Film Analysis: Captain Marvel

I should preface this by saying that it isn’t a review. I think movies, like all art forms, are pretty subjective and everyone should decide for themselves. I would say, however, that half of the purpose of a review should also be to educate movie viewers about how to think about movies. Sure, you can get my opinion of the movie by reading this, but I won’t tell you what to think, just what I think.

I also don’t think this is a bad movie, but it definitely feels a bit messy, like they didn’t know what to do with it, and that’s what’s interesting to pick apart. I’ll probably spend more words criticising it than praising it, but that’s just because thinking about what might have gone wrong, and what could have been better, is interesting.

Before we get to the spoiler line, I have to say that the movie hit a bit of the Last Jedi problem for me: it had some interesting things it was trying to do, but it was too much and couldn’t focus on one thing. This is what makes a film feel messy and unfocused.


The temptation to use a prequel to explain everything almost always ends up bad.

Part of this is because it’s a prequel. The main story isn’t really a prequel, but it has so many Cinematic Universe things it’s trying to do that it gets distracting. Characters we saw in other movies show up a lot (Fury, Coulson, Ronan, to name a few), and if it were left at that, it would be fine. This is, however, coupled with lots of 90s nostalgia, which got pretty annoying.

A period piece should never focus too much on the setting at the expense of the story. Writers should probably ask themselves if the setting informs the story at all. “Stranger Things” is famous for its 80s nostalgia, but in many ways the time period informed the show (at least, the first season): the 80s were a time where D&D was becoming big with kids, “missing children” was a common reality that people would hear about and see, and so on.

“Captain Marvel” plays lots of 90s music hits, and references things like Windows 95, Blockbuster, and the fashions of the time… but they have no point. Both “Guardians of the Galaxy” had a famous soundtrack, but its existence did more than just reference what was happening in the film. It ends up informing us a lot about Peter Quill’s character. Even in movies where the soundtrack featured famous songs, it was used effectively. In the end, “Captain Marvel” makes the same mistakes as “Suicide Squad” where it feels like the songs were kind of just thrown into the movie where something vaguely related to the events on screen was happening but that’s it. The only point is nostalgia.

Nostalgia in this movie just gets a bit distracting. While you should be paying attention to the characters and the story, you keep getting bombarded with “Remember this?” As someone who grew up during the 90s, I can’t help wondering if this is how 80s kids felt with the explosion of 80s nostalgia lately.

There are also many problems regarding being a prequel. Setting it in the past apparently tempted the filmmakers to fill it with way more cinematic universe than they needed to, and most of it isn’t necessary. How did Fury lose his eye? Why were the Avengers named what they were? What was the Tesseract doing in the 90s? All of this is also distracting from the main story. I know plenty of people who love this stuff, but I don’t think it should ever take over the movie and it kind of does. A surprising amount of screen time is taken up by hinting or explaining these things, and while it makes lore nerds happy it doesn’t make it a good film. There are two reasons this can happen: they’re given too much focus, or not enough is given to the main story or character. And I’m tempted to say it’s both.

I also have a problem with the writing of the movie. I think they struggled with what to do with Carol Danvers as a character. Part of that is that her comic book character doesn’t have that many defining traits either, but that isn’t really an excuse. Many other Marvel characters don’t have strong characteristics, or have fairly generic ones, but the films can adapt that and have largely succeeded in doing so.

That by itself isn’t so much an issue as much as they failed to make her relatable. I feel like many people are going to blame it on the acting, but it’s really the writing. Many lines she’s given aren’t great, but overall the problem is the execution of her character arc. And for that, we’ll have to talk about Feminism.

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Jakarta Transitions

Jakarta is the city I grew up in, and to date still the place I have lived longest in (14 years, compared to 7 in the US overall and 9 in Switzerland, mostly Zürich, overall). I’m at the age now, however, where I have spent more time away from it than I spent in it.

So coming back is… odd. There are a number of things which are familiar, and it feels so good to recognise that familiarity. Being in Malaysia for the past few months has made me treasure how enunciated Indonesian sounds compared to Malay. The food, as ever, has been excellent and it’s nice to have it again. While some areas of Jakarta have changed a lot, some haven’t too much. Even little subtle things, like phrases, body language, and mannerisms just feel good to recognise.

