How to Make U-Turns in Life (even from remote Filipino Fishing Villages)

What happened to that Swedish guy helping us?
What happened to that Swedish dude on his gap year? Bjorn? Oh..Bjorn?

My friend Bjorn is a culture mutt. So much so that he even named his blog that.ย  He’s originally from Sweden, lived in Europe, married a funny Filipina girl (from Los Angeles – where else?) and now lives in Thailand of course.

Today, he tells you about some bad decisions he made earlier in his life and how he turned it around. Take it away vรคn!

Never before had I tasted failure of such epic proportion.

I was so depressed that I left the booth at the volunteer activity I was helping with and lay down in a nearby field feeling the weight of months of loneliness and confusion as a 16 year-old, far from home. The gap year experience I had so been looking forward to had proven to be a total disaster. As I looked up at the Philippine sky I was tortured by the agonizing question: how had I gotten here?

ย The Dream

It had been the dream of my adolescent life: finish secondary school in England and work abroad for a year with an international volunteer organization. At first all had gone smoothly. The organization had waved the rule that you had to be 18 to join. I finished secondary school and within weeks I flew from London to Manila, riding the high of adventure-fueled adrenaline.

At first I loved my new life. Palm trees, the warm weather, Filipino food and great new friends. I cruised through a month of training at the end of which would come the big announcement of where each trained volunteer would be sent to work for 11 months.

Bad News

When the announcement came I had mixed feelings. I was being sent to a little fishing village in Western Pangasinan (in the northern part of the Philippines). That was fine. But the bad part was that I didn’t at all know the two other guys that I was being sent out with. The friends I had made during training were all being sent elsewhere. I was being sent on a remote work assignment with total strangers.

Hasty preparations were made for our trip out and before I knew it, I was on a bus with my two new workmates and huge cultural and language barriers to boot. My workmates spoke some English but the nuance that you could communicate to someone back home in England was nearly impossible to get across.

Even Worse News

Cultural problems came up quickly. Although both my workmates were Filipino, they were from different areas and only one spoke the local dialect, Ilocano. The Ilocano then decided that the other guy was lazy, that he was not pulling his weight. There was a lot of passive aggression and then a fight. It was ugly. Instead of doing something positive for our community it seemed we were crumbling from within.

My own private frustrations were building as I was quickly discovering that the only role that I could find to lead was that of a children’s activities coordinator where games and songs required less in the way of my speaking Ilocano. And even that wasn’t going well. The kids were acting up. An old man made fun of me. I was running out of material.

Mr. Lonely

Then the intense loneliness sank in. I had never missed home and my family so much. I knew I was not doing well when I could look out at the warm ocean, a minute’s walk from our house, and not even want to jump in and enjoy it. I felt all alone.

I couldn’t really communicate with anyone.

It was 1997 and the closest phone that I could feasibly use to call home was a 30-minute jeepney (an open-backed truck of sorts) ride away. Contact with home was sparse. When a letter would come in the mail it was always a really huge deal. I read the letter excitedly and then often re-read it. But then there would be nothing for days, sometimes weeks.

As my thoughts snapped back to the present, the realization that I had been massively under-prepared for this year abroad struck like a sledge hammer. I lay in the field feeling the horrible mix of regret at what had clearly been a bad life decision to leave home at such a young age, blended with utter angst about how I could possibly get out of this mess.

No More

It was one of the few periods of my life where I genuinely dreaded every day. I couldn’t take anymore of this. I had to put a stop to it. The agony had to end.

It was this realization, this line in the sand where I vowed that I would do anything to change my life situation, that was the genesis of what I can now look back on as one of the greatest comebacks of my life.

The realization that my life was pure hell forced action. I contacted my supervisors at headquarters and pushed for relocation as soon as possible. It was uncomfortable but it worked. I was reassigned to an English teaching assignment near Manila with my best friend from my training days. Two months later even better news came. I had landed a completely different volunteer position in Northern Sweden to complete the second half of my gap year. I would be leading out in children and youth activities in a little town near the arctic circle.

Transformation

Things were automatically 10 times better. I got to see my family on the trip to Sweden and as soon as I arrived at my new service post I met great friends. A large family practically adopted me. They had me over to their house to eat, play sports and watch movies practically every weekend.

As my physical and social environment improved and as I basked in the joy of new friendship, the pain of loneliness and adolescent angst lifted. I was so much happier. I felt like myself again. And I was able to do work that I am still proud of today.

Time passed a lot quicker now that I was enjoying life and before I knew it, I was saying goodbye to a huge crowd of new friends that had gathered to send me off in style. As I finished the year at a summer camp in Southern Sweden there was plenty of time to reflect on the year that had passed.

Lessons

What started as a catastrophe had turned into one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.

Key to this change had been my acknowledging I had made a poor life decision with massive consequences. Even more importantly, I had realized that despite the fact that I had made a bad decision in embarking on a very difficult journey without the necessary emotional and overall life maturity, I had the power to make far better decisions to turn my life around completely.

