2019 Habits in Review: Building Consistency as a Habit

2019 has certainly been a Year of Adventure and Self-Discovery. From meeting Dexter in February, I have travelled to 18 countries & 39 cities, relocated to Singapore for 6 months for work and then worked remotely for the remaining 6 months of the year. 

Travelling has educated me in ways I wouldn’t be able to experience in other ways. From seeing the way locals are fighting for biodiversity and sustainable living in the Galapagos and Amazon, social injustices being fought in Colombia & other areas of South America, beautiful and respectful traditions being upheld in Mexico during the Day of the Dead, understanding the full scales of history and tragedy in Auschwitz, I have been constantly humbled and grown in ways of empathy and understanding whilst re-examining previous beliefs.

It’s also no doubt that long-term travel offers constant change. We move country to country, from a few days to a month at a time. There’s always new places to eat, new adventures to embark on, new people to meet. 

So it’s really quite funny and ironic that the 1 thing I wanted to focus for 2019 was to build the habit of consistency. I mean, what better way to stress-test your consistency and habits than by regularly changing environments?

Every year in the past, I would start a project and give up half way. Whether it be the goal of reading books consistently through the year, flossing my teeth, exercising, I would start with grand goals and within a few days or a few weeks, after the initial motivation had run out, I would abandon it for something new and sparkly that captures my attention.

After reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits, I wanted to start building small, tiny habits which would have exponential results in the long run. I also wanted to build habits so that it would reduce the amount of willpower needed to fulfil my goals. 

Why are these habits important? 

Every decision we make will have first-order and second-order consequences. I wanted to make it easier during decision-making to put weight towards my second-order consequences, which directly fulfil my goals.

In Ray Dalio’s Principles he talks about the contradictory nature of first-order and second-order consequences. People who usually only give into their first-order consequences are probably never successful in their goals.

 How so?

For example, you want to work on your projects but you just feel like lazing in bed scrolling on Instagram (true story). The first-order consequence for this decision is that inertia is comfortable and you get a dose of dopamine from seeing the likes, comments and watching people’s Insta stories in the short term. The second-order consequence is after the initial comfort of not moving and a few hours wasted, you feel like a total shit (at least I do). At the end of the year, you end up telling yourself you just didn’t have the time to work on those projects.

If I had a way to shift the inertia to make it feel like I’m not using willpower, then I can spend that time willingly on working on my projects or areas I know are good for me which would then give me much greater satisfaction in the long run.

Below are a couple of areas I wanted to build habits towards fulfilling some of my core areas in my life:

For these habits, I used a habit tracker called DONE where I designed each habit to only take max 1 minute. This acted as a gate-way habit where I could feel like I accomplished something even by doing something tiny. The aim is that it should feel easy enough to get through that first resistance of inertia so that when you start, you feel like you can keep going.

1. Reading:

Reading expands my mindset and I wanted to continuously challenge my worldview and understand things from different perspectives. I wanted to build a habit of reading everyday.

Habit: Read one page on my kindle daily.

Even when I didn’t feel like reading, I would literally just read 1 page and tick it off my habit tracker and be done for the day. However, most times I would end up reading for a good half hour or an hour before I started doing something else.

Results: 34 books. My goal for this year was 40 books but I’m pretty happy with the amount I read since some books took me a long time to go through (like Sapiens, Homo Deus, Principles). This was also a 300%+ increase from 2018.

Here’s a complete list of books I read in 2019 here for the Good Reads Challenge.

2. Drawing:

Until this year, I hadn’t drawn consistently for a long time (since 2014) and I wanted to fulfil my creative needs by picking up my pen again. I used to always blame it on lack of time. I started my drawing project in Europe in July where I drew each location I went to. My project is on Instagram called @thetravellingsketchbook.

Habit: Draw one line once a week.

Results: 17 drawings! This is 17x more drawings than I’ve done in 5 years and each drawing takes at least a few hours. You can see the project here.

3. Learning Spanish:

We enrolled in a total 5 weeks of Spanish classes in Mexico and Colombia starting from no previous knowledge, so this helped improve our Spanish a lot when travelling in Latin America.

However, what I found with my Korean when I was in Seoul in January was that the moment I stopped taking classes, I basically forgot everything. An area that severely needed daily practice was vocabulary drills. I wanted to use my Anki app to improve my Spanish vocabulary even when we weren’t taking classes. 

Habit: Open my Anki app every day.

Results: 42 days in a row. 

Challenge: I recently started doing a 30 day Spanish Challenge (which took me 2 months and I still have 6 days to go). I never would have made it past Day 5 in the past!! Here’s the difference between 2 weeks of learning Spanish and my most recent video.

22 October 2019

27 December 2019

You can watch all the videos on my Instagram here.

The unexpected benefit of doing such basics habits consistently is that it gave me the confidence to take on something like a 30 day challenge and make myself commit to something until the very end.

4. Eating consciously: 

I wanted to be conscious on what I was putting in my body instead of blindly putting stuff in my body. This way, I could identify whether something was making me feel bad or good. 

Habit: Record each meal on Lose It! App before eating.

Results: 172 days of consistent recording! I have recorded every single day for 6 months and it gives me insight on consciously knowing what I’m putting in my body. In my opinion, being mindful is the first step of a journey towards healthy eating. Even though I’ve gone over the suggested daily calorie count basically every 2nd day, the goal is to just honestly record everything and observe my intake.

Goal for 2020: Since I’ve built a solid habit for tracking and observing my food intake, my next step is to focus on eating a more balanced diet (I eat too many carbs) and replacing unhealthy options with healthier choices

5. Doing Yoga:

Exercising on the road is a tough thing as our schedules change constantly and we never really stayed long anywhere to get a gym membership. I wanted to build up to the habit to doing yoga daily because when I previously did it, yoga helped with mindfulness, build strength and flexibility.

Habit: Open the Daily Yoga app (with average 20 minutes session).

This was previously ‘Open up a yoga youtube video’ where I bookmarked Yoga With Adriene’s Youtube Channel for the last 2.5 months.

Results: 72 days of yoga.

I recently downloaded this yoga app called Daily Yoga a few days ago. I’ve only used this for 4 days but I really like it so far because it has all the elements for habit building. It shows you total # of hours of yoga you’ve done, # of days you’ve done yoga on the app and your current and longest streaks. These definitely help a lot with building consistency and continuous motivation, so we’ll see how this goes!

Goals for 2020: Once I’ve built enough consistency in making Yoga my daily practice, I want to track strength, balance and inversions progress once I can get a daily habit going.

6. Others habits:

  • Daily Journaling: 710 days in a row (2 years) 🎉
  • Drinking water (5 glasses): 60 days in a row
  • Flossing: 115 days in a row 
  • Making the bed: 115 days in a row

What are my goals for 2020?

I’ve still yet to design my 2020 goals and action items but I want:
1. Build upon this existing habits to either progress to a different stage (like strength building & healthy-eating)
2. Continue working on some existing projects (language learning, reading even more and drawing)
3. Also work on additional areas like personal finance, blogging, skill-sharing, volunteering

All in all, whilst I’m usually a very carefree and not a very structured person, building these habits this year have helped me develop myself in a way that fulfils my values like curiosity and creativity in the most effortless way.

I want to hear from you! Which app are you most likely to use and since it’s 2020, which goals do you want to smash in the new decade?

P.S This post is not sponsored. I just discovered these from personal searches as well as friend recommendations!

A complete breakdown of travel costs in Europe, US & Mexico.

A lot of people have recently been asking me to do a price/ budget breakdown of how much Dexter and I have been spending whilst travelling. To be honest, I was also curious to see exactly how much we’ve spent but every time I thought about trawling through my credit cards and backtracking my expenses, I started to get a headache.

This was until I realised a few days ago, that since Dexter and I have been using Splitwise, and since we split ALL our expenses, I googled to see if I could just download the CSV/ excel file from Splitwise….. and I could!

This seriously saved me so much time and I could get comprehensive data on all our expenses. The following is a desktop screenshot but I highly recommend this app if you’re travelling with people.


In the following, I will also include what activities we did and my general experiences as well!

How we’ve been splitting our expenses when travelling:

Long story short, we split our costs 50/50. Since my credit card has a really bad exchange rate and charges me a fee every time I use a foreign currency (I know, I need to get a better credit card), I pay for big ticket items such flights, accommodation, language classes.

Dexter then pays for day to day expenses such as food and daily transport in the local currency. If any of us owes an amount by the end of the trip location, we roll over the amount to USD and continue with the new currency. At the very end of the trip, we do a bank transfer… or just perpetually continue this owing and repaying cycle forever.

Now to the juicy numbers part. 

Europe (66 days) 14 July – 18 Sept 2019

In total, we travelled and stayed in 12 cities. This varied across cheaper locations like Berlin & Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary, Slovenia) whilst also staying in expensive countries like France & Austria. Spain lies somewhat in the middle of relatively cheap. So the costs kind of averaged out.

I’ve lumped expenses in Europe together instead of calculating individual countries because we didn’t travel in order and each stay was relatively short (except Spain). For example, we split up Berlin & Munich as well as Vienna & Salzburg during our trip.

