Returning from a Gap Year & the Morbid idea of Starting Over

Last Updated on November 25, 2012 by Christine Kaaloa

gap jumping
Gap jumping


This post has taken me almost a year to write.

Every time I started it, I’d feel emotionally drained and my thoughts wouldn’t focus. It was a rough period I was going through, being home. It was a mixture of reverse culture shock, frustration, depression, panic and upset all balled into one.

But if I had to take a gap year(s) again, I would in a heartbeat!

The pros are worth the seemingly one biggest con, that of ….starting over.

Returning from a Gap Year and starting over

Returning to the U.S. after two years abroad was the bravest move I could make.

It also occasionally has felt like the stupidest.

There’s only one fear which plagues the backseat of every gap year | long-term traveler| expat’s  insecurity…

What will I do when I return to my country?

I’m talking about lifestyles and employment. That’s the mammoth mountain in a nutshell.



Starting over involved consumerism, commercialism, capitalism and commodification. 

What was the most dramatic re-culture shock of my returning home?

The good ‘ole American Dream.

To be blessed to be born in the Land of the Free? Hah, how ironic.

For me, the one biggest freedom of living abroad and traveling was escaping western society and its ideology of success. It’s an ideal which ruled my life with an unconscious pressure and kept me in a constant state of competing against myself only to arrive often…at self-flagellation.

Afterall, the American Dream tells us we should be dissatisfied with what we have, because we could always have more. Thus, success in the west is something external… a commodity. Our achievements are gauged by how much we own, how much we earn and not what we make of our lives in rich experiences.

In order for you to succeed in the U.S., you must have ambition, drive and a bit of a paranoid ego. For instance, when I used to freelance, I measured my worth by a monthly quota. If I made the income I expected and worked on a handful of sexy and fun projects (which added bravado to my ego), I was glowingly proud and feeling borderline heroic. But if I dipped below that quota and my phone hardly rang with work, I felt like a massive failure, a deep-seated paranoia lurked in me and so I’d lay extra pressure on myself to make up for it in the following month.

I was a dog chasing my tail; and I couldn’t stop.

  • How much money do you make? 
  • What have you achieved in your career?
  • How successful do you see yourself in the next 5 years? 
  • Do you own a house or a car? Do you have insurance for your health?
  • Are you married? ( If so, what does he do & how much does he make? )
  • Any children? ( Can you afford day care, elementary, intermediate, high school and college tuitions? )
  •  Do you have the latest gadetry, HD flat screen television or enough clothes, shoes and handbags, so you’ll not seem as if you’re wearing the same thing each week?….

The list goes on…

This all makes for an insecure and paranoid society.

If I meet a person at an event hoping to connect ; often, I suddenly find they’re selling me a résumé as if I’m looking to buy a service. In the U.S., you don’t shake hands with a person; you shake hands with their marketing ego.

Abroad however, I was away from this environment. People were genuine and if there was an ideology towards success, it wasn’t my country, so it didn’t rule my mentality. And things were different.

For instance, South Korea is an ambitious and workaholic society too but it’s not concentrated on a single person, but the group… One up-manship? Noooo, baaaad… very bad.

Also, I could enjoy a simpler life, realizing it didn’t take much to make me happy. Furthermore, travel supported my new life and showed me that there were cultures which could find fulfillment living on less. I didn’t need a lot of clothes or luxury goods to add value to my lifestyle. In fact, the simpler my living, the more efficient, open and relaxed I was. I could connect with people on a human level.


Did you quit a career or quit a  job? 

Everyone’s gap year situation is different. But to me, there’s a monumental difference between quitting your job and quitting your career.

When you quit a job, you can always find another…

You’d scour the newspapers for employment. Online job boards, industry sites, word-of-mouth referrals are all job seeking resources. Volunteering, finding a job head hunter or signing up with a couple of temporary staffing agencies might help you get experience under your belt and a possible foot in the door of the industry you’re interested in.

If you’re not picky but persevering and it’s all about making some extra cash, you might find that job anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months. You can work as a waitress, a flower shop girl, a retail clerk or a front desk receptionist at a youth hostel.

tempingWorking as a ‘temp’ is a great way to get back into the work force.

