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Q&A: Remote Year participant Emily Mitnick on her month in Kuala Lumpur (and Bali)

Stylus’ New York-based strategic account director talks us through month five of her year-long working adventure around the world, which continued in Malaysia’s “hodgepodge” capital.

What’s it like to change your office and your country – sometimes even your continent – every month? Well, our very own Emily Mitnick knows. In December she completed month five of Remote Year in Kuala Lumpur, a city that came as a bit of a shock after the peace and quiet of Kyoto (so it was just as well she managed to escape to Bali for Christmas).

With the halfway point of her working journey around the world fast approaching, we caught up with Emily from the tropical climes of Chiang Mai, Thailand.

So Emily, I imagine December was a pretty busy month? How was it touching down in Kuala Lumpur?

“Moving cities each month forces you to become extremely agile. One minute I’m packing up my sweaters and jackets in chilly, peaceful Kyoto and three hours later I’m settling into a new apartment, hanging up summer clothes in my new closet, overlooking a completely new skyline and hearing the swarm of a jam-packed city below me, realising yet again that there are 30 new days ahead of me.

“It was evident from the get-go that Kuala Lumpur and Kyoto are wildly different. The Japanese culture is consistently impeccable and thoughtful – everything from how they delicately hold their tea cups with two hands to how they considerately form single lines for the train. Even business cards are given with care – you accept a new client’s contact information with two hands, bow in respect and hold the card the same way until you part. Crazy, right?

“Fast forward to Kuala Lumpur, where I found the Malay culture to be slightly disjointed – though ultimately unique in its own way. It was incredible to identify and feel the cultural differences as soon as I landed.”

Has the novelty of changing location every month started to wear off?

“You would think so, but the truth is that I still pinch myself every morning. We joke on the trip that sometimes you wake up in a new apartment a few weeks in, unsure of where you are, but happily enjoying the unknown.

“Almost six months into the Remote Year programme and I’m consistently in awe. When I’m really exhausted working at 2am, or missing home during the holidays, I just take a deep breath and remind myself that Remote Year is a journey I’ll never forget.”

We’ll get back to KL, but am I right in thinking you spent Christmas in Bali? Which meant that you took some actual time off?

“Yes, that’s correct! About 20 of us rented a villa for the holidays in Canggu, a small beach town on Bali’s southern coast. It was the first time in my 31 years that I spent the holidays away from the chattering fireplace of my family in New Jersey. And while, yes, waking up to a gorgeous pool overlooking rice paddies in Indonesia with my new closest friends was a moment I’ll treasure, being away from home was tough.

“Even so, I felt lucky to have these amazing travel buddies who inspire me in both their lives and careers. Tammy, our resident Remote Year ‘mom’, handmade all of us personalised Christmas stockings. We played Christmas music and exchanged presents. We were thousands of miles from home, but it felt like Christmas. There’s a quote that goes: ‘Travelling in the company of those we love is home in motion.’ It’s true – you can build that same level of comfort and joy, no matter where you are, if you just have the right people.”

The rest and vacation time was long overdue, right?

“It’s been five months since I’ve had some ‘Emily time’. And trust me, it was needed. As a digital nomad, you’re always connected. Our Remote Year lives often look like an endless vacation from our photos, but in reality we’re meeting deadlines from coffee shops scattered about city streets, or on a boat in the middle of the Adriatic Sea, or anywhere we can find strong wi-fi.

“That’s why it was refreshing to put up my out of office and have some time to reflect and reset. I spent my vacation going on long hikes, sleeping in majestic treehouses, snorkelling with manta rays and doing crossword puzzles on the rainy days. It was the recharge I really needed to jump into 2018, ready to tackle everything it’ll bring.”

So, back to reality. Kuala Lumpur: how was it?

“In the spirit of transparency, I have mixed feelings about Kuala Lumpur and I’m still trying to pinpoint what made the Malay culture unique. Unlike Kyoto, Kuala Lumpur doesn’t have generations of traditions that define its culture today. Instead, it’s quite the mix.