Accommodation

Most of the time, we stayed in either Airbnbs or got a private room at a hostel because we still needed to work and needed privacy to take calls. It made sense for us because we can split the accommodation and it ends ups being a similar amount if we had stayed at a hostel bunk room.

The only time we stayed in an 8 bunk room at a hostel was in Salzburg because accommodation in Salzburg was THAT expensive. Out of our entire trip, that 8-bunk hostel was ironically the most expensive accommodation we spent on. I know, ridiculous.

Major Transportation:

This included our flight from Singapore to Berlin & flight between France and Spain, as well as all the long haul train rides. I realise if we had just picked a few locations to go to instead of going to so many cities, we could’ve saved a lot more money. But the total isn’t so bad considering we travelled across 7 countries and 12 cities!

Food:

We geared towards eating relatively inexpensively. We had a lot of kebabs across Europe because they were filling, cheap and readily available. We also bought our own vegetables, salads and fruits from supermarkets.

In Poland, we ate a lot of delicious vegan food and was pleasantly surprised by the affordability and variety. In France & Spain, we exclusively ate the cheap breakfast deals which included a croissant, coffee and juice for $2-4.

Here’s our food breakdown into our 5 main categories of consumption.

*Drinks includes all stand alone purchased liquids like coffee, Diet Coke, water and alcoholic beverages we consumed during the trip that’s not part of a meal.

Remaining Expenses:

*Activities: We did all the activities we wanted including free walking tours in virtually every city including learning about history at monumental sites like Auschwitz & Schindler’s Factory in Krakow.

We got cultural and watched a Mozart concert in Vienna, attended a Chopin concert and Vodka tour in Warsaw, frolicked in a bathhouse in Budapest, had an interesting naked sauna experience (LiquidRom) in Berlin and visited Versailles in Paris.

We also went to a variety of artist and musician museums like Chopin, Picasso and Cézanne as well as a salsa & bachata class in Madrid.

Total cost of per person over 66 days in Europe: US$5,149.02

Per day, we spent an average of US$78.02.

This means if we calculate our monthly expense to live in Europe, it would be US$2,340.46 per person.

Summary: I felt like during our Europe trip, we didn’t really have to compromise on quality of life. I’m not a fussy eater and don’t need expensive things. Most of our accommodation were entire apartments so we didn’t really have to share with anyone and we did all the historical and cultural experiences we wanted to see (to be fair, many are free). I even got my hair dyed back to black and a hair cut in Madrid so I’m pretty happy & pleasantly surprised with the amount we spent.

United States (14 days) 27 Sep – 10 Oct 2019

After I went back to Sydney for 6 days for my friend’s wedding and to visit family, Dexter and I met up again in San Francisco, land of the tech bros who dress like they’re homeless but actually millionaires. We also spent 4 days and 3 nights in Yosemite which was definitely an incredible highlight for me. During this time, we met with most of Dexter’s friends and previous work colleagues and we also spent a nice day with his parents.

Accommodation

We were super lucky to get our first 2 nights free stay in the Castro near Dolores Park in San Francisco where Dexter used to live with his room mate.

We then drove 3-4 hours west and stayed near Oakhurst, a town which borders Yosemite. Just from quickly looking at the map, I stupidly assumed it would be like a breezy 10 min drive to Yosemite. Oh how I was wrong. Turns out it was still another hour’s drive to the main entrance of Yosemite and then another hour to sights like Half Dome. 

Once we got back to the Bay Area, actually renting a room in SF proved to be too out of our budget, so we opted to renting an Airbnb room in Oakland near Lake Merritt instead. Turned out to be an awesome choice, because that area is really beautiful and we had a really friendly host mum.

Major Transportation:

To get to San Francisco from Sydney, I paid for half my flight in points so it didn’t actually end up being too expensive! Dexter was also coming back from London so it ended up being a similar amount to my flight. We also rented a car for 6 days because of the long distance drives and used the Bart metro system and Uber for the remaining period we were there.

Food:

We ate a lot of free food. During the week, we met with friends who worked at tech companies like Linkedin and Dropbox where they get chefs to come in and cook gourmet lunches (so lucky right?!).

We attended Dexter’s family gathering where there was free food as well cooked by Chinese aunties. So this may be a bit of an inaccurate reflection if we were to actually live in San Francisco.

Remaining Expenses:

*Activities: included a week long pass into Yosemite, enjoying my First Friday experience in Oakland where there was a lot of dancing and drinking on the streets (with a street donation), finally watching Awkwafina’s movie The Farewell as well as spending a day at the beach in Santa Cruz and strawberry picking on the drive back!

Total cost per person over 14 days in the Bay Area & Yosemite: $1,280.81.

Per day, we spent an average of $91.49.

This means if we calculate our monthly expense to live in San Francisco/ Oakland area, it would be US$2,744.59 per person.

Summary: This is really sad but I knew the Bay Area was going to be expensive. This is the average amount we got even accounting 2 free nights stay, a couple of free lunches and no amenities since it was a short term stay. In terms of accommodation, we compromised by only renting a room in a more affordable area rather than the entire accommodation like we did in Europe to save money. If we were to live in a less compromised way, then it would easily be closer to US$3,500 per month per person or more.

Mexico (26 days) 10 Oct – 4 Nov 2019

Accommodation (25 nights)

We first landed in Mexico City on the 10th for an overnight stay before taking a 4 hour bus the next morning to a town called San Miguel de Allende.

We spent 3 days and 2 nights there celebrating one of Dexter’s college friend’s Indian & Mexican wedding! It was truly magical but Dexter’s classmates had pre-booked this giant mansion which cost a fortune. That’s why there’s an outlier amount of $110.20 per person per night. I balked when I saw that price because I haven’t paid anything more than $40 a night for a very long time. 

Aside from that, Mexico’s accommodation is generally very affordable and average around $13 a night per person. The Airbnb we stayed at for 3 weeks in Mexico City was in between Roma and Condesa, which are very hip areas with a diverse range of street food, restaurants and cafes. It was also a 10 minute walking distance to our Spanish school. 

You may be wondering why we have 28 nights when we only stayed in Mexico for 25 nights. After we’d already settled into Mexico City, we went on unplanned adventures with classmates and local friends and decided to stay a night near Teothihuacan to beat the crowds the next morning and spent a weekend in the Patzcuaro area with local friends to celebrate Day of the Dead! We just left all our luggage back at our long-term Airbnb. 

Major Transport:

When we travelled to other cities, we took a coach bus with a company called Primera Plus. I was so impressed by the quality of these buses. They have clean toilets at the back of each bus, cushy seats with a comfortable foot rest and a range of movie entertainment. We even got drinks and snacks for the road. All for the price of $20 for a 4-6 hour ride. No matter which company you go with, I think the quality is generally top-notch.

Food:

I love the food in Mexico City. Especially tacos and they were so cheap! My favourite are taco al pastors and they would sometimes sell them for 15 pesos for 2 which is US$0.30 per taco. My entire dinner would then be $1.20 if I bought 4 tacos.

We often balanced street food with going to more high-end healthy food stores – our favourite go-to being Ojo de Agua in Condesa. Even so, they were still only around $10 per meal.

During when we had classes from 10-2pm, we would end up skipping lunch and quickly buy some fruit from the street vendor outside our school during our break.

Remaining Expenses:

*Activities: The reason why our activities amount is quite high is because this mostly accounts for 40 hours (2 weeks) of Spanish classes at Frida Spanish School for the both of us (total $608.19).

It also includes entry tickets to Teothihuacan, all our expenses during Day of the Dead celebrations in Patzcuaro (where Coco was inspired) and other museum tickets like Museum of Anthropology and Frida Kahlo & Diego Riviera’s art studio.

We also got to ride on a canal cruise with friends at Xochimilco, the ancient Aztec river. As for free activities, there are many lush parks in Mexico City and I especially loved walking through Chapultepec, which apparently is twice the size of Central Park! We once saw a Tibetan monk and crowds of people sitting around him meditating to his deep chanting mantras and singing bowls.

Total cost per person over 26 days in Mexico: US$1,772.65.

Per day, we spent an average of $68.18.

This means if we calculate our monthly expense to live in Mexico City, it would be US$2,045.37 per person.

Summary: I feel like we had an optimal standard of living, even dishing out extra $$ on 2 expensive nights stay in San Miguel, as well as 3 extra nights outside of Mexico City. This also included language lessons, we had our own apartment complete with living room and bedroom in an ideal location.

All in all, over 106 days of travelling, I have spent US$8,202.48 which equates to an average cost of US$2,321.46/pm or AUD$3,384.79/pm.


Now, we just landed in Colombia for our first 2 days and currently most costs seem comparable to Mexico City. I’ll do another cost breakdown for South America with Colombia (including Spanish lessons in Medellin), Ecuador (including Quito, Galapagos & Amazon) and Chile (including Santiago & Patagonia) where we will be staying around 1 month in each country.

Hope you found this useful! Were these costs what you expected and did it help with your own budgeting in any way? Let me know in the comments below.