For those who left for their gap year during their  career phase, like myself, it can feel like a larger struggle with bolder consequences. Maybe the industry’s technology or standards changed, you fell out of the loop, lost your contacts or decided to start life in a new city.

I quit a career. And to make matters worse,… I quit a career I loved.


As a freelancer, my taking a gap year, had very high stakes. My career as a camera operator and field producer  for television still had room for growth and I felt blessed to be doing something I loved at the level I was doing it at (not everyone can shoot tv for successful shows with a global audience).  But the economy was threatening to repress my rise. Work came to a slow trickle during the recession and rather than wait a year (or more) for the stream to come back, I decided to take courage and follow through on long-time dreams to live abroad and travel.

But my career was a business I invested time, money and years of training into. It took many years of working low-paying freelance video gigs, where I sold all the services I was skilled in from video shooting, editing and encoding. Finally, I got my foot in the door, proved myself, built trusted client relationships and earned a reputation. When I left my life for a gap year, I left a business I’d worked to build from the ground up.

So returning home and attempting career revival, felt like trying to grow back a new thumb!


Should you resuscitate an old career you loved, after having taken gap years from it?

For continuing career folk like myself, the scary question is :

What if my old career no longer loves me back?

Instead of finding out, I initially tried to avoid it, saving the most difficult tasks for last…


Resuscitating a career is the attempt to resurrect it from the ground zero. You have to blow mouth-to-mouth real hard, (pump, pump,…) (look for a signs of revival), then… start the process again. It’s a lot of labor, frustrated hope and of course, when you’ve paid your dues for your industry, the last thing you want to do is pay them again!

Also, after hitting the heights of working for popular cable shows, I didn’t want to bang my head against the wall in the hopes of recreating that kind of dream success in Hawaii nor did I want to be relegated to the back of the queue behind the newbies.  First of all, there are no reality shows in Hawaii and the industry is much smaller, tighter and more insular. It all spelled obvious frustration.

But a part of me lacked confidence too… being away from my industry for two years, I knew it changed and I wasn’t following its progress. Was I still any good?

So I decided to jump ship into the most *unrelated* travel job I could think of to avoid this mental toil (and possible rejection)– become a flight attendant! 

One problem:  highly competitive odds.

If you ask me, the odds are worse than climbing the ladder to be a camera woman in a male dominant industry. Then again, that’s what I told myself about breaking into New York City as a camerawoman, only to find myself shooting seasons of top-rated reality shows. So the likelihood of becoming a flight attendant is not truly impossible either.

Still, I didn’t get the job.

After months of trying alternatives, volunteer and taking temp jobs for pocket change and to feel productive, I broke down. Tired of job drifting and wanting to root down into something I had true talent in and remembered loving, I decided to give career rescutation a tackle…


Have you had any fears or difficulties with taking a gap year or returning from one?


Coming next >> 9 Tips to Starting Over

Related Articles:

Why I won’t hang up my travel shoes. GrrrlTraveler
Returning from a Gap Year(s): 9 Tips to Starting Over
Coming home after a gap year? Well, get ready for a shock… GrrrlTraveler
Budget travel, work, and volunteer opportunities abroad   Vegan Around the World


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  • Nice post! Not happy ending mh?!? Well that’s true,just realistic I think, I’m in the period to “temp (shitty) job”+new jobs ideas” oh fuck I wanna travel more/I don’t wanna” I will change one prospective on the article: aren’t the other communities workaholic, I think we setting ourself in right not competitive way…not competitive=happier? I don’t know, what you think?

  • Hi, I randomly found your youtube channel (suggested content), thought it was interesting, and decided to check out your blog. I am so glad I did! This post really spoke to me as I had a gap year myself, and reading about your travels and struggles has really inspired me to (at least try and) go after the things that matter to me as well as start traveling solo myself. I have done it sort of and want to make another, more bold solo trip. I really hope you continue to keep up with this blog.

  • I believe it’s about choosing the right timing.
    The same conditions may lead to the feeling of a thrilling adventure, as well as the feeling of the ‘end of the world’…
    I immigrated, luckily, at a great time in my life, and the gaps looked like thrilling games.