“Kuala Lumpur is a bustling, commercial city made up of malls. It was a hodgepodge of people from India, China and Malaysia. You’ll recognise luxuries from Western culture, but juxtaposed against street food and night markets, hearing countless languages in every direction. With its humid climate, you also see palm trees and feel the stickiness of a rainforest. It’s quite an odd sensation when you’re walking to the workspace to log hours.

“Had I spent a bit more time in Kuala Lumpur and not left on holiday to Indonesia, I’m sure I would feel much different. But to be frank, in the two weeks I lived there, it just wasn’t for me.”

Will you feed this back to Remote Year?

“Absolutely. Remote Year is a growing organisation and is similar to Stylus in that it adjusts its business model based on client feedback. Our group – Yugen – is only the 14th since the company’s inception in 2014. So it’s important, as early participants, to be completely honest.”

Did you have a KL highlight?

“Our local Remote Year city team, Wan and Rez, were incredible – Rez even invited 10 of us to his wedding! You read that right: complete strangers he met a few days prior were extended the opportunity to witness the happiest day of his life. He wanted us to experience a traditional Muslim wedding in Kuala Lumpur – and it was one of my highlights, not just of Kuala Lumpur but of my entire Remote Year experience. It was a cultural immersion that left its mark on me.

“The food in Kuala Lumpur was also extremely special, largely because it unites Malaysia’s different cultures and religions. No matter what time of day, Malaysians always greet each other with ‘dah makan?’ (‘have you eaten?’). I just loved that.”

What was your workspace like? 

“Our office space was located in a commercial mall that overlooked the city centre. Because of its location (and the bright lights in the space), I found myself going to local coffee shops. Feeka café had a great vibe, and I could order cold-brew coffee – a rarity while travelling.

“At Stylus, we constantly highlight the importance of office space design and its impact on productivity. Details like light, quiet, and private work stations mixed with collaborative ones. I’m learning more each month about how my environment helps me deliver my best work.” 

Is there much collaboration between participants when you’re all plugged in?

“Sometimes, for sure. Recently one of my friends was sitting next to me and looked over at one of the Stylus reports I was reading. That sparked a conversation, and we started talking about our jobs more. But most of the time, when we’re plugged in, we’re plugged in. Even if we’re sitting by a pool when we’re working, we’re still being productive.

“But when the headphones are out, we do collaborate a lot outside the office by going to business meetups together – so that’s when we really talk about what we’re doing work wise.”

What are your goals going into the second half of Remote Year? 

“I really do want to get more face-to-face meetings in each city. I’ve found that in the countries I’ve been in, it takes a lot of time to gain trust. So, in the second half of Remote Year I’m really going to introduce myself – and explain what my role is – to each of the city teams before I arrive.

“I’m lucky to be heading to South America for six months. I speak Spanish on a business level, and I’m hoping this will give me a head start! It’s a goal for myself – from a professional standpoint – to get in front of more businesses. This will hopefully open more doors and inspire me to be more involved in the culture and corporate customs of the cities I’m in.”

You’ll be travelling to Buenos Aires at the end of the month. That’s a pretty long flight from Thailand…

“It’s going to be brutal! But we try to make our travel dates go by more quickly by wearing a costume each time. Sounds ridiculous, but it has a positive, morale-boosting impact. When your birthday rolls around, the person whose birthday comes before yours chooses what you wear for the rest of the travel days of the year.

“One woman in our group has the surname Tigar, so she has to wear a tiger onesie every time we fly. Another person is forced to be King Arthur; others where tutus, hats, princess crowns – you name it. I got lucky because my birthday was first, so the tradition hadn’t started yet, but I’m sure once Yugen gets a hold of this, I’ll be the new owner of something wonderfully weird, much like the experience of living in Asia for the past three months.”

Emily is currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand, from where she’ll​ travel to Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Lima, Medellin, Bogota and, finally, Mexico City.