How I applied Ramit Sethi’s ‘I Will Teach You To Be Rich’ to systemize my personal finances

Hola from Mexico! I left Sydney a year ago and since then have been to 17 countries (including a 6-month relocation to Singapore)! With all that traveling, I thought I’d finally really take a look at my finances and make sure that whilst I’m having fun and working, I still have money left afterwards to consider for my future.

Personal finance has always been a topic of interest to me. Ever since I was in middle school and picked up my first ‘Rich Dad Poor Dad’, I set my goal to have built enough passive income to become financially free by 30.

However as I grew up, I didn’t really know what exactly I should’ve been doing with my day to day life and finances. How I managed my money just became largely whatever felt like common sense but I always had a feeling I wasn’t using it to its potential. Also now at 25, I am way off from that goal but if I want to be financially free at some point, given that my average expenses are around AUD$3-4k a month (not including mortgage repayments), I will need to generate $48k in passive income a year to be financially free. And that’s probably gonna go up from here since that’s what happens as you get older right?

So last week, I decided to pick up Ramit Sethi‘s no bullshit ‘I Will Teach You To Be Rich’ book after Dexter’s recommendation to see if I could squeeze out some gems for myself.

Long story short: I found the book highly actionable. And if you know me, I love actionable. Here’s a breakdown of the sections of Ramit’s book which I directly applied.

The book is broken down into a ‘6-week program’, but I got too excited and read it as well as applied most of it in ~2 days. There are some other tips I will also go through which will take a little longer for me to apply (such as researching my asset allocation investment options which I don’t want to rush and waiting to downgrade my credit card until I get back to Australia since I’m currently traveling).

I also tried to google how other people managed to apply his book to their daily life but haven’t found a blog about that yet.

Note that I’ve also only written and applied to pointers relevant to me so this may not be completely relevant to your situation/ stage of life. For the full details, you should read the book. These are all the areas I’ve made changes in my life so I guess it’s a half book summary as well as what I actioned on.

Week 1: Optimize your credit cards

Step 1: Checking my credit rating

Since building up credit is pretty crucial in this day and age (if you’re a responsible spender), it’s important to know what your credit score is and understand if you need to make any changes. Your credit rating affects how low banks will give you in terms of interest rates when taking out a mortgage, cards you can open and a lot of perks you get etc.

Your credit rating is affected by a number of factors like payment history, stability, court actions, credit activity and other stuff.

A long time ago, I signed up for this Australian credit rating site based on the Equifax score called GetCreditScore and then proceeded to forget about it. Since then, I never checked it once.

So having newly logged in, this was the result I got. My October 2019 score was 736/1200, as an Asian, the “Very Good” felt more like a condolence pat for being slightly over average.

However, based on the fact that this score also accounts for length of time and whether you’ve built up enough credit history, I just left it for the time being. It’s good that now I know my score and can keep an active eye on it to continuously work on improving it.

Screen Shot 2019-10-29 at 10.47.55 pm

I’ve also applied to get my free credit report from Equifax here. This details everything from identification, court actions, credit history and whom you’ve been paying to & if there were any late payments, warnings and credit inquiries from yourself or other lenders.

Step 2: Optimising my credit cards

I currently only have 2 credit cards: The Qantas Premier Platinum $200/annual fee & AMEX Qantas Discovery Card $0 fee. As you can probably tell, I’m a Qantas user.

A. Keep your cards for a long time

I previously had also signed up to NAB and ANZ for their obscene sign-up bonus points (100,000 Qantas points each, hence you can see I went on a credit card sign up spree). My mistake back then was canceling those cards after the bonus period because of the $400+ annual fee each, and also because I didn’t really need 4 credit cards.

What the book suggests and what I should’ve done instead was to have downgraded it to a no-fee card instead like I did with my AMEX card. To keep the card going, I could’ve just put 1 small monthly subscription payment like Netflix or my storage space on that card.

This is because closing down these cards can prematurely affect your credit rating and it probably affected mine. Your credit rating also improves when you’ve kept a card for 5+ years.

B. Downgrade your cards if you can’t justify the benefits

The Qantas Premier Platinum card is on a $200/ annum but they also have the cheapest $50/ annum card. Since downgrading means I need to be sent a new card and I’m currently traveling, I put in a calendar notification to downgrade my card and renegotiate the annual fee once I get back to Sydney so I actually have a credit card to use.

I decided I will downgrade since I don’t use their benefits enough to justify the $200 cost.

C. Making sure I pay off my credit card in full

This comes up in another chapter but I called up the credit card companies to always withdraw my monthly payments in full before my due dates rather than me having to manually do it (1 less thing to think about!).

That way, I’m not paying interest rates for no reason or risking accidentally missing my payment date. Which also means I don’t need to renegotiate my Annual Percentage Rate like Ramit suggests either.

However, if you can’t pay off your credit cards in full, Ramit has good advice in easily negotiating your APR down and how to easily waive your fees with a phone call.

Week 2: Beat the Banks: High Savings Accounts

The main thing I got out of this one was to get my savings the fuck out of my Commbank Savings account which I’ve just been slowly losing money over the years.

I did a quick calculation and I got something stupid like 0.5% in interest rates in my savings account. That doesn’t even cover yearly inflation!

I did a thorough search and I found the best savings account for Australians so far. It’s UBank’s Ultra+Savings Account which gives you a 2.1% interest rate per annum. The only requirement to reach the full 2.1% is to deposit a minimum of $200 each month from an external source (which can just be your salary) and it’s not compulsory to keep it in the account. Ubank also has no fees, & no international transaction fees & good rates since it’s an online-only bank.

Other savings accounts I looked at only had a high sign-up bonus for 4 months before going back down to a meager % rate. Sneaky.

Want to calculate the difference this simple switch has made?

My starting savings base is current ~$40k and I make monthly transfers of $1k into my savings account from my salary every month. This is the difference in results.

Screen Shot 2019-10-30 at 10.14.04 pm

Um hello???? By just switching my savings account, with everything else kept constant, I’ve literally just made myself an additional $17,846.44 in interest alone.

If you want to calculate your own financial situation for yourself and how much you could potentially earn by switching to a high-interest savings account, use this calculator I found here.

If I’ve learned anything from James Clear’s Atomic Habits, it’s that continuous incremental changes will lead to exponential impact in the long run.

Week 3: Get ready to invest: Open your pension account and stocks account with just $50

Step 1: Depositing monthly payments into my superannuation account

This chapter helped clarify a lot of things for me. How many of you actually even know what to do with your superannuation (pension/ retirement fund) or how much is currently in it?

I certainly had no clue and required me to do a lot of digging around, resetting passwords and calling up my retirement fund, REST to find out how to even get into my account. Ramit shares some pretty startling yet not surprisingly low statistics on how young people tend to not give a crap and forget about their retirement accounts. We all think retirement is too far away so we’re not even thinking about it yet. Luckily in Australia, if you’re employed by an Australian employer, you are automatically enrolled in a superannuation scheme.

Well since I’m currently working for a foreign company, it means I need to put money in my own superannuation which I definitely had not been doing (I know, so irresponsible..).

When I finally logged into my REST account, I was super surprised to see my superannuation had around $24k in it from my past employment history. Since I’d never seen it come out my paycheck, it didn’t even really occur to me it existed HAHA. Maybe if you’ve been working for a few years now and never bothered to check your super account like me, you should take a look and maybe be pleasantly surprised too.

Let’s calculate what I would get in 10 years, 20 years and 40 years when I retire with my starting amount of $24k if I just put in $100, $200 or $500 in it every month. Google says a superfund usually returns 7% averaged over 10 years.

Screen Shot 2019-10-30 at 10.39.49 pm

By adding this step in and putting an automatic recurring payment of $500/ month to be deposited into the super account, my total deposits in 40 years add up $264k, yet my interest returns are over $1.4 million. So whether or not you’re employed or contracting like me, make sure there’s money going into your super account and if you can afford to contribute a bit more, do it!

Week 4: Conscious Spending: How to save hundreds per month and still buy what you love

I really resonated with this chapter because if there’s one thing I can’t keep – it’s tracking my spending. And I hate that feeling of feeling super stingy because I need to watch and calculate every cent. Just not for me.

Ramit suggests something called a Conscious Spending Plan (maybe just another word for budgeting lol) but the aim is to ruthlessly cut out everything you don’t care about so you can not only save but also spend MORE on what you do love. It’s being frugal rather than cheap.

He used examples about how others were frugal in some areas but maybe would spend $5k a year on shoes. For me, that expense would be in experiences and learning.

Step 1: Go through all the subscriptions and cut out everything and do a-la-carte.

This is to use psychology against yourself since the idea is that subscriptions make it so easy for us that it takes extra effort to cancel things. And they all don’t seem like life-changing payments until you add it all up.

I did go through my subscriptions and was horrified I was paying for things I had already forgotten about or rarely use. This cut out $150/ month (damn you Linkedin subscription) which meant I’ve now saved myself $1,800 a year… The only subscriptions I’ve kept is my $5/ month cloud storage and Netflix 😂

Step 2: Find out the things you don’t care about and cut it out.