At the same time, I’m also a different person coming back here, and the way I grew up here wasn’t exactly normal. Growing up as an expat kid means that your exposure to the culture around you is mixed and can vary a lot. When I went to the US later, people would sometimes try to figure me out and assume that 14 years should be enough to determine my sense of identity, but I knew very well that I didn’t really qualify. Today, I know that any sense of identity that isn’t a legal nationality is really just up to you, but I can definitely say that while there are ways that Indonesia feels like home, there are also ways it doesn’t.

Regardless, I can’t help wondering how I even got here, because it’s changed a lot in the past few months. A few months ago I was a tour guide in Zürich. I lived in a student WG (shared apartment), would bike around town, do standup comedy every couple of weeks or so, and generally delighted in a busy schedule that was under my control. By that point, I knew Zürich pretty well, had developed a number of contacts which made me feel connected and had a broad variety of friends from the different walks of life I was in.

I spent about three months in Malaysia and spent two of them hostel volunteering, which I have to admit was something I felt pretty comfortable with, pretty quickly. Hotel work is similar wherever you go, and tour guiding gave me lots of practice with people. If anything, I rather thrive on meeting and greeting. Tour guiding left its mark on me, and I really enjoy telling people about the country they’re in and making recommendations on places to go or try. Hostel living is really hectic though, and it can sometimes just be overwhelming.

And now, by contrast, I’m starting one of the most regular jobs I’ve ever worked in terms of hours. It seems like can get hectic during class hours, but outside of that is largely administrative. East Jakarta is mostly outside of the expat circuits, so unless my Indonesian gets a lot better my social life has and will take a dive. From some of the people I talk to, it’s normal to work, then go home and chill.

I have to say, this isn’t something I’m used to yet. And yet, this is also what people tend to pretend adulthood is all about. “I used to go out on Saturdays, but now I prefer just to sit at home and watch Netflix” and I don’t know if I can do that yet. Sometimes, yes, it’s nice to have a break after hyper hostel life, but I’m not a huge fan of the main social contact I have being either work or over the Internet. I’m also generally of the opinion that you can always question what people all assume you should do at whatever age you are. Being over 30 doesn’t mean your behaviour has to be any one specific thing. It’s possible that behaviour would change if I settled down with somebody, but I hardly think it’s mandatory before kids would hypothetically be involved.

Location determines possibilities though, and Jakarta is massive. I could get by with a wide bunch of contacts in Zürich’s 400,000 people. I could handle a microcosm of that at a hostel, where the backpacking community always felt small because most people followed similar routes and would all know each other. But now life is “normal” in a huge city and it’s just uncharted territory for me. Even the kids at the centre I teach at talk casually, even with their teachers, about spending a lot of time gaming on Fortnite. That’s cool in terms of normalising gamer culture, but also possibly indicative that social life might work differently here.

One thing I know for sure, I do like building communities by bringing people together. It’ll be a challenge over here, but you never know.

Still, it’s understandable being a little flummoxed at the moment. It’s been a lot of change, and I’m only contracted for a year as things currently stand. Most likely it’ll feel like no time when that’s up.

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Thoughts on Post-Colonial Race Interpretation

Well. Have shovel, will dig own hole. But let’s talk about this.

Ever since coming back to Asia, I’ve had Thoughts on this, and I’ve met some interesting people along the way who have sparked further Thoughts on it. I don’t intend to create answers here, but would rather clarify the questions I think people should be asking.

So as a premise, we should talk colonialism, and I’m going to have to talk about it in general terms. While the method varied from coloniser to coloniser, the British are most famous for it. As far as Europe goes though, we shouldn’t forget the variety of effects of French, Belgian, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Italian colonialism in this interpretation of the colonial empire. That said, I should also preface that empire is nothing new, and the subjugation of foreign peoples for a more powerful one is not unique to Europe. Most of contemporary Russia is still the result of conquest, the Ottoman Empire ruled huge swathes of non-Turkic peoples, and China is its own thing and still is.


@Wikimedia Commons


It’s important to note that while people think of China today as one big ethnic group with the exception of Uighurs and Tibetans, at least some of that was with a conscious repression and nationalisation effort over the decades, when historically much of the country’s history was one of domination of Han and Mandarin-speaking Chinese over various minorities within an imperial context. This was especially the case during the Mao years when CCP control was near-absolute, and “Cultural Revolution” is not a misnomer. We should separate imperial repression from the similarly conscious British imperial and economic goals of the Opium Wars and the various imperial goals advanced during the Boxer Rebellion. Does it make a difference whether exploitation comes from Peking or from London?


