Dreamer: Megan Krempels, A Creative Director’s Global Sabbatical

Connect with Megan and read more about her adventures on her blog.Megan Krempels, Ember DreamerIt’s a long way from South Korea to small-town colonial Pennsylvania, a trip Megan Krempels made at the tender age of two, when she was adopted from her native Korea by an American couple. Last month, after 28 years, she took the scenic route back. Megan put her successful career as a creative director on hold and sold most of what she owned for a four-month, around-the-world exploration of new cultures, her own identity, and the tensions between successful American life and the deeper values she has cultivated in herself.

Megan grew up in a small town near Pennsylvania Amish country—”the only Asian in a sea of white people,” she told me by email. Then for college she moved to Los Angeles, where she felt like a “small-town girl in a sea of city kids” and an “Asian who looks Asian but doesn’t act Asian.”

“You just feel out of place, everywhere,” Megan said.

She stayed in Los Angeles after school and built a career in design, eventually helping launch Little Black Bag, a fashion e-commerce site, as the company’s Creative Director. From there she got offers from a number of top companies and had startup ideas of her own. But something didn’t feel right this time.

“Here I was at the top of my career, being requested at incredible jobs most people would kill for and I felt completely jaded and empty,” Megan recalled. “Why do I keep hustling for this? To buy more? To move to a better place? I started getting healthy as a human but as a corporate cog I felt burnt out.”

She decided to leave Los Angeles, and started kindling an old dream of traveling the world, a dream she had postponed due to financial worries. “Fear of not having money kept me in the spin cycle,” she said. But now she thought about it differentlyShe had some savings, a retirement account she could cash out, a tax refund on its way, and plenty of stuff she could sell. She decided to go for it.

Megan Krempels, Ember DreamerShe listed most of her stuff for sale on Craigslist and in a few days was driving across the country with her dog, going back home to spend time with family and old friends, and to plan her adventure.

First she booked a flight to Peru, a country she’d itched to return to ever since a trip there in high school. When she learned she needed proof of a return flight to be allowed in the country, Megan happened upon a strange itinerary: Rio De Janeiro to London to Seoul, back to London and finally back to Philadelphia. And it was cheaper than direct flights home from Rio. She booked it, realizing as she did that it would be her first time to Korea since her adoption in 1984. This trip would truly take her full circle.

Megan’s goal in traveling, as close as I can get it, is simple enough to write. We all know the stuffiness that creeps into our lives, the accumulation of questionable habits, unquestioned assumptions, postponed and missed opportunities. These things hang around because they fit into our current lifestyle and relationships. Even seeing them clearly is tough. Changing them is near-miraculous.

Traveling internationally, not touristing but really traveling and experiencing cultures that are different from our own, is a wide open door that we walk through, out of our own stuffiness. From such a distance—the actual geographical distance giving rise to an emotional one—we can see our little worlds as the strange and arbitrary places they are and we can choose to live differently.

Part of the stuffiness Megan was trying to air out in her travels is the uniquely Western—and perhaps even more uniquely American—elevation of economic achievement as the primary value of a person. “Accomplishments, accolades, job titles, earning money and stuff: my personal self-worth was, um, 100% this for the majority of life,” she wrote on her website. And by unraveling this flag of identity and exploring other value systems, she seeks to get closer to her own core values, and ultimate value, as a human being. “The fullest versions of myself. Who is that?” Megan asks. “I honestly dunno. I’m learning it little by little but honoring each second.”

Finally, after four months in South America and a quick stop in London, she touched down in Seoul, South Korea and walked out into the country of her birth for the first time. “Physically, at first glance, yes I fit in,” she told me. “The clothes magically fit, the shoes slide on my short, wide feet perfectly, and they know how to cut my hair.” But when she asked locals if they could spot her as a foreigner, “there was a resounding response of, Yes, duh, absolutely.”

Megan Krempels, Ember DreamerMegan’s American upbringing and fast-lane career success set her apart from the average young Korean woman. “The country still values traditional gender roles in their most stereotypical sense,” she said. “Girls have found this interesting space of emulating the little girly-girl where they primp in public in front of huge floral-motif mirrors and take selfies in coffee shops. Meanwhile they run the show at home with their husbands and sons.” Megan was not as fashion-conscious as her Korean counterparts, and not as conservative, and acted a little more confident.

At first she was turned off by the formality of Korean culture. “Korea is a land of discipline and conformity,” she wrote, recalling a trip to a Korean salsa club. “You could only dance with a partner or you were forced into a corner to practice the steps in a group in front of a mirror. You weren’t allowed to just dance freely.” But soon she started noticing positive things: people’s considerateness of others in public spaces, thoughtful design incorporated into everyday life. And when she got out of Seoul a whole new appreciation blossomed. “Once I got out of the hustle of the city, people invited me into their lives and homes like family. I’ve never felt that way before. That feeling of being fully accepted and part of a culture immediately without trying.”

Now back home in Pennsylvania and planning her next venture, Megan says the trip helped her to appreciate her unique identity as a small-town-Korean-American-woman-startup-leader. “It’s become kinda fun to surprise people and remind them not to judge a book by its cover,” she told me, “to show them that someone young can have wisdom, a playful person can have depth, an artist can have a science brain, and being Asian isn’t easily defined.”

Through her travels Megan realized that she’s not alone in her mixed identity. “I’m not part of one single entity. But I don’t actually think any of us are now, so I feel a little less alone in that.” Our increasingly connected world gives us the opportunity to identify ourselves not only by our origin, but also by our destination, and perhaps most importantly by the journey we take to get there.

Connect with Megan and read more about her adventures on her blog.Megan Krempels, Ember Dreamer