I once tried to make my Instagram a fashion Instagram and quickly realized, I really don’t care about clothes. I also once bought a set of curlers to do my hair and then realized I just really can’t be bothered doing my hair every morning. Yet I used to spend on these things anyways on an ideal on what I wanted to be like (more girly).

This year, since backpacking with Dexter, I haven’t bought any material things on the road whether it be clothes, shoes or even souvenirs because I know that anything I buy will be extra weight on my back and an extra thing discarded on my table when I get home. And it’s been liberating because it also made me realize, I don’t even need or even desire a lot of stuff. They just all need to match, a few rotating pieces and I’m good to go.

Yet, what I do want to spend on and the reason why I’ve always been careful with saving is that at any given time, I want to be able to have the freedom to buy an experience, a plane ticket and not have to worry that I don’t have enough money.

Step 3: Conscious Spending Plan: Fixed Costs, Investments & Savings, Guilt-free Spending Money

Ramit’s rough guideline:

  • Fixed Costs: 50-60%
  • Investments & Savings: 15-20%
  • Guilt-free spending: 20-35%

So here’s my current monthly expenditure plan based on the last few months of expenditure:

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These costs are based on previous months’ spendings and will be adjusted along the way. The key is to just be conscious and not be reactive to your spending. This made me mentally remember that if I want to buy new clothes etc, it will have to come out of the Additional Whatever budget of $300.

Right now, I feel like I don’t have a lot of buffer room in terms of spending unless it dips into my savings & investments bucket which is not ideal – so I’ll have to really assess which are some other big wins I can identify to reshuffle my spending space.

To do: I’ll update this once I’ve gotten into the rhythm of it and understand the expenses will change as I get to different stages.

Week 5: Save while sleeping: Making your accounts work together automatically

Step 1: Automating my accounts: Power of defaults where you set it and forget it

  • I get my pay around the 1st-3rd of each month.
  • Savings & Investment accounts: I set up recurring payments to allocated accounts on the 5th (includes a few days buffer time from when I get my pay).
  • Align my bills on the same schedule: my previous Qantas Premier due date was on the 20th of each month and my AMEX card was on the 30th. I first called up each to move the due date to the 6th of each month. Then I set auto payments to pay off my entire credit card amount in full before the allocated date.
  • Mortgage: Recurring payment on the 6th
  • Also, I set a calendar on the 3rd of each month to quickly check that there’s enough money for all the payments to go through.

By making all the payments automatic, I know exactly how much money I have left to play around with without compromising on the savings & investing components. And also because I am lazy and this helps me be more disciplined with my money without being disciplined.

Ramit has tips for if you have irregular payment or payment twice a month/ weekly etc.

Week 6: The myth of financial expertise & Investing isn’t only for rich people

This chapter was really informative and clarified many things for me so you should give it a read if you’re interested in debunking some investing myths.

I previously had gotten scarred from my first noob experience in attempting to invest in stocks. Basically, everything went down. I’m one of those people who bought high and sold low. After that, I never bothered trying to invest in individual stocks again.

Debunked myth 1: Investing isn’t about picking individual stocks

Step 1: Open an investing account

I also did some research and opened up with a trading platform called STAKE: an Australian based startup platform (linked with Macquarie Bank) which only charges for FX exchange & 0.7% fee which is pretty low. Most of all, it allows you to buy US funds, stocks etc. You can also look into other options like CMC Markets, Pepperstone and others depending on what you’re looking for.

Step 2: Set automatic monthly payments

I was really ready to have a set and forget strategy with my investing because I’d rather not be thinking about the stock market and finance things all the time. So when Ramit made the case for tracker funds/ index funds which involves just riding it out for the long run, I was sold. And Warren Buffet agrees tracker funds are great investments so I believe him.

  • I have since reading the book put in $2,000 into Vanguard’s S&P500 index fund (measures the stock performance of 500 large companies listed on stock exchanges in the United States.)
  • I also set a recurring monthly $500 into my STAKE account regardless whether or not the market is going up or down. If the market goes down, I’ll basically be getting shares on sale.
  • Handy info: Rule of 72: a fast trick to quickly find out how long it would take to double your money. “Divide 72 by return rate you’re getting and you’ll have the number of years you need to invest in order to double your money.”
  • If a tracker fund return is 10% so 72/10 = 7 years to double my money. Invest $2000 today and I’ll have $4000 in 7 years. Additionally, if you add a small amount each month, this amount would be compounded.

Step 3. Diversify your portfolio

Other than putting $2k into S&P500, I haven’t put anything else in yet but still researching other options. The idea is that if you’re younger, you can invest more aggressively and rebalance your portfolio to less risky investments such as bonds when you’re older.

Ramit shares the example of Dave Swensen who runs the Yale endowment fund. Over 20 years, he’s gotten an insane 16.3% return. This is the Swensen Model of Asset allocation that Dave uses:

  • 30% domestic equities
  • 15% index-linked gilts
  • 15% government bonds
  • 20% real estate funds
  • 5% emerging market equities
  • 15% developed-world international equities

At the moment, I still have no idea what I’m going to do so I’ll keep y’all updated.

A. Dollar-Cost Averaging: Investing slowly overtime

I really got into this idea, because it means I have already set up my automatic payments and it can invest slowly over time rather than a lump sum each time. The aim is so you don’t have to guess whether or not the market is going up or down so you’re hedging yourself against any drops in price and you get shares on discount. As Ramit says “you don’t try to time the market, you use time to your advantage”.

I’ve set aside $10,000 to slowly invest $500 or $1,000 per month once I decide on an asset allocation. Whether or not this actually works, the more important part is the fact that unless I automate the investing, I’ll probably forget to do it anyways.

And that’s it! This is how I’ve currently applied Ramit’s book. Many of them are small tweaks that can produce exponential outcomes and I’m a strong believer of incremental but powerful habits. In this case, his book gave me a lot of clarity on how I should be managing my money and I’ll be reporting any updates maybe in a year’s time!

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Also let me know what you thought of this in the comments below and hit the Follow button for more of my learning updates!

2019 mid-year reflection: Living my life to my values

Mid-last year, I made the heart-wrenchingly difficult decision to wrap up my own company, Austern International of 5 years. It wasn’t because the business wasn’t doing well. It was making more money, and we were getting more students joining our Career bootcamps than all our previous years combined. But I felt like personally, I was stagnant in my own growth. Because my company was built off of the university student market, my work felt like a constant grind of marketing, admin, talking to universities, training facilitators, and it was the same every. single. semester.

I also faced the dilemma of not knowing where to take the business and if I even wanted to. My ex-business partner Jamie had moved to Singapore for a full-time role at Carousell and this year, the 2 other part time staff, my pillars and rocks, Lucy & Josef who had been with us since 2016 were graduating and also looking for full time work.

I had myself to blame. Despite how much the business had grown, I always treated it not as a real company, but as a project I’d been working on for the last 5 years. We clocked in around 1,000 students, generated 7 figures, held 20+ programs in 6 cities, were accredited at major universities but for some reason, we never had more than 2 full time staff & 2 part timers. To make up for the growing business, we also had rotating casual employees where alumni who had been on the program were then trained to facilitate and lead other programs.

I felt like an imposter trying to be an entrepreneur. In my head, I was more of a projectpreneur. Clinging onto a problem I had faced and decided to help solve when I was 19.

It wasn’t until recently, in retrospect and seeing it from a different perspective, that I could look back at these experiences and just pat myself on the back and say, hey you know what? We did a darn good job.

2018 was also a major year for another reason. I had finally graduated from university after 6 years of slogging at a 3 year degree. I remember at one point I had optimistically enrolled in 4 full subjects for a semester and dropped all of it by the 3rd week, because I already knew I wouldn’t be able to reach the 80% compulsory attendance rate.

By my 3rd year, I sat my parents down and told them I was dropping out of university. And then I took those words back a few weeks later because I realised that to get a relocation or working visa anywhere outside of Australia, I would need a degree. I had taken numerous gap semesters. I think one year, I only did 1 subject. Safe to say, I took my time. I think most people were wondering what I was still doing at uni.

So with graduation looming in at November 2018, I was ready to step out of that college mindset. I was still passionate about the education space, not necessarily in the academic institution setting, but learning for the sake of learning. I wanted to find an opportunity to explore my other brewing interests I had previously put on hold but most of all, I wanted an opportunity to grow, to stretch myself and my capabilities and to learn from others.

Up to this point, I had never really worked for others aside from my shitty one year accounting stint at a global accounting firm, very short but fun 6 month internship at H2 Ventures and a number of odd part time jobs back when I was just starting Austern.

I knew what I liked and what I despised so I looked carefully. To be honest, I was tempted to just work for a cool, brand name, tech company that paid a lot of money. After all, with Austern, I had direct access to many recruiters & HR teams and could basically ask for a job.

But I wanted to find a company that would give me the autonomy I craved, freedom to take ownership of my time, a vision I could get behind and a team I could learn from. Most of all, I needed the company to align to my values. So, I joined NewCampus August last year.

Even though I had always followed my intuition on what my values were, it wasn’t until I met Dexter in February this year that he helped me clarify what those top values were. He started off by giving me a list of 50 values where I would rate them from high to low. I would then vet the values that I wrote high next to, to top 10 and then finally top 5. You can try it out here.