Thus, exploitation and racism are not unique to white people. However, it was during a time when science, technology and philosophy were coming into conflict with the practical reality of empire building that exploitation and racism then had to be justified.

In the 1200s it was probably enough for Mongols to rape and burn their way across most of Eurasia in the confident belief that they were the Chosen People to rule the world. It’s how their Secret History even recalls it. They treated their enemies like cattle during battle, and so it’s not a huge stretch that they would simply believe so. A suitable question to ask is whether atrocities leading to millions of deaths in the 1200s are any less acceptable than those in the 1800s or 1900s.

But this gets complicated when some popular thinkers start talking about how all men are equal, or that the only thing separating man from barbarism is socio-economic stability and good governance. If all men are equal, how can you justify the exploitation of foreign places and peoples? You accentuate their foreignness, you teach your new generation that they are not as human as you are. But it’s not enough to just say that God said so anymore because your increasingly educated and prosperous people will question that. You have to make a system out of it. The long-winded justification for systems that survived on racism is where the whole thing gets rather sickening, but the base assumption is “We’re better than them, that’s why we’re ruling them” with the addition of “And this is why.”

It would be remiss to not also briefly touch on slavery, because this is what makes the difference between the practice of slavery which goes back millennia across many cultures, to the intellectual attempts of justification and systematic implementation of slavery as practised in the Atlantic slave trade. When Rome held slaves, there was often little pretence of intrinsic human rights, but the contrast comes from the idea of the intrinsic value of humanity being used to justify the oppression and enslavement of certain groups of them.

When you travel anywhere, you start to see that no matter what country you go to, richer peoples look down on poorer peoples, and because there is a demographic correlation based on race or nationality, people assume them to be racial or national cultural characteristics, rather than as a consequence of their socioeconomic history.

This is why the Victorian period is such a fascinating contrast of influences because on the one hand, you have high minded enlightenment rhetoric being used to justify the brutal exploitation of foreign peoples. It’s very arguable that we’re still working out the problems with understanding this today, because how can we love the intellectualism and literature of the day, while also understanding the system that it was a part of and arguably helped to perpetuate? The Jungle Book is a classic piece of literature, the adaptations of which are still being made and enjoyed today, but it wouldn’t exist without Rudyard Kipling being a British man raised in India. When you get into his own life and views it becomes even more complicated, but we’ll have to keep away from literary criticism of authorial intent for now.

So, fast forward to the present day realities that I have experienced. Just to set the stage, my family is Vietnamese, but I was born in the US which gives me an American passport, but from age 3 to age 18 I lived in Indonesia, but while I was there I went to a British International School. I later returned to the US, discovered American race discussion completely fresh, but then moved to Switzerland. We’ll get to contemporary Europe later.

Self-segregation of communities is a thing that definitely happens. In the US, it’s a discussion of how schools, despite being legally non-segregated, become segregated as a result of socio-economic differences according to neighbourhood. However, in my Asian context, it’s a little different. We’re going to put the exoticism to do with Asia on a shelf for this discussion too.

My British school was an international school, and from the beginning there were a mix of kids there: British and various Commonwealth-related countries, Asians from Singapore, Malaysia, Japan or Korea, kids of mixed parentage (half Asian, half white), a few Indians and Sri Lankans, some Europeans, and so on. And there was me, too, and I don’t remember it being that much of an issue that I was American but not American at the same time. Nevertheless, you could still feel kids of more Asian upbringing and kids of more Western upbringing tend to hang out with each other more. It didn’t stop people from talking to each other or hanging out, but the trend was definitely there, though it got less as we got older.

The US has a noticeable Asian population, and as part of the race narrative there, they also want to be seen as just other kinds of Americans. I lived there twice, and it felt like that process had progressed, which is overall a good thing… except that in my specific case it wasn’t something I identified with. I hadn’t grown up with their problems and so I didn’t like the way they sometimes tried to speak on my behalf.