  • So much great food for thought here; thanks for sharing. Starting over is hard, but it doesn’t mean the original break wasn’t worth it! In 2004, I left my office job in book publishing to travel for nine months. I didn’t know what I would do when I came back, but after my trip I *knew* I didn’t want to go back to an office! So I started freelancing and set myself up with a job/business I could run from anywhere. I spent the next two years in the U.S. and it was hard to meet like-minded people and not get sucked into all the trappings of consumerism and the expected “accomplishments” you described above. But I stuck to my guns, and in 2007, at age 32, I moved to Buenos Aires. Six years later, I’m married to an amazing man from Argentina and we’re continuing the nomadic lifestyle together (writing to you from Malaysia!). I don’t know if we’d ever live in the States; the things you describe definitely factor into that decision. For now, we have a better standard of living, on less money, by spending time elsewhere in the world.

    • Christine Kaaloa
      September 22, 2013 11:37 pm

      @Amy: Wow, that’s such an inspiring story. Thanks for sharing! It’s very liberating to not live by societal trappings but also, I think it’s awesome that you found a partner that shares your vision. Sometimes, that can be difficult. Still trying to find a way to be more location-independent- will definitely have to listen to your Worldette interview! =)

      • Yes, you’re right, I feel very lucky to have found him! Some friends told me I should stay put until I met someone, then go traveling, but I think it works better the other way around: live the life you want to be living, and *that’s* when you meet the right person. 🙂

  • Eek – reason to up it off even longer. “@grrrltraveler: Returning from a Gap Year: Starting Over”

  • Before I left my profession for Korea, this was the first blog I found. It’s still the best one out there. I too left a 15 year chunk of flesh in the IT industry only to be forgotten in the economic downturn. It took from me more than it gave – that’s for sure. I’m driven by the notion of making teaching abroad a profession and long term career so I can free myself of going back to a life I dreaded. You spelled it out so well here. Western mindset, rat race, definition of success and happiness. So well written – thank you. I’m just surprised you’re trying to go back!! All the best.

  • […] Starting over after Returning from a Gap Year, by Christine Kaaloa […]

  • I love this post, Christine! It’s very true that the perspective of corporate America has to change and I think the later generations (Millennials and Gen Y etc) are doing their best to change it. And it’s so inspiring that you chose to pursue your career choices whether or not you feared rejection because that’s how one grows.

    • @Charu: Thanks, Charu. Yes, there’s a slight shift from baby booming gen thinking. X genners questioned the meaning of it all, Y gens decided they wanted to do what they loved… It hasn’t felt easy returning. Living abroad and traveling, you feel a different kind of growth and one in which the momentum can keep going and growing. Part of it is like learning through environmental absorption. Returning you find a different reality and that momentum of growth is harder to find- the learning involves dealing with stagnance, inertia, narrower thinking. Unlike the other countries I’ve been through where I can accept what I find useful and reject what I don’t want to believe in, the U.S. is my home. Thus, rejecting the mentality of this system is harder. Funny, huh?

  • Been sitting thinking about your very thought-provoking post for an hour or so as I’m in the last weeks of driving around rural China before heading back to Australia and my job as an ER doctor, some three and a half years after my gap ‘year’ started. I’ve fretted and worried about all the things you mentioned, my peers have all moved towards the peak of their careers and I’ve essentially gone backwards. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in these anxieties, and that they are things I’ll need to be prepared for. Looking forward to your next post for good advice from one who has already trodden the path!

    • @Fiona: You have such a wonderful blog, Fiona! Your life has been quite an adventure and hardly a regretful choice as I’m sure you’d agree. Upon your return, you may decide you no longer want to be an ER doctor. Different talents evolved, your travel writing, photography and your education about a culture too rural for many expats to stay long in… Which makes your knowledge *specialized*… hmm… In a way, my travels have changed me to wondering if I really want to be in my profession. As I go through it, I wonder if the effort & anxieties it takes to start up worth the outcome. If I were based in a city like New York or Los Angeles, which has my exact industry, perhaps it wouldn’t feel like such a struggle of working ground up and having to prove myself all over again. Perhaps. I think we’ll all have changed and shifted towards a higher yearning– the answers of wants vs. needs with time, begin to show themselves.