The values I narrowed down were: Adventure, Curiosity, Creativity, Freedom & Relationships. It was a liberating experience to have clarity in words and to continuously evaluate whether the decisions I made or actions I took matched those values.

I also started asking myself questions to gain better self-awareness around myself. These were some of the questions I asked myself:

  • What did I want to get out of this year?
  • What have I achieved in the last 6 months?
  • Have my actions & plans aligned with my values?
  • What am I currently working on improving and what are the next actionable steps?

1. What did I want to get out of the past year and how is it going?

I was initially hired as Head of Growth for QLC (rebranded to NewCampus). Even though with Austern I was the one doing all the acquisition and generating revenue, we never spent money on marketing. It was all social marketing, various growth hacks, partnerships and word of mouth. I had no experience at all in digital marketing like paid Facebook, Google ads and SEO which was what was needed at NewCampus. I quickly realised I sucked at it and I didn’t particularly like it either.

I felt so guilty. Here was Fei & Will hiring me for their startup, spending money on me and I was bad at it.

So around December whilst I was in Hawaii, I called Fei, sobbing into the video chat that they should just fire me. As a former founder, I felt terrible for wasting their money and genuinely believed that they should really just replace me with someone who was good at digital marketing. Fei told me that I couldn’t see myself what value I brought to the team, and I didn’t. I could only see what I lacked. It would take me another half year and constant feedback loops to really take ownership of what my strengths were.

A week later on New Years Day, Will & Fei called me and asked me if I wanted to relocate to Singapore and roll out NewCampus in Singapore as the Country Manager. I remember thinking to myself, did I just try to fire myself and get promoted instead?

I was really grateful for this offer. It made me feel like Will & Fei really valued me for me. I learned that I wasn’t just a replaceable skill where they would just hire and replace me the moment I was underperforming. They invested in me and allowed me to try roles and do work that would play to my strengths, whatever that was.

So in February, I relocated to Singapore. I was initially going to learn languages whilst travelling, but I decided to put that on hold. I was burning with curiosity on how these 6 months would play out.

2. So what have I achieved these last 6 months in Singapore?

In these 6 months, I would switch roles countless times, mostly really just doing whatever the company needed. I enjoyed the fluidity and I got to experiment a lot.

Since I joined the company last year, I’ve basically dabbled in all the parts of the business. I’ve done growth & digital marketing, strategy & operations, helped launch the Singapore campus, organised large scale events & community building with our FastFwd Festival & Power Ladies Breakfasts, built a valuable network, did b2b sales, and now doing host & speaker acquisition.

I found that my strengths lay in being resourceful, being adaptable and being able to execute quickly and I enjoyed people-facing, community building roles.

We rebranded from QLC to NewCampus in February so my first task in Singapore was to do a PR event launch within 2 weeks. This included trying to gather 170+ people to fill the huge WeWork space at Suntec City, sourcing high profile speakers whilst getting logistics in order. This had to be done with both my basically non-existent network in Singapore and completely new branding.

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First NewCampus FastFwd Festival in February 2019. Eric Sim, former MD at UBS & Linkedin influencer with 2 million followers as one of the keynote speakers

11Second NewCampus FastFwd Festival in June 2019. Yu-Chuang Kuek, MD of Netflix as our closing keynote on his learning journey. Most humble dude ever.

In March, I was told with a few hours notice that my colleague, Eddy and I were going to be flown to New York that night to pitch on behalf of NewCampus at the WeWork Labs x Mercer demo day the following day. I had never really pitched anything other than Austern before so I ended up having to hurriedly prepare my pitch on the flight there.

When I got back, we had our first NewCampus Power Ladies breakfast on March 8 where I first invited Agnes Liew, former Vice-Chairman of Citibank as our speaker for International Women’s Day. I thought she was super interesting because even though she was in finance for the last 35 years, when she retired at 65, she became a fitness entrepreneur and started her own boutique gym. She now lifts weights on a daily basis. Talk about being able to redefine yourself and abilities at any age.

We started holding these breakfasts every fortnight where I’d invite a range of interesting speakers. The aim for the breakfast was for like-minded power ladies to share insights, stories & a safe space to learn from each other. Through that, I grew a close network of women as my mentors and friends in Singapore. At one point, I was shook when a Director at Oracle, former COO of IBM and Head of Finance at Netflix came along to my small gathering of a breakfast. I’ve been super blessed that the people I’ve come across in Singapore have mostly been approachable, humble & always looking to improve themselves.

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Some ladies who became my mentors this past year. Imane Jamal Eddine, Director at Oracle & Elaine Liew, former COO at IBM.

We also started running classes from 3 nights a week to 7 nights at WeWork & JustCo. It’s seriously the best job ever to be paid to learn.

3. Have my actions & plans aligned with my values?

Adventure

Safe to say, I’ve gone out of my comfort zone a lot this year. From relocating to Singapore, learning Korean in Seoul, travelling and meeting friends every month in a different country including: Hanoi, Taiwan, Shanghai, Suzhou, Kyoto and Tokyo to now travelling long term for the next 6 months in Europe and South America, I’m definitely having my fill in adventure.

Curiosity & Creativity

I’ve never been a specialised type of person and have a lot of interests, love exploring new areas and learning random things. You can call me Jack of all trades. I’m working on writing more, drawing more and reading more and creating learning challenges for myself.

Freedom

The ability to own my time is the most important asset to me. Conventional jobs often place face-time as one of the most important aspects. This is where it’s not about the value or effectiveness of your work, it’s about how much time you spend at your desk. This is super counter-intuitive to me because it means you drag out the time of your work to make yourself look busy rather than being incentivised by outcome.

That’s the reason I appreciate startup culture so much. It not only fulfils my desire to create and break things, I’ve consciously picked a company that gives me the freedom to work from home or work remotely, exercises open communication and to value output not face-time. On that end of gaining freedom, what I’ve also consciously sacrificed has been a fat corporate pay check and conventional stability.

Relationships

My friendships have been one of my most important investments this year. Since I don’t have the convenience to knock on someone’s door and meet up in person, I’ve taken the time to invest in my relationships and I’ve been happy to say that my friendships have been stronger through constant communication even with these far distances.

They’ve been my rock in bad and good times and grateful for the friends who have also jumped on planes to come see me in Singapore, for the friends who call me every few days, for the ones who lend a consoling ear or word of advice and wisdom. I only hope that I can give back the amount of love and care to them that they’ve given me.

4. What am I current working on improving and what are the actionable steps?

I’ve always known that whilst my strength lay in execution, my downfall came in creating structure and process. I’ve been working with other colleagues to help me get better at this. I’m not a particularly process-driven person and so forcing myself to create process around my actions allows my work to be less tedious when I can also delegate aspects of it to others.

Often, I was so busy doing, I would lack the time to sit down and just think. I used to pride myself on the fact that I could execute efficiently, but I’ve come to admire the traits of people who can think articulately and communicate their thoughts in the clearest, most effective way. In that sense, sitting down, taking time and writing out my thoughts have helped me gain clarity and meaning behind my actions and experiences, drawing out lessons whilst reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses.

Also, since I’ve now started my 6 month travelling journey with Dexter in Europe and South America, time management has become a necessary skill and daunting challenge.

Not only am I working remotely for NewCampus (where I’ll also have to be diligent in my remote communication on Slack and over-communicate; another area I’m trying to improve), I’ll also be travelling, researching, reflecting, blog writing and I’m also attempting my creative element of making an art diary.
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With that, that’s my reflection for the past year. Hope you enjoyed reading and giving you a pat on the back for reading it the entire way. Always looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

xx Lily

Travel Chronicles June 2019: 9 days in Japan

Having come from Australia, any minimum overseas plane ride consists of at least 8 hours. Hence, I’ve really taken full advantage over the last 6 months working in Singapore to travel at every opportunity. As you can tell, there’s a huge gap between my first post and now. In December 2018, I thought my plan was still to be travelling to 4 countries to learn 4 languages. And then, I got relocated to Singapore for 6 months to head NewCampus’s Singapore expansion. I will try to cover what I’ve learned during these 6 months in another post.

But for now, here’s a quick travel recap. In March, I was given a few hours notice before flying to New York to pitch for NewCampus. I then travelled to Hanoi and Cat Ba in Vietnam, eating pho, continuously almost getting run over by motorcyclists for 4 days.

I then went to Taiwan in April where I got to simultaneously see my parents, celebrate my mum’s birthday, hang out with friends like Flo, Audrey & Alan and see Dexter. We wandered countless food streets, stuffing ourselves with delicious pepper buns, wintermelon teas, gua baos and beef noodle soups.

In May, I went to celebrate my brother’s marriage in Shanghai, amazed by the rapid blend of eastern and western influences and explored the quaint old streets of Suzhou.

So these 9 days in Japan, exploring Japan was really a trial run of what was about to come starting mid-July where we’ll be living, working & traveling together for the next 6 months.

These travel chronicles series will be a glimpse into the daily life of traveling. What I see, feel and experience and going granular into the specific moment. So settle in, ’cause this is going to be one long-ass post.