America’s parochialism sometimes means that they assume that their race theory is universal. I had a Jamaican colleague in Florida who would insist that he’s not African-American, he’s Jamaican, but a lot of Americans don’t really have the exposure or experience to think in terms of the differences that national context can have. For a lot of them, it is all about the dominant white majority and they project that onto the world because it is easy to see European colonialism as being the same thing. On the surface, it does look like the same thing, but it gets more complicated when you dig deeper.

Which brings me to people who have grown up with a post-colonial education, such as out here in Asia, and this can manifest in different ways. For the vast majority of people, colonialism is something that happened a long time ago, but the nation-states that they live in today are relatively new and modern and defined by not only the circumstances which birthed them but also the current ones they live in. Even if it, historically, wasn’t long at all, memories can be quite short.

I have met some truly compelling and intelligent people out here who, in some ways, still see the world in those racial terms, but from the reverse. For them, you could believe that they see everything as being about the relationship between white people and non-white (brown) people, and this has always made me uncomfortable.


In 2014 Switzerland had a referendum spearheaded by the populist right-wing against Mass Immigration from the EU. Red denotes being in favour of the then-current policy, green being in favour of implementing quotas. You can see a clear delineation between French-speaking and German-speaking regions, as well as urban-rural divides. @Wikimedia

Spend any time in Europe and you will see different people experience racism that can have nothing to do with skin colour. In Switzerland, it is all about the idea that some people don’t know how to behave properly in Swiss society, and that concept is projected onto Cultural Others. This can include anyone, but while most people from the Balkans or Eastern Europe have no perceptible difference in skin colour, but still experience racism because they are seen as different. This varies a lot regionally though, as the French-speaking regions tend to be more open to immigration (as has been reflected in their voting behaviour). The Italian-speaking Ticino has the strongest record of anti-immigration policy, but it should also be said that their prejudice is actually mostly against Italians, and sharing a language feels like it encourages them to accentuate their differences.


WhatsApp Image 2019-02-06 at 15.00.22

“Our client would not like the following nationalities: Albanian, Croatian, Turkish, and people from warm countries, for example, Brazil.”

And let’s repeat the old tendency: The only commonality is that these Cultural Others come from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds. People assume it is race or nationality related because of correlation, and assuming it is causation. It is not one’s fault that they grew up in a slum, came from a war-torn country, or that country experienced 30 years of economic mismanagement and dictatorship.

People only see what they see in front of them though, and they see people who are the result of a lack of education and/or socio-economic stability but only see skin colour, language, and other cultural or national signifiers of Otherness.

I find it strange, however,  to look from this perspective at your life and personal interactions and see everything in terms of race. It might say more about the way you see the world than what actually happens.

I’ve been told that local people here sometimes feel uncomfortable with white tourists, because they feel like the white tourists think they’re better than them, and this gets corroborated with their experience in Europe sometimes. I should first of all say that sometimes they’re right. I have met people who travel out here to Asia but also complain that their home country is full of Chinese people and not see the irony.

On the other hand, interpretation of intent is an analytical behaviour that’s rife with potential flaws, particularly subjectivity and confirmation bias. People see what they want to see, and this self-centeredness is pretty human. When someone isn’t friendly to you in a context you would expect them to be friendly in, it could be for all kinds of reasons. They could be having a bad day, they could be socially awkward, or they could just be inexperienced with different people but still open-minded to them. If you’ve never come close to meeting an Asian person before, especially in this climate which tries to teach everyone to be culturally sensitive, a little hesitancy is to be expected. It’s also just as possible that they’re an asshole to everyone regardless of race.

Something I think everyone should learn sometime in their life is not to project their own insecurities on other people. I like to think most people grow out of it past adolescence, but in general, what you think people notice about you isn’t necessarily what they do. Speaking as an amateur historian, it can be easy to see the contemporary world as still motivated by the historical forces you study, but that is still presumptuous and disregards the agency of contemporary people to make their own mistakes.

You might see their behaviour as the manifestation of centuries of racial justification of socio-economic exploitation into current day economic inequality where tourists claim that seeing poverty is seeing the real locals… Or they could just be a bitch.

This is not to say that you can’t educate, in an everyday and practical sense, about the potentially troubling behaviour which hearkens back to colonialist or racist history. It also isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen. Rather, my point is to keep an open mind, and that it doesn’t pay to view the world exclusively through this lens. Nor does it help to put an American racial lens on other regions or cultures, despite that they produce a lot of our contemporary academic discussion on it.

