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I was once interviewed by my friend Ric Gazarian at Counting Countries and asked if I always dreamed of visiting every country in the world. "Not at all!", was my answer. All I knew growing up was that I was to born to be my parent's retirement savings account and my family's provider, protector, financial planner, translator, chauffeur, gardener, nanny, marriage counsellor, legal representative, handyman, IT techn, communication hub, psychologist and estate planner.

Read along to see and witness this freedom experiment unfolding, as I following the breadcrumbs Life laid out for me, from crossroad to crossroad, from breadcrumb to breadcrumb. 

Refugee Beginnings

My grandparents were refugees who fled Communist China in 1944, with my infant dad and my mom's eldest sister in their arms. My mom was later born in Taiwan. My dad immigrated to Canada in the early 80s, thanks to his brother and sister having paved the way. My mom joined him as soon as her papers came through. The following year, I was born and raised in Montreal, Canada. So within my family DNA, they didn't travel, they fled and/or emigrated. The two generations before me left their home country, settled in a new one and never looked back. Then, there was me: globetrotter, non-settler, country hopper and digital nomad.

The Very Beginnings

I travelled my first country within Canada when I was 11 years old. My mom put me on a solo flight (yes, solo, all by myself!) from Montreal to Calgary to get to know that side of the family better. I sometimes wonder, "What the heck was she thinking?!?", while knowing very well she wanted me to be independent and self-sufficient, to be-do-have all that she wasn't, didn't do, and didn't have. I remember having an entire row to myself, so I lay down to sleep. When I suddenly woke up, saw that the plane was on the ground and mostly empty, I wondered, "Should I get off? Where'd everybody go?" I didn't panic or feel any fear... which one would think is a cool trait of being fearless, but it really was a consequence of having been traumatized as a child and not being able to register fear. The fear was there, I just never felt it or knew what fear was. Luckily the flight attendant came over and explained that we are stopping in Toronto and are not there yet. Looking back, I boarded an airplane not even knowing I had a stopover or what a stopover was. 

For country no. 1.5, which is Taiwan (not recognized by the UN as a country), we went to visit my mom's side of the family when I was 3. I don't remember much so I went back on my own at 21 for a month-long Formosa cultural tour of the island, with hundreds of overseas youth of Taiwanese descent.

My second country visited was good ol' neighboring USA. We often took family to visit New York every few years. And as a teenager, I travelled to Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, Minneapolis, Massachusetts, and New York with my high school best friend for annual X-Files Scully fan meetups. Ha, I bet you didn't know that about me! I know that's where my love of online communities came from. I found such a sense of belonging and acceptance in this virtual, then turned in-person, fan club, far, far, far greater than any place I'd known in real life. I had one friend in real life and dozens upon dozens of online friends, who made me laugh and who taught me how to navigate my own path.

Graduation Trip

My parents moved to Canada so their kids could be educated to think for themselves, rather than memorize and regurgitate as in many Asian school systems. When I came home everyday with zero homework, straight A's and examples of all the erroneous things the public school teachers were teaching that day, my dad got concerned. So I took out a notebook, made a table, called up all the private schools in the greater Montreal area, and interviewed them for reputation, tuition, bus services, uniform costs, etc. I got into the best French speaking girls private school in the province, where every graduating class made an annual cultural trip to Europe. My family couldn't afford this trip by the time I was graduating. But thanks to straight A's harvested from my blood, sweat and tears (many, many, many tears), I earned a scholarship to fund this trip. So I got to go to Paris, France, country no. 3! I even met up with one of my favorite cousins on the entire planet who was studying there at the time. I remember so vividly how cool it was, to have grown up together in Montreal minutes apart and now to be meeting up halfway around the world. What were the chances?!? My fascination with awe and serendipity was surely planted in that very encounter.

Volunteering Overseas

During university, while I hated what I was studying (engineering), I found a passion and saving grace in community service and fundraising with Engineers Without Borders. I had no idea that 4 years later, I would move to New York City for a dream job with Doctors Without Borders! Seeds are constantly being planted everywhere, there's no way to predict the exact time/place of their flowering... All I could do at the time was to work my ass, mind, heart and soul off to earn multiple scholarships to pay for university. As a scholarship kid (ie no scholarship = no university education), I also knew the importance of a well-rounded education beyond academics. So I signed up for a Habitat for Humanity build in Fiji, country no. 4.