  • Great post, and one that I think a lot of expats and travellers can relate to. People always ask me what I’ll do when I return to the UK, and are shocked when I tell them I have no plan to return anytime soon. But the question is always there: what WOULD I do IF I were to go back? Honestly, I have no clue.

    I really like what you wrote about how success is measured in the west, too. When I was working for a finance company, everything was about money and career for me. Now? I just want to do a job that makes me happy, and have experiences that make me happy, and connect with wonderful people. I don’t give a crap about making a lot of money – although who knows if that would change if I were to ever move back to England? Hmm.

    • @Tom: Thanks. Yeah, everyone is different in dealing with their environment, I suppose. It could be that I’m super-sensitive to my environments, but then I think we all are at some point. Something about the power of mass consciousness. It’s hard to flow against a stream. The cost of living is higher, I had to get monthly health insurance which is expensive, the cost of gas to get anywhere is like $4-5/gallon… if it’s not surrounding beliefs, then its the cost of things which push you to raise your need to support the lifestyle. However, we’ve lived in Asia. Had I been an expat in Europe, I might feel differently about costs… Egos, I think I might feel the same as I do now. American egos can be much stronger, depending on the lifestyle or career.

  • twitter_fangwoei
    November 26, 2012 4:09 am

    I’m quitting my job for travel dream next year. I’m not sure whether I can complete my journey and don’t even know where will I be after 2 years. Sometime, the life is miracle. I can’t say I have a wonderful job now, and I didn’t see it a career. I had no idea how I became an accountant, because this is not my major and I don’t really study finance / accounting. Somehow, I’m an accountant in a retail industry and this job gives me a sustainable income. I’m truly understood that once I leave this company, I may not get another accountant job out there. Coz, I don’t have the paper qualification for an accountant job.
    I’m leaving a good paying job, but the world out there is too great to explore.

    I believe I’ll be where I want to be someday. The miracle happened when you believe. Starting over is not easy, I believe you’ll be there. And, your posts inspirit many readers including me.

    All the best to your career and your dream.

    • @Fangwoei Don’t know how I didn’t respond to your comment but I appreciate it. You’re right- sometimes, life is a miracle. Your life seems blessed with a good job, but it’s a miracle to feel a greater calling to something and then to pursue it as well. Follow your belief and you’ll be where you want to be.

  • Anika A. Adekayode
    November 25, 2012 9:34 pm

    This personal post unsettled a lot of dust for me. I let the dust settle after the first 3 months of my Gap year because of many of the reasons indicated in your post. Before coming to South Korea, I was on a career path that I wasn’t excited about. Now I’m living in Korea and creating my own path to the career I have always dreamed of having. Thank-you for reminding me that it is okay to unsettle the dust and check my bearings. I will seriously be considering my current plan and re-working it to make it fit the path which makes me happiest too. Thanks for the nudge~ Anika

    • @Anika: Late blog response due to computer/blogging issues, though I already responded on FB. I’m so glad we got to meetup again and I’m excited about your future. All is in the process of shaping and from what I’m seeing you do with your life in Korea blows me away. You’re gonna be some inspirational speaker some day!

  • I’m so happy for you. This is something you really wanted and I feel that you needed as well. I’ve never experienced my gap year…yet. Although, I feel like my whole life has been a “gap year”. LOL I’m turing 30 and still in school. I can’t support myself one bit and believe that I will be forever a…spinster. The only thing that makes me happy is traveling. So, I totally understand your need to go. I feel a fulfillment from traveling that I don’t get from my “so called” career. I can’t wait for that day when I step off that plane onto the land of a thousand smiles (Thailand). Who knows…maybe we’ll meet up in Southeast Asia and we can cheers to our gap year.

    • @Jen: I look forward to crossing paths with you in Thailand! Also, 30 is young– you have a long way to go before you become a spinster so don’t bury yourself before that egg has hatched! lol. But I’m so there with you about what traveling means to you!

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