Whatever you decide to do with your knowledge and perspective, always remember that it doesn’t always translate into real life and that you could always be wrong. Indeed, the times you are wrong should be celebrated as little course corrections on your path through life.

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Life Update: Jakarta and Bubbles

Just a little life update.

In under a week, I’m going back to Jakarta. I wanted to wait until everything was worked out, and now it is, so it’s official: I’m starting a job there teaching English at a language centre in East Jakarta.

I’m a little nervous, and a little excited. These are natural things to feel when doing something new. In theory, that’s strange because Jakarta is actually where I spent the most time in my life. 14 years is not exactly a short amount of time. On the other hand, I haven’t been back in 15 years, and the context will be completely different.

I grew up in the expat community there, and expat life in the 90s was still rather privileged. What a lot of people don’t understand when they hear the term “Third Culture Kid” is that they think it’s literally three cultures, when instead the idea denotes an influence of a home culture, a host culture, and most importantly a created culture in the international bubbles created by this fluid cultural experience.

Many people celebrate it so they can feel like cool international creatures, and to some extent that’s warranted, but in most cases, if we’re being strict with the terminology, it’s still a very privileged, and arguably elitist, background to have. Living in a bubble in a city lets you see it without exposing you to it, so your experience of it would be pretty different.

So between maybe never knowing the city that well, and being gone for 15 years, I might be discovering something completely new. That makes me a little nervous, but I can’t help feeling a little excited at the prospect of recontextualising my childhood experience with the eyes of an adult.

When I first left to the US, I romanticised Jakarta a lot. Life in America just didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time, and I missed the nice lifestyle I had grown accustomed to, and it felt strange to be around people who shared a language but not quite the same world. I have since moved on and understood it to be the bubble it was, but there’s definitely a part of me that remembers the 18-year-old who just wanted to go back to something that wasn’t there anymore. I guess this ultimately asks the question: when you try to go back into the bubble, is popping it inevitable?

Regarding English teaching, I don’t know what age group I’ll be teaching yet, but it could be anything under 18. This is also a new experience for me, but I’ll find out for myself soon enough. My general plan is that, since it’s a 1-year contract, I’ll at least find out if it’s something I want to do more of. Where I go from there, we’ll see. A year is a long time but also not a long time.

One nice thing about being in Asia is learning how flexible I can be. There are a lot of people out here like me, floating between different locations. It’s nice to, metaphorically, not be alone. That’s true just about anywhere.

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Thoughts on Asia-Centrism

When you live in Europe, you are always going to be exposed to Euro-centrism. And I’d say that’s shorthand for general Western-centric interpretations of all forms of humanities and social sciences. There’s an attitude that endures to this day that the cultural West has been the catalyst and driver of human society.

It’s fallacious to say the least. Regardless, it’s an idea that endures and causes problems to this day because people paint a picture of a glorious past that never quite existed. It also assumes broad generalisations of cultural boundaries which don’t hold up to scrutiny. The question in Europe about whether there is such a thing as European civilisation in general, or if it’s just a geographical expression, is an important one and not just for EU politics.

So of course, it’s always welcome when alternative perspectives come into play. This is the whole point of Post-Colonial studies. What do colonised countries think of their colonisers? What impact did they have? How much of modern society is shaped by Western ideas, or how much was invented independently due to human social behaviour?`These are all interesting academic questions, but most people aren’t academics. Most people are content to talk about how proud they are that, say, Britain had a big empire and it was great, without taking into account both the historical costs and benefits of that history.

Indeed, if anything, it should make us ask why we value the concept of colouring in a map to suggest we control those areas of a map. What does that control mean anyway? And indeed, what does it mean to most people who lived with it?

But I think most people just like to think in grandiose terms, which brings me to Asia.

A girl I met recently told me about a theory she heard about how Asia was once the dominant region in the world, but then the West rose, but things are coming full circle now and world power is returning to Asia. She also thought that this would likely mean all the Asians coming together because they seemed to have a greater capacity for unity than Western countries.

