Why I Travel

A lot of people ask me why I travel. Most times there is something behind their question. Why do you travel alone? Why do you travel in Asia? Why do you travel so cheap? Why don’t you stay in nicer areas? Why don’t you go on tours?

These are all great questions that, for me, can be answered pretty simply. I travel to learn from other people and to be a better person. I travel to watch. I like to watch the people and how they interact with one another. I like to watch the traffic patterns. I watch how they treat the elderly. I watch how they give gifts. How they show affection, respect, approval, and disappointment. While I am watching all of these things, I incorporate the good I see into my life. I don’t think that I can observe and learn any of those things if I don’t take the common trains, see common things, sleep in common places, buy common things, and eat common food. How can I learn from someone if I am purposely separating myself from them?

As a middle class teenaged American I was confident that there were only two ways to do things; right and wrong. My first international trip was a huge wake-up call. My world view was immediately shattered. The harsh reality was that things are much more complicated than I believed. Aside from a few universal blacks and whites (like murder is a no no), the world is grey.

For example, I was taught all my life that throwing trash anywhere but a trash bin was morally wrong. It creates a dirty atmosphere, harms the environment, and reflects poorly on me as an individual. Imagine my dismay and, I’m ashamed to say, judgement when I went to rural China and saw people throw their trash right onto the street. After I realized that it was a cultural norm in that city, I got up the nerve to ask someone about it. The conversation went a like this:

  • Me: Hey, why do you guys throw your trash on the ground?
  • Them: It’s convenient.
  • Me: Finding a trashcan shouldn’t be that difficult.
  • Them: Have you ever been outside in before 5AM?
  • Me: *shakes head*
  • Them: If you were up and out that early, you would see hundreds of grandmas sweeping the trash off the streets.
  • Me: That’s a terrible job for a grandma!
  • Them: We don’t have nursing homes or social security like you do in the U.S. By throwing my trash on the ground I am making sure that a grandma has an income and can survive. She may not have any children or grandchildren to take care of her. Also, installing trash cans along the road would be an unnecessary expense for our city.

Kaboom, my brain exploded.

I’m sure I didn’t know how to respond. That conversation changed my life. He was telling me that throwing trash in a trash can the wrong thing to do morally. If throwing my trash on the ground was a good thing what did that mean for the rest of my Western education?

Conversations like this make me think more deeply about my impact on the people with whom I interact. Out of the 7.4 billion people on the planet, I get to sit by this one in class or talk to this one at a toll booth. Don’t I have a moral obligation to make sure it is a positive interaction for both of us? I can’t do that if I don’t know or care about where they come from and what they believe.

I’ve also learned that just because my culture tells me something is unacceptable, it is not wrong. It’s okay to diverge from the pack and be unique. My fondest hope for you, as a reader, is that you will find how capable you are. You can do anything. You can go and see and do and fail and experience and learn and love. Do not be afraid to take a leap on something that could change you life. Even if that means taking the risk of learning and changing. I have found that those are the most rewarding risks.

A Special Thanksgiving

Okay, I guess I’ll go ahead and blow my chances of ever having a government job. In 2015, when I was working in a kindergarten I was just a little arrested. Now, don’t be judgey. I actually hadn’t done anything wrong, but one of the rival kindergartens told the local police that I was working in their city without proper documentation (they were wrong), so they had to investigate.

In a nutshell, I sat in the room in the picture above for a few hours while they asked me questions. It actually wasn’t too bad. The officers were kind and they even tried to scrounge up a translator for me, but after a little bit they realized we wouldn’t have any communication issues. They would come in and ask official questions and leave for a little bit. Then they would sneak in and ask me if I like NBA or what my hobbies were just because they were curious. The funny thing is that, because it was Thanksgiving day, I had a tub of jello in my backpack (I made it to give to my students, but oh well) so we broke it out and ate it together. They liked it for the most part, but some of them thought it was too sweet.

IMG_9928These are the nice officers who took me in. You can see that their car is state of the art…

When I explained to them that it was Thanksgiving, an American holiday during which families and friends get together to eat a huge meal and talk about what we’re thankful for, they felt really bad. So they took me to their cafeteria and made a simple dinner for all of us to share. It was no turkey dinner, but I let it slide :).

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After they had confirmed that I was in the country on a legal visa they let me go. Actually, they drove me home. During the next few months that I was in that city I saw some of the officers a couple times and we chatted like BFFs. Over all it was a pretty positive experience.  And, lets get real, it makes for one heck of a story.

