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.  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 vän!

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?

 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.