There are many, many holes in this argument, and they’re the same ones that trouble Euro-centrism. What does Asia mean in this case? I have a hard time imagining that people who talk like this also include Asian countries like Kyrgyzstan or Bangladesh. Geopolitics is a lot more complicated than a simple zero-sum game of global power. The EU is both a fantastic example and counter-example of cooperation between political entities. I also find the concept of a clash of civilisations a little overly dramatic, and that it draws its civilisational borders very broadly, hence the question “What does Europe, or Asia, really mean?”

Putting it mildly, this is crackpot social science taken seriously. Most people aren’t social scientists and just enjoy the grandiose fantasy of borders and power competition from their armchairs. While that can be fun when it’s just chatter, it gets problematic when it gets taught as real science. It’s also just interesting to see this sort of fallacy from the Asian perspective.

So now here’s the question: did Asia inherit its self-centred perspective on history from the West, or is it just a human thing to do? Regardless, it would be nice if people were a little less self-centred. Even on a regional basis.

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Thoughts on the Egotism of Internet Reviews

Some prick once said that the customer is always right.

While it probably wasn’t meant to be a universal statement, what it did was basically entitle anyone who spends money anywhere to be a prick about it.

Anyone who has ever worked on the other side of the counter knows that customers are often wrong, but use the threat of making a fuss in order to cheat the business into placating them with free stuff. It is, sometimes literally, throwing a tantrum.

Sometimes it doesn’t even matter how much money is involved, because symbolically receiving a 10 dollar breakfast coupon is worth more than 10 dollars. It means you fought the system and won. You, a little person surrounded by big companies, managed to get something from them, and they are not as powerful as they seem.

Part of the problem is, of course, that they don’t see your human face when they yell at you, they see you as the representation of whatever business you work for. They don’t see you, the waitress who has 20 other people to also cater to while you complain the ice cream wasn’t done right.

That brings us to the other side of this, of course. Sometimes companies call your bluff, tell you that you can go ahead and take your business elsewhere because they’ll be fine without your patronage. You could threaten to write to their boss, and hopefully they’ll side with their employee because even if your complaint is legitimate there’s no need to be a prick. And thus, neutered, you might discover you aren’t as important to them as you thought.

And then the Internet happened.

Google keeps asking me what I thought of places. They reward you for being an “influencer” and that you can earn points and thus feel like an important person whose views are listened to. Your ego massaged, maybe you even do reach a lot of people. Maybe no one cares what you think in real life, but on the Internet everyone in the world can see it.

And now you can take a picture and say you have a thousand Instagram followers who are going to know you messed up fried ice cream that one time. You can tell people you have a YouTube channel and you can tell everyone what bad service you received. You can say that their Facebook response time was late by 5 minutes. You can vote them down to 1 star on Google because they weren’t as friendly as you would like.

And companies listen. They listen hard. But they punish their employees because that’s the easiest thing to do. Organisational change is costly and difficult, after all. Giving your Uber driver less than 5 stars makes a serious dent in their potential clients and the income they can expect. Submitting a bad review and mentioning that a waiter was rude can, in some businesses, lead to them being fired. And maybe that’s the catalyst for them to find the job they really wanted to do, but most of the time they had to struggle more to survive.

Considering the power of companies these days, I am generally a fan of ways to hold them accountable. In a perfect world, companies need to know how they can improve, and consumers need more than just their wallets to express that.

However, review sites and social media encourage the narcissism that as a customer, you are always right. “People listen to me, so you better be nice to me.”

Sometimes people want to leave genuine feedback, and sometimes the employee just isn’t suited to the work, or your Uber driver was a prick, or your AirBnB host was a creep. But quite a lot of the time you have to ask yourself if you’re mostly just motivated by wanting to feel important.

And that’s enough from me on the Internet feeling hopefully important enough that you find my words important.

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Thoughts on 2018

2018 has been a pretty strange year. The closest comparison for me would be 2011. I guess by that standard 2018 has been relatively mild. This time instead of a full year of travel, it’s just been less than half a year so far.

In January 2011 I quit my last full-time job as a Night Manager in Florida. I then went to Switzerland for a few months to help my parents with the first iteration of what would be their restaurant. A few months later, I spent almost a year hopping around Asia to visit friends, from Bangkok to Phuket to Hong Kong and mostly Penang. It’s nice to have friends. I ended up going back to Switzerland in 2012 to study again, and I remember thinking at the time that I could be sure about staying a few years at least, so it would be worth putting down some roots but maybe not too many.

