Meet The Dropouts – Food Writer Robyn Eckhardt
Meet freelance food and travel writer Robyn Eckhardt.
Robyn and her photographer husband Dave Hagerman live in Penang, Malaysia, with their three dogs and two cats and a maid (who takes care of the animals while their owners flit about the place eating and writing and taking photographs).
The couple dropped out of the rat race quite late in the piece. When Dave quit the corporate life three years ago he was 50 and Robyn was 46.
For Robyn Eckhardt there was no “that’s it I’ve had it” moment, instead there was a slow realisation, shared with her husband, that they could build a more fulfilling life than the one they were living.
Doing the expected had gotten Robyn two Masters degrees and nine years into a Ph.D into grassroots political protests in rural China, which included two years of research in Hong Kong and China. Her husband’s career had gotten him plum expat jobs in a multinational trading company, with postings in China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Despite outward appearances, there was something missing in their wonderfully adventurous globetrotting life. Returning to the U.S. between stints abroad didn’t fill the gap either.
Robyn and Dave’s life in Malaysia now is a far cry from their old expat/Ph.D student life. Robyn’s only regret is that they didn’t make the leap sooner.
Dave, a keen photographer since his teens, had wanted to get serious about his hobby. Robyn had developed a very unconventional urge to be a food writer, a job virtually unheard of when she started her Ph.D program in 1993.
“I thought about culinary school but decided I couldn’t hack the hours as a chef,” Robyn said.
In the late 90s, Robyn and Dave had discovered Saveur, a high-end foodie magazine, and thought “wouldn’t it be great to do this sort of thing together”.
They weren’t 100% sure they could pull off their grand plan, so just after they moved to Malaysia they started a blog, Eating Asia, to hone their crafts. “I finally admitted I would never finish the dissertation and threw myself into food and travel writing at that point,” Robyn said. That was in 2005 and the following year Robyn and Dave snagged their first “real” assignment.
Dave, however, kept his day job. “We’d do assignments on Dave’s vacation time and on weekends, which was really hard,” Robyn said, when we met for coffee in a groovy retro cafe in Penang. “It got to the point that it was really tiring for him.”
By the middle of 2008, the couple figured they could make it as freelancers. Dave quit his job during a two-day trip back to San Francisco and his last day as a corporate guy was December 31, 2008.
They gave up all claims to expat packages, their corporate house and their Volvo.
“It didn’t feel like a sacrifice,” Robyn said. “For some people leaving a cushy expat package — a corporate executive lifestyle — would be difficult but for us it wasn’t because those things weren’t important to us.”
“By the time Dave left his job it was apparent to both of us that the big house and the nice car and the money really aren’t worth much in the end if you’re miserable most of the time.”
With no desire to return to the U.S., Robyn and Dave figured they’d “invest” a year or two in their freelancing plan. If things didn’t work out, Dave would try consulting and Robyn would find some kind of job. “We both have skills,” she said.
But it never came to that. Robyn’s writing credits are incredibly impressive — the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal Asia, Lonely Planet, Travel + Leisure, South China Morning Post and the coveted Saveur magazine. “It was kind of a major thing for me, to have a feature in that magazine,” she said. “It was sort of an affirmation that yeah, I am a food writer. And I have enough talent, or capability, as a writer to at least try to make a living at this.”
And so here they are, in Georgetown, an exotic peeling and crumbling reminder of Malaysia’s colonial past. Robyn and Dave, writer and photographer, husband and wife. I am in awe of the “by Robyn Eckhardt, photos by Dave Hagerman” bylines I see in the scanned articles on Robyn’s website.
They write from Turkey, from Thailand, from Taiwan, from the Philippines. They earn enough to continue living in Asia and to support themselves and their pets. They both seem relaxed and happy. Not dropping-Es-full-moon-party happy, but content and fulfilled. Dave’s photos are stunning, Robyn’s articles insightful, interesting, well-researched and utterly utterly mouth-watering.
Robyn is modest, claiming not to to be as successful as she may appear. And she said the life she and Dave now enjoy is not for everyone.
“Some people really thrive in an office environment,” she said.
Their new life is not totally carefree, she warned. There’s deadlines but no knock-off time. No weekends if one procrastinates. Freelance work can consume your life if you’re not a strict time manager. Contrary to what some bloggers and lifestyle designers preach, she said, everything doesn’t just fall into place if you quit your job for an alternative lifestyle, especially if you have a partner or a family.
“Make sure everyone is on board with it,” she said. “You need to talk to yourself honestly about what you can and can’t live with. If your Volvo is important to you — and that doesn’t make you a bad person — then you need to be honest about that.”
Most of all, aspiring dropouts need to have a plan, Robyn said. “The plan has to include what you do if it doesn’t happen,” she said.
“You have to get to a point where you have no regrets, personally. You have to have self confidence if you’re going to make a big change,” she said.
And when I get around to asking about success, Robyn said: “I define success as being able to support yourself living a life that makes you happy.”
From my point of view, a life of writing and taking photos — a life full of dog-love, cat-love traveling and eating — sounds like a life worth aspiring to. What do you think?
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(You can read more about Dave’s photography tours of Penang here.)
8 years ago