My forearms are covered in scrapes from carrying a desk I got off craigslist across hilly blocks of the San Francisco Chinatown. A few days ago, I spent all day lugging heavy things from my friend’s place in Oakland to the subway, to the bus stop and to my new room in SF Chinatown. And I did it on a strained ankle. It would have been great to have rented a car or to have hired movers, but I couldn’t afford it. Since I can’t really justify the cost of a bed, I just got a thin mattress. I don’t have a refrigerator and I’ve been spending a lot of time at a local coffee shop nursing $2 cups of tea for the free wifi.
Not having money sucks.
I’m not completely sure how I arrived at this point. In some ways, I think it’s due to my ambition. Six and a half years ago, I was a top paid English teacher in Taiwan, earning over double the average salary for foreign teachers which was already good in comparison to local teachers. Four years ago, I was half owner of an EFL school in Taiwan, and the school was doing okay. Month on month, I was earning less than I had been as an employee before, but still more than most foreign EFL teachers in Taiwan. I put most of my cash savings into the school, but unfortunately got a margin call on my stocks in 2008 in the same month the school happened to be late on payroll. As a result, I was forced to sell most of my long term investments at the worst possible time. Not long after, I started losing my passion for the business. In 2010, I left it to my partners and moved to China as part of a longer term plan to return to the US.
In China, I lived off of savings for over a year. In that time, I recovered a bit from my 4 years of putting in 70 hour work weeks and I also did a lot of learning. I learned to read the simplified characters used in mainland China, improved my drawing and made a few flash games. Eventually, I got hired by a start-up focused on educational games for the iPad and iPhone. I was working with a great group of people and seeing from the inside what a tech start-up looked like. This was exactly what I’d wanted… except that the salary was about half that of what fresh graduates can earn as English teachers in Beijing. Also, rents were nearly as high there as in Taiwan or many parts of the US! As a result, I got used to living in a small room with a kitchen and bathroom I shared with a stranger.
Now that I’ve made the jump to one of the most expensive parts of the US, my meager savings from China are in dwindling rapidly. So I took the cheapest place I could find — a 9 square meter room in a Chinatown apartment where I share the kitchen, the bathrooms, and the shower. I may learn some Cantonese here, but it’s not a comfortable place to stay. My thin mattress isn’t comfortable. Having insanely steep hills in ever direction isn’t very comfortable. Somehow, though I find it more motivating than depressing.
I’m firmly past the age when it’s socially acceptable (especially for a man) to be floundering financially. I’m entering my mid 30’s, with little in savings and no job. But I have the tools. I have some experience with some software, I’m multi-lingual and I have experience starting, building and running a business. I know I can do more, BE more than I ever could have before. The comfort I can take in my discomfort is that it just may give me enough motivation to do it.