Though it wasn’t what I needed in December or January, when it too closely mirrored the issues of wandering that I myself was questioning — isolation, inconsistency, impermanence. Yet, when I was coming to accept my own next steps, reading about Rich’s multi-layered experience was a reassuring reminder that many of us who wander also experience these alternating gray areas between tranquility and doubt. Six Years has a very natural and human perspective on the incomparable experience of trying to set up temporary homes in places you know you will soon leave.
Megan Rich moved to China after graduating from university in essence to be with a man (and a man that any at least semi-intellectual traveller will also be fond of when reading this memoir). Together they lived in Germany, Sweden, and Japan. Six Years of A Floating Life: A Memoir is a metaphorical photo album of that experience — part journal, part cultural observation. It never gets too analytical or too self-indulgent. Even when Rich discusses the sometimes depressing aspects of roaming (like depression and isolation), she is observant, realistic, and just meta enough to keep the reader from being melancholy in the process.
Witnessing a Loved One Find Joy
Her experience differs drastically from mine because she experienced her journey with a lover, a companion, a husband, a partner. And experience abroad, that of extreme change and constant newness, is entirely different when done with someone else. That doesn’t mean one is better (though I have personally been jealous of the other), but it does entail completely different challenges in addition to the unique joys. Seeing your loved one engage with the new and charming (and falling in love with them over again in a new culture) not only has the power to increase your love of the person but of the culture that brought out such excitement in the first place. Anyone who has ever witnessed a lover find joy in something new will relate to Rich’s candid observations of her husband’s habits abroad.
Contentment, Elation, Doubt
Most of the time, the piece is presented in first-person, though sometimes it’s in third, observing a seemingly random and otherwise hidden member of the new culture. For the most part, this works clearly as a way to show snippets of a culture that may not have directly affected the author but that help to enrich the overall landscape. On occasion I felt it was a little abrupt, but these instances were minor, and they helped to break up the pace between personal narratives.
I really appreciate that Rich so easily finds the positives of each experience without the need to whitewash them. Simultaneously, she is honest about any negative impression without needing to insult the country where she felt that way. This is a difficult space to maneuver, and she does it well, allowing the reader to focus on the experience, rather than the particular country. For, though I have never lived in Japan, Germany, or Sweden, I can absolutely relate to the personal response and emotional journey that alternates between clarity, appreciation of minutia, elation, boredom, contentment, isolation, and doubt.
The author is realistic about living abroad often becoming less about exploration and more about simply living. In this process it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint exactly how we are being changed, but in reading Megan’s words (as I’m sure others can observe about me), it becomes clear that it is particularly in this “simply living” that we do change. “We [yield] so quickly to normalcy,” Rich laments. But it is the fact that the unusual can become normal that is so powerful about living within a foreign culture. Human adaptability is invaluable and comforting.
You Haven’t Been Ignorant or Naive
Megan Rich also perfectly characterizes the unique pull and responsibility that her generation (and mine) feels particularly about the world, and as Americans. It’s a very similar motivation to that which propelled me into the Peace Corps (besides a break-up and graduating early). There’s this sometimes overwhelming desire to know that you haven’t been ignorant or naive and that you have taken advantage of all the gifts that come with being a free, young, travel-minded American with a passport and an open-ended future. Even those who know they someday want to return to their hometowns can feel the influence of “the privilege of being an American at this time.”
With that responsibility also comes an awareness that the journey will not be filled solely with cherry blossoms and new foods, though those are undoubtedly some of the pleasures of the experience, but with a realistic impression of being the outsider, the foreigner, the small fish in this big ocean of ours. And through this discovery, we find that the purpose of connection and discovery is not actually about the culture you may not fully get to know; it’s about the people.
For anyone who has tried to live somewhere they knew they wouldn’t stay, Six Years of A Floating Life will be a welcome reminder of that experience. Likewise, for anyone who has wondered why we Wanderers continue to set up temporary homes, Megan Rich’s memoir will help to illuminate the multifaceted aspects that keep us packing up and moving on just one more time.