I’m in my 30s now but the clarity I experienced about the power of decision making is burned into my memory for life. It took a fishing village for me but the details do not matter. We all have the power to turn failures into successes with the power of careful decision making.

Do you have a similar experience where the power of good decisions became crystal clear in your life? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

Photo credit – thelightningman

To learn more about the hilarious man known as Bjorn or to find out more about international travel, doing good around the world and living a James Bond life-style, visit www.culturemutt.com.

37 Comments

  1. I love this story, Bjorn, because it took me in a different direction than I thought. Initially I assumed it was going to be a tale of sticking a bad situation out. Instead it turned into a story about the power of taking action–much better. Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much Charlotte! I think that we are often conditioned to think that we always have to stick it out. I think that it is often wise to rethink the whole situation. Changing direction does not mean failing or being a light weight… it often just means making a very pragmatic decision about how we can be most effective… I think that is one of the key lessons I learned from that traumatic experience of my teenage years:)

  2. What a great story! I have found those hard or challenging seasons of life can really grow and allow us to become better in the long run. It’s all about making the right choices and having a great attitude.

    1. You are so right, Dan. And even when we make the wrong choices, the great attitude will show us that all is not lost and better ones can be made to correct course. Thanks for your insight!

  3. Great story, Bjorn. Most adults haven’t even figured out how to make life-changing decisions and you learned how at just 16.

  4. Bjorn,

    To me the lesson is not really about making a bad decision into a good one, although that is ultimately what happened here and kudos to you. What I got from the story was a real life example that embodies one of my favorite quotations; “What is the best way to get someone out of poverty (read any bad situation)?” Answer: “Make them uncomfortable in it.” The only reason you turned this bad decision into a good one is because you were absolutely miserable. Your misery provided you with the INCENTIVE (you knew I would work that word in somewhere) to change your situation. What if someone had come along and “propped you up” as it were, just enough so that your were not completely miserable? Is it possible that you would have stayed where you were and wondered around in sort of a complacent misery? But not miserable enough to do anything about it.

    For me, the lesson to be learned here is that maybe we should not be quite so quick to temporarily alleviate the perceived suffering of others and allow their discomfort to provide them with incentive to better their situation.

    Enjoy your travels!

    1. Kevin! What a surprise! Thanks for checking in:) And thanks even more for the comment. It made me feel like I was sitting in Starbucks with you talking politics and shop! I have to say that I agree with your assessment on this one though. Anything bearable would have been endured, it was the “pure hell” factor that forced action. Had I not hit rock bottom I would probably have completed the year feeling frustrated in the fishing village.

      So yes, I needed the incentive to get off my butt and do something about my situation. HOWEVER… (and you knew I’d work that word in, didn’t you:)), I had a very trusty safety net (read:family / international contacts) that helped me find and implement alternative solutions. Incentives are even more effective when we help each other take advantage of opportunity:)

      I miss you:)

    2. Wow, Kevin, that was a powerful illustration! I strongly agree with you that “we should not be quite so quick to temporarily alleviate the perceived suffering of others and allow their discomfort to provide them with incenitve to better their sitution.”

  5. A very profound story Bjorn. Hard times in our lives could help us to either to get strong, get up and keep on going or ti will destroy us. I am happy yours went the possitive way.

  6. Bjorn thank you for this a brave, honest post. “No more” is a really powerful phrase. Maybe each person has to reach that point though before they can truly turn it around. I wonder how we can live so that we don’t have to reach breaking point before we forge a new path? I think bitter people are the ones that reach the “no more” point, but they’ve been working so hard at something or suffering so much over something that even when a new way becomes available, they decide to stay in their current situation because it would be unbearable to face the reality that they have wasted the years. That’s why I love the moment, the now. If I love now more than the past or the future, I can be happy, take risks and be more open.

    1. Karin! “If I love now more than the past or the future, I can be happy, take risks and be more open.” That could be a post in itself. I really like that. That love of the present is similar to how I feel about the unknown. Why fear the future, the only think you actually have a stab at changing?

  7. I love this post (and I’m not just saying that for obvious reasons :D). The lesson I learned was that no situation is ever truly that bad when you can make a choice. (I also believe that one can always make a choice. :D)

    The post also made me ponder the nature of choices. It seems to me the key to achieving a successful outcome is the intent and motivation behind them, i.e. good choices are made mindfully by an individual; bad choices occur when one just lets “life happen.” But even a bad choice doesn’t necessarily mean “game over.” Choices are your second (fourth or hundredth) chance.

    Thanks for a “choice” topic. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. Well, I’ve got to say I am delighted you liked your husband’s post:) Hahaha! And yes, creating the space you need to make those good, mindful decisions (instead of simply reacting to life) has got to be the secret. I remember a favorite politician of mine fretting about the challenge of getting time to think while in office. I found it quite an intellectual fear but am realizing more and more how necessary this time to think really is on a practical, survival level.

  8. Hi Bjorn,

    I loved your guest post and it was a very inspirational story of the power of the human spirit.

