to rely on journalism experience as well as having lived in Indonesia, China and [insert next destination here] to set me apart from the pack, it only makes sense to also pursue a degree in this part of the world. Plus, spending three to four years in another country raises the possibility of naturalization and/or actually building a life in said foreign land. I don't hold out any great hope of marrying or having kids, but stranger things have happened in the cosmos.
The more I think about it, the more the safe option (sticking with newspapers) and the almost-as-safe option (going back to school in the US) fail to appeal to me. Leading the life I want is going to involve taking on some added risk as well as eschewing some of the activities normally associated with people in their early 30s. It won't be easy, but in the long run I believe I'll be better off having made those sacrifices instead of continuing to carry on as I am now. The main question is where to pursue this new life, and after much number-crunching and a bit of reconnaissance, the list of destinations is down to two.
1. Temple University, Tokyo campus
At first glance, Temple would seem to have it all -- an accredited, respected American university operating in Japan with programs that appeal to me and people I know living in the city. It's clean, safe and has plenty of good public transportation and fantastic food. There are some downsides, too -- one of which is particularly pressing -- so it's not quite the slam dunk that it first appears.
Pros: The staff, for starters. All the TUJ people I've interacted with, whether online or at the information session I attended, have been very helpful. Plus, Jeff Kingston -- the Asian Studies coordinator -- is one of the top people in his field. If I want to major or minor in Japanese, where better to do some immersion learning than Japan? It sounds like TUJ is willing to dole out scholarship money (which would be a big help), and if sticking around through the summer isn't an option, getting home should be fairly simple with United set to start flying direct from Narita to Denver on March 31. A student visa would allow me to work 28 hours a week during semesters and 40 per week during semester breaks, and I'm told even something basic like tutoring English learners can bring in 1,500 to 2,500 yen ($20 to $30) an hour.
Cons: Not to put too fine a point on it, but Tokyo is damn expensive. That was true when the yen wasn't as eye-wateringly strong, and it's far more so now. What's more, TUJ's prices are denominated in yen, so the more Japan's currency strengthens, the more my resolve weakens. The first semester alone will cost me about 1.9 million yen (about $24,000), with subsequent semesters running at a projected 1.3 million yen ($16,500). That could vary widely, though, as TUJ only provides housing for international students during the first semester. There are ways to mitigate the costs of living in Tokyo and studying at TUJ, of course, but I'm going to need a bunch of help from scholarships and Uncle Sugar. Other people might worry about things like earthquakes, typhoons or the whole nuclear scare, but those just don't seem that scary to me after four years in Jakarta.
Notes: I've wanted for years to live in Japan and, with jobs increasingly difficult to come by, this might be my best route into the country. It involves a fair bit of financial risk, I know, but I'd rather regret having made the effort and taken that risk than regret backing down and leaving those "what if" thoughts nagging at the back of my brain. Of course, it's also worth asking whether there will be a job for me in the country once I graduate -- even if the JET program survives, teaching English is not exactly a long-term career option.
2. Victoria University Wellington
New Zealand wasn't initially in my plans. All things being equal, I'd have preferred to take a crack at studying in Australia -- I did grow up on Australian Rules Football, after all. Unfortunately, Australia has turned university students in its country into big business and the ongoing resource boom means the Aussie dollar exchange rate is nowhere near as friendly as it was during the 2000 Olympics. That shifted my focus to New Zealand, whose universities came highly recommended by a friend and whose exchange rate isn't as brutal. I poked around four universities while I was still in Beijing, but now I've settled on Victoria University as the best blend of education, lifestyle and affordability.
Pros: While first impressions don't usually carry much stock with me, it took less than a day to sell me on Wellington being a great place to live. Sure, Lonely Planet may have named it "the coolest little capital in the world," but you don't need to take their word for it. Just walking around downtown is a good sales pitch -- clean air and water, walkable streets, a compact city, friendly people, pleasant weather and more. All that and the general laid-back vibe was quite the departure from the hot, tangled mess that is Jakarta. The people at VUW were helpful, too, and being an actual campus gives the university a leg-up on TUJ in terms of on-campus housing, facilities, etc. They also have far more science classes at VUW, giving me the chance to indulge my interests in that area. The cost of living in Wellington is lower than Tokyo, obviously, both in its own right and with the New Zealand dollar's exchange rate.
Cons: The degree structure is a bit different at New Zealand universities. On the plus side, earning a BA takes about three years compared to four at American universities -- they generally bypass most of the liberal-arts classes in New Zealand and get straight into the major. On the down side, transferring credits is dicier, which probably means starting over in terms of credit hours. That might be a bit of an annoyance or a blessing, depending on how this semester at CCC goes. The biggest negative, though, is the almost complete lack of scholarship money for international undergraduate students -- New Zealand universities don't soak their international undergrads as much as their Australian counterparts, but they have to make their money somewhere, I guess. A student visa allows 20 hours of work per week during the academic year and 40 hours during the summer holiday, so maxing out on hours at minimum wage (NZ$13.50 per hour) brings in about NZ$240 ($195) per week. Even keeping a minimum-wage job through two trimesters (40 weeks) only nets about NZ$9,600 ($7,800) after taxes, leaving loans and my savings to make up the rest of the cost. At about NZ$39,000 ($31,000) for tuition, fees and living expenses for two trimesters, that's a fair bit of heavy lifting.
Notes: Like I said earlier, there's more than just dollars and cents (and yen) playing on my mind. New Zealand appears to offer more of a fresh start, both personally and educationally. The lack of a language barrier opens up more work opportunities while studying and afterward, and three consecutive years at VUW would put me 60 percent of the way toward naturalization. I'm not in a rush to give up my American citizenship, of course, but it would be interesting to try living in one of those countries that always seems to score higher than the US in these quality of life surveys. The Kiwis I've met around Jakarta all tell me life is slower, if not a bit boring, in New Zealand. After four years of Jakarta, that doesn't sound too bad, either.
Much thinking to do during the next few months, not to mention schlepping my life across the Pacific (again). I know my parents aren't exactly crazy about me being a long-term expat, but hopefully having the two well-adjusted siblings -- one of whom is getting married in September -- living nearby helps ease their pain. I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel at least somewhat bad about my persistent absence, but needs must, etc. You never know, though -- perhaps four months is long enough for me to wear out my welcome all over again.