6 years later I’m on the move again. As I sit here in Kuala Lumpur for my second New Year in Malaysia, I can’t help wondering if, in a way, rather than settling in Zürich for 6 years, I’m still on the same trip that started in January 2011 when I left the US for the last time. It was just a very long stop in Zürich, and maybe it was foolhardy to believe it could actually become home.

Ever since arriving back in Asia I’ve met lots of expats who live on short visas. They leave every 30, 60 or 90 days to another country for a few days or a week, then go back. It reminds me a little of my childhood: we also had to leave Indonesia roughly once a year. So maybe it’s necessary to accept that long-term stability is not something I should be expecting. It’s not out of the question, but it’s just unlikely without returning to the US, and I’m still not at that point yet.

It has definitely been a year of highs and lows. I, at least to myself, gave up the pretence of trying to study anymore. It was clearly not working. That’s a low point. I had been, and was even still, continuously living with the reality that I had failed at doing what I moved there to do. No matter how I tried to justify it or reiterate to myself that it wasn’t as costly as it could have been… it was still disappointing.

The choice, however, meant that I could commit to tour guiding, and although I had enjoyed it and did fine for two years prior, I have to say that it felt great. Rather than balancing tours with classes, I just did tours. And I think I became a damn good tour guide. The confidence that comes from not only doing something well but having public validation while doing it is definitely a high point.


Although I’m not the biggest sweet tooth, the benefits of being a chocolate tour guide were definitely rewarding.

This summer, in particular, presented a lot of opportunities to grow in my role in Zürich and despite the fact of my permit situation I really grew into and enjoyed the role I was building for myself of loving the city and actively learning about it and meeting its people. That’s definitely a high point. I also just felt like I was really good at it. It’s very rewarding to feel like you’re doing something well, especially in the wider inescapable context of living with a sense of failure.

I was lucky enough to be earning enough money to go out, and I was lucky enough to have friends in the same position, and it was good to have people who were just as interested as I was in engaging in the events, locales, and people that make up a city.

Which got me started with standup comedy. I’d seen a Swiss friend perform it in German a few times, but seeing an open mic show in English was the turning point. One guy rambled for 10 minutes about how he would smoke just about anything, and that’s when I realised there’s literally no barrier to entry. Tour guiding already gave me the confidence to speak in public and crack jokes, so why not dedicate 5-10 minutes to just jokes?

My experience performing standup in Zürich deserves a whole post of its own, but suffice it to say that I got encouragement from the others to do better, and it did push me to a point where I felt actually decent for someone practically just starting out. I went in with potential and felt that potential being at least partially realised. Meeting the various amateur comedians also opened up another social sphere for me. It was nice not to usually be around students anymore as the oldest at a gathering.

Relations with my family took a dive. It’s a little too personal to write here, but suffice it to say that a lot of problems which had been bubbling ended up coming to a head. In a way, it’s cathartic to not avoid or lie about it anymore, but it doesn’t make it pleasant.

It’s ironic that some of my greatest sense of personal growth went hand in hand with a comprehensive sense of failure, in terms of what I wanted to achieve with my life. It’s also ironic that it was also probably the most emotionally supported I had felt by my friend circles, while I was simultaneously failing my family in the same but opposite way.


Some of these people I’ve known for 6 years, some for less than 6 months. It always feels nice to bring different friends together.

Upon arriving in Asia, I went through various stages of the kind of grief and panic you’d expect from this kind of move from a place I had emotionally called home. It got varying degrees of better or worse on seeing some old friends because not all friendships survive the years in between.

It got a lot better when I realised I could volunteer at hostels to keep my costs down and get a semblance of security. I’m also starting a 1-year contract for a new job in February, so we’ll see how that goes too.

2019 is going to be a new year, and most people hope for the bad aspects of last year to go away. For me, they’re already gone. The failure of my studies is beyond my daily concerns, as is my visa insecurity. I just hope things with my family can patch up, and I can get started on a path where I might just find a place I can actually call home.

I think it’s also traditional for people to try to start their new years as newer better people. I was worried that all the personal growth of my time in Zürich might be tied too closely to the way my life was there, but I have at least carried a lot of it with me. It’s not a stretch to hope for the best this year.

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