Arriving in Osaka 

On the night of Friday 21st of June, I wrapped up all my work and made sure to get to the airport early to settle in and utilise my airport lounge access. I had all my essentials (eye covers and face masks) to get me through the long 8 hour total red eye flight from Singapore to Osaka with a short stopover at Thailand. I thought I was ready.

My first snag hit when the security at Thailand told me I couldn’t just board my next flight and had to go out through immigration and check in again. I looked at my phone. My flight was boarding in 20 minutes. I surveyed the Foreign immigration and nearly fainted at the snaking lines suggesting a 30 minute – 1 hour wait time. I luckily cut the line at the much shorter APEC Diplomat line, imploring the other people waiting in the line to let me through. I finally got through immigration and bolted through the airport in the sweltering heat with my 10kg Nomatic bag and panicked that I was going to miss my flight before my trip had even started. Turned out without wifi access, I hadn’t realised that my flight was actually departing an hour later because of the time difference and I really needn’t have rushed.

After finally boarding on the flight to Osaka, I tried to get some sleep on the plane, craning my neck a little too much towards to the window. My neck felt stiff and cramped even after I touched down to Osaka at 8am the next morning.

My first mission was to get to Shin-Imimaya where Dexter would be waiting me on the other side. I bought a cheaper “free” ticket to Shin-Osaka direction thinking that both “reserved” & “free” tickets referred to the rapid train to Osaka city centre with the difference being that “free” would be to just find whatever seat was available. I was wrong. “Free” actually just meant the slow-ass train that would take an extra half hour-45 minutes and stop at every stop.

After these couple of bumps at the start, I finally got off at Shin-Imimaya and my spirits were instantly lifted when I saw Dexter’s smiling face waiting for me at the gate. We happily walked back to Dexter’s hostel with my hand around his waist and his arm around my shoulder. I made sure to look at each cute freckle after not having seen his face in such close proximity for 3 weeks. We had around 2 hrs to kill before meeting up with a few of his friends for lunch so we dumped my bag for the time being and went to explore a bit around the Shin Seikai (New World) area.

The first thing I noticed about Osaka were the giant food board signs on the top of each restaurant hawking their specialties. You knew that the giant octopus sign probably meant a takoyaki store. Dexter took me to a great takoyaki place nearby and I savoured biting into the gooey goodness with octopus bits which I’d seriously been craving. We then versed each other with a short round of “Whac-a-mole” at an arcade and my semi-competitive side may have come out a little.

We met up with a couple of Dexter’s friends, namely Jun, who he met at a Japanese language exchange Meetup as well as his previous colleague and friend from Dropbox, Tiffany. Jun also brought his girlfriend and his friend Stian who is a Norwegian guy doing a Masters in Mechatronics and currently on holiday in Japan. Stian had met Jun the previous year at another Meetup back in Osaka. I was impressed by his Japanese speaking level and it was cool discovering that he free-dives to spear fish for fun!

Tiffany, on the other hand was on 10 day holiday with her friend but halfway through the trip, they decided to split up and venture on their own for a few days before reconvening in Tokyo. I found that pretty funny and interesting that they acknowledged they needed time to themselves. Travelling makes or breaks friendships after all. She seemed very independent and happy travelling on her own and I hope she had a smashing time at the onsens in Hakone.

For lunch, we had okonomiyaki and mostly talked about varying topics from Terrace House to ex-work environments. We then proceeded to spend a good 10 minutes awkwardly standing around not knowing how to part ways, but eventually said our goodbyes and got a nice photo snap.

Going to Kyoto

Dexter and I got to Kyoto later that afternoon where I had booked a ryokan on the outskirts of Kyoto. I was kind of hoping that there was going to be a hot spring within the ryokan but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The ryokan was at the top of this hill, and the walk up featured immaculate houses with zen gardens and expensive Mercs parked in the driveways. Definitely a high-end area. My shoulders were dying from not being used to carrying the weight of my luggage on my back but I was thankful when imagining what it would’ve been like if I had a suitcase with me instead. This was definitely infinitely better than lugging a suitcase up that hill.

After a nap, around 8pm, we ventured out again to Gion district to see where we could eat. Dexter’s favourite food is ramen so we tried to go to a couple he had starred on Google Maps but they all ended up closing as we got there. We found a cozy Tsukemen shop instead which fit a maximum of 9 people.

Strolling around this area at night, we were walking alongside both tipsy Japanese locals being a bit rowdier than usual and foreigners looking for a good time. The quaint, old-styled bridges elegantly built over a running river juxtaposed the pumping bars and hostess clubs on the same street.

It gave me flashbacks to my 2017 Taido World Championships trip where Emma, Lena, Steven and I were also bar-hopping around this area. We promptly also got denied entry when we tried to enter a strip club. I found it incredulous at the time that women were still not allowed in these places at this day and age, and I guess got a brief glimpse into a highly patriarchal society.

Exploring the world of Geishas in Gion; a thriving hub of culture, history, religion and politics

The next morning, we had no particular plans for the day and so in the morning, whilst sipping brewed tea Dexter had brought from China, he suggested we do a walking tour that started in Gion at 11am. I happily said yes. Dexter and I had first discovered our feelings for each other when he invited me out to do a walking tour in Singapore in February. To follow this trend, we had also gone on one when I went to visit him in Shanghai in May. We’ve found them to be a great way to really get to know a city. We get to understand its history, culture and quirks in a fun, interesting way as well as being able to meet people from all walks of life.

That day, we met at the iconic statue, a shrine maiden on the Shijo Bridge which crosses the Kamogawa River outside Gion-Shijo river. The statue, as our guide enthusiastically told us, was of Izumo no Okuni who was the original founder of Kabuki theatre. Whilst the founder of Kabuki was female, Kabuki’s distinguishing factor is actually the fact that all the actors in Kabuki are men.

Our guide, an exchange student from Barcelona, also pointed to us the Kabuki theatre just diagonally across the road. Dexter and I shared a little giggle as we spotted the sign outside promoting the next Kabuki edition of Naruto. Even traditional arts need to keep evolving and keeping up with the times.

The tour then continued along the cobble stone streets of Gion where Kyoto’s geishas, called Maiko and Geiko live. Since WWII, the number of these Geisha’s have dropped dramatically. Whilst standards for geishas in other areas of lessened, Kyoto’s standards for Maiko (apprenticeship Geishas) have still maintained its strict standards.

We craned our necks to see if we could spot a real geisha but to our untrained eye, it was hard to distinguish through the throng of people walking through the streets to see who was a tourist dressed in kimono and who was not. There are even companies these days who will help you look exactly like a geisha from hair, make up and dress. We were told that the only distinguishing factor is their attitude. If they’re too willing to take pictures or look overly social, then you’ve probably got a tourist on your hands.

As we walked through the back streets, we learnt that most girls start their apprenticeship as a Maiko from the age of 15. If they are picked to be a Maiko, they leave home and will live with a Mama San to help train them, invest in their education for ~6 years until they are 21. It’s absolutely crazy to imagine that overnight, they will give up their lives as a normal schoolgirl to become someone who has to go back in time in terms of way of living. They’re not allowed access to friends, family and outside world let alone technology and social media. They can only write letters and see family 1 day a year.

Tea houses are where geishas perform at, and their patronage is so exclusive that you can only go if you’re invited by an existing client. I’ve always been fascinated by geishas after having read Memoirs of a Geisha in primary school. I would always try to imagine the life of this elusive character having to balance the delicate line of being a multi-talented entertainer, savvy business woman, and great conversationalist whilst also being commonly objectified as someone for men’s desire.

After talking about geishas, we walked through Yasaka Shrine where we were told the differences between a Shinto and Buddhist shrines and the distinguishing political and cultural history with these two interesting ‘religions’ that is now so integrated within Japanese common life.

That afternoon, we went to see our last attraction stop for the day, Kiyomizu Temple. It’s an ancient temple that has existed for over 1,200 years and on the World Heritage List! I found it beautiful to learn that these temples and shrines are all intentionally built from wood, where over the years it’s been burned down over and over again. The beauty is in the ephemeral nature of life. It humbled me deeply and served as a reminder to recognise that life is fleeting and to cherish each passing moment as the present. I gripped Dexter’s hand just a little tighter.

Understanding to live in the moment in Arashiyama

In 2017 when I was in Kyoto for 36 hours, my attitude to exploring Kyoto with friends at the time was to cram in as much sight-seeing as possible. It’s with bittersweet memory that we were only there to really just take photos for the ‘gram and social media due to the time constraints rather than really savouring the experience and soaking in the place.

One of these places my friends and I rushed to was Arashiyama where we had booked a kimono rental and taken countless photos at the bamboo forest. We had seen it featured everywhere on Instagram and we wanted to get those same shots. I’m a bit sad to say that we didn’t really see much of anything else.

Now 2 years later, I was back with Dexter and we couldn’t have approached our exploration and mindset more differently. We meandered slowly through Tenryu-ji Shrine where we admired the Zen gardens with its meaningfully places stones and swirling sand patterns. We sat at the temple veranda and contently let our eyes and minds wander. We also took our time and tried to avoid the crowds as much as possible. This included not spending as much time at the bamboo forest which was packed with eager tourists jostling each other with their long selfie sticks to get the best angle.