    The biggest moment for me came when I was in my early twenties. I had grown up with a stammering problem and had extremely low self-confidence and a low sense of self-worth.

    I made a conscious decision that I was going to improve my life. It was hard work. However, I haven’t looked back since.

    Vishnu, thanks for having Bjorn guest post at your blog and for connecting us all with him.

    1. Thank you Hiten, I am inspired by your moment of resolve faced with your big challenge in your 20s. Have you written about it on your blog (which I love, BTW)?

  9. Great post, Bjorn! You explained it well – we have to make big “U-turn” decisions sometimes to improve our situation. It gets better the moment we realize our agency.
    Recently I ended my employment at a large SDA organization here in South Korea because I was disappointed and unsatisfied with how things were turning out.
    My new employer was the first Korean to earn a doctorate in Altruism and I’m thrilled to learn as much from her as I can. She runs an awesome school and I’m not only valued, respected, and treated as an individual, but I negotiated for the exact things I wanted in my contract and got everything and more ~ it’s beginning to feel like a dream job!
    Of course there were a few unexpected things to adjust to, as with any new job. That’s where a little dose of optimism comes in handy!

    1. Heather, thanks for commenting! And thank you for the inspirational story from Korea. I am very, very happy for you! I would love to get some more details on what this new job looks like. I am glad you know have the flexibility and the leverage to be more selective in the jobs you select… Congrats!

  10. I think the most impressive thing about this story is that at that young of an age you realized you made a mistake, and needed a big change. A lot of times we try to tough it out, or feel that we can bring about a change to our situation which may not be the best solution. You realized it was time to go, and you followed through.

    1. Thanks RoyLyn – I think it was a life-changing experience for Bjorn and he probably was able to make other big decisions in his life or make a u-turn on those decisions due to this experience.

    1. Great question Razwana! He is quite the savvy and cultural world traveler today. I think he’ll definitely stick it out – especially with his Filipina counter-part wife of his! ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Although I can think of several examples from my own life, the one that came to mind first was my daughter, who had a child at a young age. What might have seemed like a disaster has turned out to be the best thing that ever happened. Yes, it has been challenging, but she has risen to the challenge. Having a child has transformed her life in some amazing ways. She definitely took a potentially bad situation and turned it around into the biggest blessing in her life. Great story! I’m going to come check out your blog!

    1. Inspiring story Galen. Looks like something that was potentially going to hold her back helped propel her forward. You must a pleased mom and grandmother!

  12. Great learning experience, Bjorn. Thanks for sharing.
    My big decision was learning to love myself after a string of failed relationships. Strangely, the moment I took that decision I met my future husband. Dramatic, or what? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. I definitely appreciate this comment Corinne after my post a couple weeks back on self-love. There are sometimes life-changing decisions we make – yours seemed to have been one of them.

  13. WOW, INSPIRING!!! Thanks for sharing that Bjorn!

    I may not have had such a big life experience yet but reading this could be almost as big as one! Very inspiring and much to learn.

    Thanks to both Vishnu and Bjorn!

    Aditya

    1. Thanks for your comment and dropping by Aditya. You may not have had big life decisions but I’m sure you’ve had many small decisions you’ve made that have changed your life for the better?

  14. It must have been hard to put this painful experience into words and it is great that you were able to learn from it and do a lot of growing up already at the age of 16. Many of us make disastrous mistakes but the important thing is to make them a springboard for something better and positive.

    1. Thanks for your input Inger. It sounds like this experience was a springboard for many future travels and experiences for Bjorn. He looks like he’s learned from them and his 1 year world-tour will show us how he’s going to stick it out.

  15. environment is everything, i suppose. given that particular situation, i would probably have tried to make the best of it and look for the silver lining. and i’m a natural loner. but given someone of your age at the time and the isolation, it was probably too much to bear. my current environment in the slums still sucks but i’ve gotten used to it to the point it barely bothers me anymore. and i’m still interested in minimalism and tiny houses so this life just seems like alternative/unconventional decisions that fit my values anyway!

    1. J – you’re so awesome! heck, after your self-inflicted situations and attempts to immerse yourself in ghettos and temples, I think you can make it anywhere.

      The question for you is if you can settle back in the US or a western country? Or some comfortable place? ahhaha that might be the real challenge, huh?

  16. I can’t help but reminisce my greatest countryside experiences in the Philippines- in Pangasinan and in Marinduque. I grew up in the city (Metro Manila) and so seeing the life in the rural area was an eye-opener. This experience has enriched my view of the world that was not limited to my own comfortable city-life (which I thought was excruciating already given my less fortunate financial situation vis-a-vis my friends who were better off).

    Going away from home where life was comfortable has given me a better view of life and humanity. I have become more compassionate towards others; I have made choices that were not limited to personal tastes or whims; I have tried to understand life better through personal reflection.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences Rob. Getting out of our comfort zones and being in new places always enhances our life experiences. Visiting rural areas is always a challenge for us urban folks but we get so much out of our rural visits and travels. In your case, your travels led you to more compassion, understanding and personal reflection.

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