Studying Abroad

During university, I also found and won a scholarship to study abroad. It was the only way I could afford it, since I was working double-overtime juggling a perfect GPA to retain my various scholarships, with financially support myself, my parents and younger siblings. I spent a delightful, care-free semester in Singapore, country no. 5, where every course was simply pass or fail. It was the FIRST time in my entire life I let myself go and got a B! Lol! It was the first time, in my two decades of life, my inner overachiever got a break. It was the first time in my life I had permission to have a little fun, beyond the identity of being my parents' "retirement savings fund."

Unlike North America who have Spring break, The National University of Singapore had Autumn break. Some classmates suggested Thailand or Bali for a vacation. So I found a $99 round-trip ticket to Bangkok, where I met up with Sam (a Singaporean classmate) and his Thai friend, Kate, who showed us the bestest of best times! It was a jaw-droppingly low airfare to me because in Canada, you can't go anywhere under $500. Thailand was country no. 6 and my love for SE Asia was firmly planted!

Also while in Singapore, I applied for a volunteer trip to teach IT to a vocational school in Hanoi, Vietnam, country no. 7. The funding for these trips was reserved for Singaporean students only, but I managed to wow the group leader at the interview and he welcomed me onboard as long as I paid for my own flight, which was peanuts in SE Asia. I more than made up for the rest of my share of funding with my contribution to fundraising. At this point, even 10 countries wasn't in the realm of my consciousness or imagination.

Playing with Family

After graduating university, I wanted to do something special to commemorate having survived the grind of studying something that I did not enjoy but happened to be naturally talented at, and that would lead to a secure job and a salary. So I joined my cousins on a trip to France, Belgium, and Luxembourg to visit their mom. We drove all around Europe, had so much fun, and ate way too much. It showed me how teeny tiny the world is when we can drive through a toll booth and be in a new country! Those were countries no. 8 and 9. Still in the single digits!!

First Around-the-World Trip

I had one last paid internship to finish before my high school best friend and I jet-set off on our first around-the-world trip to 10 new countries. My first trip to Thailand ignited a spark in both of us. We planned for a year, she did research, I did logistics, we made a fabulous team! God, I loved optimizing the Star Alliance RTW Mileage CalculatorWe started in London, then went all over Egypt, overlanded through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia with Nomad, then backpacked up through Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. I went up on my own to Hong Kong, where I met up with my dad, who was on a business trip in China. That upped the travel counter from 10 to 18 (even though I wasn't yet counting back then).

Following my Heart

When I got back from that RTW trip (ran out of funds, no daddy's credit card, and had to resume financial care for my family), I got an engineering job. My soul died every... single... day at that desk, while being treated like a secretary. So I resigned... one day before my probation ended, ie one day before the golden cuffs (you know, the 9-to-5 salary prison) went on. I spent the following 6 months moving my family from Montreal to Vancouver, to retire my parents in comfort and closer to Asia, all the while wondering how in the world would I continue to afford this lifestyle for them when Vancouver real estate was double, nay triple that of Montreal. I put a $20,000 down payment on their townhouse, it had never, ever, ever, ever occurred to me to spend that money on myself or on travel!!! When I settled everyone in, enrolled my siblings into their respective schools, transferred everyone's medical / legal / financial records, etc. etc. etc. and took care of every imaginable and unimaginable logistical item, I did some soul-searching and lots of crying... Then, I moved to Rwanda. I got a work-term co-funded by Industry Canada and VSO and I had to go. Looking back, I feel sorrowful I had to BUY my freedom this way... that I had to invest a massive volume of filial piety in exchange for the freedom to follow my own heart. But so it was. Rwanda was country no. 19. I never could have predicted that the French I hated and was obliged by law to study in, the 8 years of engineering studies I suffered through and never went back to, and my ability to seek out community volunteer work with Engineers Without Borders would culminate in such an opportunity to live and work in Rwanda. Do you see... how nothing is ever lost? Nothing was ever done for nothing. No sacrifice was too great. And every step, even the unpleasant ones, was a stepping stone towards something greater that I couldn't yet see.

Continue to The Freedom Experiment • Part 2/3 and The Freedom Experiment • Part 3/3

With infinite grace, freedom on!

xo, Ella

Ellany LeaAUTHOR • Hi, I'm Ella, founder of Guide to Grace. I invite you to join me for an exquisite freedom at the intersection of: entrepreneurship, enlightenment, and enchantment.