As Dexter was on his last 3,000 yen cash for the both of us and both our accounts needed another day for the money to process through before we could withdraw more money, we had to really ration what activities we wanted to do and the food we wanted to eat.

We decided to scale back on the food and spent 1,000 yen renting bicycles for 2 hours. What a wonderful experience. My third ever bike ride in my life was with Dexter in Singapore when we explored Palau Ubin and so this constituted as my 4th or 5th bike ride. Despite my inexperience, my excitement to explore the place replaced my trepidation of being a terrible bike rider prone to accidents and after a few initial wobbles, we were speeding down the pathways along the river.

What we saw was breathtaking.

Just five minutes by bike, we left the crowded tourist areas and were met with serenity. As we sped past, we saw people tending their gardens, creating patches of urban farms alongside residential buildings. We saw an old grandma playing golf by herself on a random patch of sand. We saw people old and young playing lacrosse and laughing joyously. We saw school children on their way home, their feet lightly springing with the notion of infinite possibilities ahead of them.

In the beginning, I was gripping the handlebars so tightly my knuckles were turning white but as I got into the flow of riding, I let myself be at ease, not completely, but letting my fingers relax and unfurl, little by little. I’ve always wanted to challenge myself to go out of my comfort zone, and do things I have no experience or afraid to do. This mentality helps stretch my ability to discover new things and ultimately, makes the experience so rewarding. I like to think that I’m getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

We were rewarded at the end of our tiring ride with a relaxing complimentary footpath smack bang in the centre of Arashiyama station, literally situated on the train tracks. I sighed in contentment and wiggled my toes towards Dexter.

Discovering our working patterns

That night, we started our first attempt at working together whilst traveling together. We both had calls to make and in my opinion timing wise, worked out well for the both of us. I felt completely comfortable and happy just sitting at the same table with him working in silence on our respective activities. It was a soothing feeling to know that we can still both work on our own personal projects, develop ourselves and have time to reflect and gather our thoughts on our own even when we’re together.

As times go on, it will be important for us to work out some time to ourselves with Dexter wanting to work on his writing projects and coaching whilst I need solid time to work and unpack learnings. I’ve discovered we both need this time, otherwise being constantly on the go makes it hard to absorb what we’ve seen and experienced and reflect.

The university graduate & management consultant who became a tea farm owner

We had been waking up pretty late but Tuesday was an exception. Our alarm was set at 6am and we made our 1.5 hour trip to Wazuka-Cho, a tea-farming rural area outside of Kyoto and on the way to Nara. A lively young man Daiki greeted us at 9am on the dot at the station before driving us to his tea farm. On the way, we discovered that he was not some son of a farmer but the savvy owner of the tea farm and brand D:Matcha.

Daiki was a Kyoto University graduate (which is an elite school) in agriculture where his initial interest stemmed from wanting to learn more about healthy foods. When he graduated, he got a gig as a management consultant at an American consulting firm, Booz Allen Hamilton, where ironically, one of his clients, a donut chain about to go into insolvency asked him to step in and be the CEO to revive the chain.

He took the job and for 2 years, he ate at least 3 donuts a day to do quality checks. Finally, sick of this unhealthy lifestyle, his interest grew towards tea farming where him and his brother apprenticed at tea farms in Wazuka for 2 years. Finally in 2015, they gained the trust of the older generation who decided to lease these lands to him and they made their long term investments in building their own tea farm and brand.

Learning about his personal journey to get to where he is now and the tea production process opened my eyes to the under-served potential of the agricultural industry and how interesting it was. He was also exploring the Farm to Table concept with his cafe whilst also holding tours for foreigners like us so that they could also be educated around Wazuka tea.

To say that Wazuka area looked like it was plucked straight out of a picture book would be an understatement. I was enthralled by expanses of rolling green hills of different shades neatly planted and trimmed with tea bushes. It was such a beautiful sunny day, a rarity in these parts as the usual thick fog and cloudy, rainy climate provides a shield of protection for the matcha production and makes it a prime location for tea leaf growing.

Most of all, I loved seeing how excited Dexter was by the tour as we were learning new things; the way he engaged with the guide, asked meaningful questions and patiently explained concepts to me if I didn’t understand something. I’ve always found it an incredibly attractive trait when I see people’s faces light up when they talk about something they’re genuinely passionate in. It was a great joy to see Dex’s passion and earnest interest come out that morning. I felt lucky to be able to take part in his world and share some of that interest, curiosity, and joy with him.

Organising failures can lead to impromptu opportunities

It was our last day in Kyoto and so given the responsibility on organising what we were going to be doing, I looked up places where we could rent a private onsen. We packed our bags, checked out and ended up in Arashiyama where according to a few websites, there would be private onsens there available for day-use.

Turns out I was most definitely wrong and I felt that emerging anxiety, hopelessness and guilty sense of responsibility as we lugged our heavy backpacks across Arashiyama only to be turned away ryokan after ryokan. I anxiously looked up towards Dexter, half expecting him to be annoyed by the fact we’d just traveled an hour for nothing but he just smiled at me and kindly said, “It’s not your fault. At least that’s good exercise! Let’s get a coffee here and rest”. Just hearing that made me want to tear up.

We ended up googling a public bathhouse and made our way over. Private onsens would have to wait another day. I was also dying to soak in some healing waters and rest my aching neck. When I came out of the bath, I laughed from amusement to see Dexter having merrily found his new favourite discovery; sparkling Umeshu (plum wine) in a can.

Going to Tokyo

We made our way to Tokyo around 5PM and it took us over 4 hours before we finally arrived at our new home in Shimokitazawa, a super up-and-coming and hip area in Tokyo.

During the day, the place oozed hipster vibes with its numerous cafes, antique shops and second-hand clothing stores. However, at night the place transformed into a different kind of hip – young voices rowdily shouting, izakayas mixed with shisha bars, and hawking all kinds of international food.

As we’ve previously both been to Tokyo a few times, we opted to take the next few days slowly and chill out. We mainly spent the days journaling and reading at various retro cafes. Our highlight in Tokyo was meeting people, both friends and strangers.

The 47-year old man who lives with passion and fervour for life

One evening when we met up with another one of Dexter’s Dropbox ex-colleagues, Shoe-g for dinner.

The restaurant we met at was located in Ebisu, a bustling city centre, one stop from Shibuya station. We struggled to find the restaurant, walking the same street back and forth again with the rain pattering onto us. Turns out it was a located on the second floor of an unassuming building. The only hint available was a tiny white sign written in hiragana jutting out from the building.

When we entered the restaurant, a boisterous Japanese grandma, the owner of the restaurant greeted us enthusiastically, a stark contrast of the gentle, quiet demeanour that is usually displayed by local Japanese women.

Shortly after we arrived, Shoe-g came in and boy, was he also a character. He bounced in and immediately slapped Dexter on the back almost half-shouting “Ayyyy, it’s so freakin’ awesome to see you!!!” He was hyperactive and used a lot of hand gestures. I was shocked to learn that Shoe-g who looked in his mid-30s was actually 47 with 2 kids. His passions included BMX racing and rock climbing. He clocked his most recent body fat percentage at 6% which I found absolutely crazy and inspirational for someone at that age.

During dinner, Dexter and I listened with rapt attention at his various stories. The best story he told us was his first Spanish love story.

When Shoe-g was 19, he did a few months English study stint in the UK where he fell deeply & madly in love with a Spanish girl. When they went back to their respective countries, he was so in love that he was ready to ask her hand in marriage.

However, the only catch was her parents only spoke Spanish. He then dove head first into studying Spanish, listening to Spanish from the radio and almost failing college classes because he was so focused on Spanish. He had his eyes completely locked in on the prize.

Summer came along, and he saved enough money to travel to Spain for 2 months to see his girl. During the time between they met and him coming to Spain to visit, they sent handwritten letters to each other. But shortly after he returned to Japan the second time, the letters started slowing down and eventually stopped. The last letter he received was a thin 1 pager. She had met someone else.

What was crazy was what came after. 15 years later with no contact in between, she suddenly contacted him asking how he was, with questions like why did they break up? Was he still single? Even though their story only lasted a few months in their youth, it amazed me that she still thought of him after all these years. He must have been incredibly memorable to her.

From his journey he seemed like an all-or-nothing person that puts 110% effort, pouring his heart and soul into everything he does. Whilst the first love didn’t work out, he proved to himself that if he wanted to learn or do something and put his mind to it, he could achieve it.

6 months of learning Spanish, he became conversationally fluent to the point where it was better than his English. I could see that with his hobbies in competitive biking and rock-climbing, and he recently even started self-learning machine learning on EDx.

I think both Dexter and I both walked from the dinner feeling refreshed to know that becoming older doesn’t mean being jaded with life, being boring and stopping hobbies and trying new things. No matter what age, we can live with passion and enthusiasm and achieve whatever we decide to put our minds towards.

The old lady and the black bar

Golden Gai, is a cool, drinking alleyway in Shinjuku where it comes alive after dark. These streets were lined with alley after alley of tiny bars, most serving a starting seat price cover charge of 500 yen. We scoured the entrances to find one with no cover charge and found one called Kuro Bar (Black Bar). Inside, a frail elderly lady served us drinks with surprisingly good English. We queried how long she’d had this bar and she says she’s had this place for 45 years!

There was soft jazz music playing in the background, lighting was mysterious and dim and on the walls hung an eclectic mix of glamour show girl posters of legs and fishnet stockings, an erotic giant butt, dolls and a closeup photo of stiletto heels with blood on them. A unique trait was that the drinks shelf had hundreds of currency bills from countries around the world stuck to them. Customers scrawled their name and date of visit to Kuro Bar on these bills.

The elderly lady told us about her world travelling adventures where she spent at least 2 months of the year going to a new place. This year, she was planning to go to Argentina and climb Machu Picchu. Her age? 80 years old.

Learning Japanese with locals at a language exchange Meetup

I’d previously mentioned to Dexter a few weeks ago that I wanted to attend a language Meetup whilst I was in Japan to practice speaking with some locals. I’d actually forgotten about this request so I was really touched that he remembered and brought it up.

We signed up to the Japanese exchange Meetup group located at a British Pub in Takadanobaba which convened in the afternoon. As people started to file into the pub, we were allocated into separate tables where every 20 minutes, we would switch from English to Japanese before rotating the group members. It was encouraging that everyone was really accommodating in teaching me new sentences and I emphatically requested people to correct my grammar and pronunciation, whilst constantly repeating “How do I say “__” in Japanese?”.

When signing up to these Meetups, I love the feeling of extracting the most amount of value out of the 2 hour sessions and coming in with the sole purpose of learning as many new sentences from the locals as possible. This helps me build on my knowledge base which I can memorise vocabulary and infer grammar rules as well.

One of the Japanese icebreaker topics included outlining my “ideal date” and I searched for all the Japanese vocabulary I could muster. I said something along the lines of “In the morning, we would eat ramen. Then we would watch a movie. We’d have Italian for lunch before going to Yoyogi Park to have a picnic. We would have red wine and cheese. We would then go bungee jumping. At night, we’d have dinner and go home to watch Terrace House together”. I’m glad the 3 Japanese people on my table found my fictional date planning amusing.

Gathering like this reminded me of my daily Meetup days in Seoul earlier in January. It was at one of these Meetups where I first met Sunny, and basically cornered her to be my Korean teacher for the night. However, we found so many common ground topics, it ended up blossoming into a fruitful friendship where I was lucky to have her visit me in Singapore in May.

After the language exchange session, a couple of us went out for lunch at a Chinese restaurant and I sat in between Kenta, a Japanese local who was in one of my language groups and Yuto, a Japanese-American who was coincidentally also from the mid-west. Apparently he used to drive past Dexter’s high school in Michigan! We also had a Chinese, Korean, Peruvian and Canadian with us.

During our Chinese cuisine lunch with featured spicy mapo tofu and 80 gyozas, I mostly chatted with Yuto. He told me about how he felt growing up, wanting to be American almost meant needing to give up his Japanese identity to fit in. He initially came to Tokyo with an American perspective, expecting people to speak English. However, through travelling and experiencing the world, he’s realised that no, he was the one who needed to change and embrace his Japanese heritage and learn the language.

Since working at Toyota the last 3 months and speaking Japanese with his coworkers, his Japanese has improved dramatically. It was great to hear that he was embracing both sides of himself and that he now feels like he doesn’t need to pick one from the other.

The 7/11 working culture in Japan

Sunday was my last day in Japan together with Dexter. The last few days in Tokyo had become a daily morning routine of finding a new cafe and working individually on our laptops. This served as some individual refuge to collect our thoughts before going out and meeting people for the rest of the day.

We ended up staying in Shimokitazawa for the entire day. We first met up with Dexter’s classmate, Takayuki for lunch who Dexter had met when he was doing his intensive Mandarin course in Taiwan. Taka had coincidentally picked the all-you-can-eat hotpot lunch Dexter and I had been eyeing for days, right across our apartment. We were both secretly overjoyed.

Over heart warming soup, plates of meat and much needed vegetables, Taka told us how he worked in both Singapore for 4 years, Hong Kong for 2 years and now recently moved back with his investment banking job to Tokyo. The working culture here seemed intense with him clocking in over 12 hours a day starting at 6:30am in the morning and leaving after 7pm. Most likely, he would also sometimes work 6-7 days a week. It reminded me of Jack Ma’s 7-11 mentality where employees at Alibaba are expected to work all days of the week 11 hours a day. This kind of lifestyle looks like to me the perfect recipe for intense burnout.

At the end, he picked up the bill when we weren’t noticing. Dexter says it’s a second time he’s done that already but Taka just replied we can treat him next time with the famous No Signboard chilli crab in Singapore.

Being a third culture kid & entrepreneur in Tokyo

Dinner was spent with my friend Venese who I had met in high school. We first bonded when we went partying together in Hong Kong at the end of 2012, right before I started university and started working at BDO and she was admitted to study at Waseda university in Japan.

As we hadn’t seen each other in a long time, so many things had changed since we were teenagers. We reminisced on the old days, where she recounted a hilarious memory when one late night after clubbing, she had taken someone home with her and they saw me naked when I accidentally walked out of the bathroom not knowing they were there!

Venese also spoke passionately but the ingrained racism and sexism that lay embedded in the foundations of Japanese society. I was shocked to learn that at her own university, clubs and societies are formed called ‘Circles’ where any Circle with numbers in them mean that you’ve joined an underground orgy group. This includes innocent sounding Tennis clubs which may be named “Tennis23” or something. My jaw dropped to the floor when I heard that.

Aside from those topics, she also talked about her budding entrepreneurial venture, Flip Guide where she promotes local bars, restaurants and cafes as well as doing ad hoc marketing work. She told us about the challenges where she would enter a room trying to create partnerships and be dismissed as too young, being female, being non-Japanese.

However despite these aspects, she had been running for the last 3-4 years and now worked with some major clients. She built it with no resources and backing and peservered. Her face lit up when she talked about business and entrepreneurship. She recommended us podcasts and she seems very resourceful and naturally resilient in the face of adversity. I can’t wait to see how her business goes.

Ending our Japan trip

Those 9 days surprised me as I got to understand Japan through the lens of people we met. These were locals, expats, friends, and strangers who painted a clearer picture of what this unique place’s culture, history and modern day life looks like. I’m excited to travel for the rest of the year with this at the forefront; placing the importance of understanding a place through its people and forming a connection deeper than just a tourist guidebook and surface level touring.

Why I’m travelling to 4 countries to learn languages in 2019

Having grown up in a Chinese family in Australia, I was always immersed in 3 languages. At home, I spoke Cantonese to my grandma, Mandarin to my parents and English at school. 

When I was younger, I would mix the languages I were speaking together. The kids at school would laugh at my mishmash speech. I would cry to my parents saying “Why can’t we just speak English at home?”. 

My parents would answer back in Chinese, “How will you fully understand the thousands of years of Chinese philosophy, admire the beauty of the language and history if you don’t know Chinese? How will you do business with people in China as it becomes an economic powerhouse? You should be proud to be a mix of cultures so that you can be more understanding of other people.”

I always rolled my eyes at this logical answer but as I grew up, I slowly understood why my parents insisted I speak Chinese at home. I loved the slight nuances in speech and being able to understand Chinese puns and dry humour. I loved how the language made me appreciate Chinese culture, history and food to a different level. I loved going to China and being able to converse with locals and not feel like a complete outsider.

So it was one fateful day, I came across this video

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It’s about 2 friends who travelled to Spain, Portugal, China and Korea knowing none of the language. Their challenge was to see how much of the languages they could pick up within 3 months. However, the catch was – they weren’t allowed to speak any English. No english to each other or to anyone else.

By the end of the 3 months, they were able to get to an intermediate level in all 4 languages. You can watch their videos and read about the full experience here

I never knew someone could learn a language this quickly. Not only that, because they put a time limit, a goal and immersion period, they could challenge themselves to be fully integrated into a different cultural environment. 

And if you know me, I love a good challenge. 

So finally towards the end of 2018, the stars aligned and I decided 2019 was the year to do it. This past year I had graduated, wrapped up all my projects, had a good 6 years working during university, started a business, worked in corporate and finally I would have the time and freedom to pursuing something that I’ve always wanted to do. 

The countries and rough dates I have picked are:

  • January – March 2019: Korea
  • April – June 2019: Japan
  • July – Sept 2019: Spain
  • October – Dec 2019: France

As you’ve probably guessed, the 4 languages I’m attempting to learn this year is Korean, Japanese, Spanish and French. I recognise that it’s going to be a tough journey since I’m an absolute beginner in all 4 languages.

Half of me also knows that once I get to a country, I will want to be social and make friends and I know I’ll want to revert back to my comfort zone of finding English speakers but the other half of me really wants to succeed in this challenge.  

Currently, I’ve enrolled in Seoul National University for my first 3 weeks starting January 7 and my plan is to go from there! If you have any tips or resources, please share with me as well.

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