Window of the World

To understand why Window of the World is so cool you need to know just a little Chinese History. Due to some political instability in the 1900s China closed its borders to foreigners. There was little import or export and there was zero education about the world outside the Chinese borders. However, in the 1970s Deng XiaoPing realized that direct foreign trade was the only way to bring China out of it’s current sate of poverty. So he opened up just 4 cities to the outside world, one of them being Shenzhen in the Guangdong province. Shenzhen is one China’s major port cities because it is right next door to Hong Kong, It soon became apparent that the locals had no clue how to interact with all the foreigners pouring in, so in the 1980s, Window of the World was created. It was a way to teach the locals about the geography and cultures of the world.

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Window to the World showcases small versions of 160 major historical sites throughout the world. Everything from the pyramids to Stonehenge. The 118 acre park is sectioned off by continents. I spent a little time in Africa and then wandered into Europe and then to the rest of the world within a matter of hours. It was so cool!

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This link will take you to Travel China Guide’s description and suggestions on how to get there.

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If you ever hop down to Shenzhen and Hong Kong for a visa run I would definitely suggest stopping by, it’s totally worth your time.

IMG_2413Grandma, 2012

I want to share a fun memory. I lived on an island of the Yangtze river for 6 months in 2012. The little island is called Yangzhong, which translated literally means middle of the Yangtze river. Anyway, everyday I would pass this underground shopping complex, but for some reason I didn’t go in for a while. Eventually, probably when I realized there were fun things to look at in there, I went in and had the time of my life just looking at all the vendors and booths. The woman in the pictures above was always sitting on the steps outside. She sold these traditional handmade baby shoes for pennies. The first time I saw her I was fascinated by her. I couldn’t really imagine myself sitting outside all day every day as a 70 year old. At that time I didn’t speak any Chinese beyond simple greetings, but it’s easy to make friends anywhere with a smile. This woman and I became best friends. Every evening I would come sit by her and drum up a little business because of my skin color, but mostly we would just chat. She would ask me questions that I never understood and I would tell her about my day and show her pictures of my family. We often brought snacks to enjoy together while we were hanging out. Eventually the day came for me to return to America. I said goodbye to her, but I don’t think she understood. I never thought I would see her again. What were the odds of me ever visiting this tiny island again?

Flash forward to 2015.

A teaching opportunity came available in Yangzhong and I jumped at the chance. I had spent the past 2 years in Taiwan and learning Chinese. My first day back in the city I jumped on a bus and came to see this woman whose name I didn’t know. Guess what, I found her! It was as if no time had passed. She was sitting on the steps selling her shoes as usual. When I approached her I said, “Grandma, do you remember me?”. She looked up, smiled, and said “long time no see. Where did you run off to?” And just like that we were best friends again. I asked what I should call her and she looked at me like I was crazy and said “Grandma, of course.” I told her about my time in Taiwan and adventures from the past couple years and asked about her life. As it turns out she is Miao minority, which means she belongs to the very small population of Hmong living in China. She told me all about her kids and grandkids. It was so nice to actually be able to communicate with her.

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I tell this story for a few reasons. One, it’s just cute. But more importantly, to illustrate the fact that it is possible to truly be friends with the people we meet traveling. We don’t just have to be strangers passing through. These are the little stories and relationships that are hard to describe, but make for the fondest memories.

 

Being a Celebrity

If your self-esteem isn’t doing very well, you need to move to China. It will do wonders for you soul, I promise. For whatever reason, Chinese people love Americans, especially blondes. I personally believe it’s because humans always want what they can’t have; white skin and blonde hair.

Once, in Xuzhou, I was picked up by a taxi that already had a passenger in the front seat (sometime the drivers will double up on passengers if everyone is going in the same direction, two fares for one trip). Anyway, the other passenger asked me if I thought our countries would go to war soon because of the recent political tension. I told him that I had no clue, but thought it wasn’t likely because of how co-dependent our economies are. Then the driver piped up and said something like “we’re all just common people, we don’t care about what the governments do, we just live our lives.” I thought that was very profound. The more I’ve thought about it over the years, the more I agree with him. All of us common people can just get along and ignore what the political climate is.

You’ll quickly get used to people staring at you, taking pictures of you, having you hold their children, asking for your signature, petting you arm hair, and asking if you would like to marry into their family. Caution, it can either go to your head or get annoying quickly.

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I took this picture when I was being impromptu interviewed by the local news station at a strawberry festival in Jiangsu province. They just wanted to get my take on the strawberry festival as a foreigner.

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This picture, and the main picture, were taken when I walked past a middle school in Hunan province. I was instantly swarmed by cute students who asked for pictures and signatures because I was the first American many of them had seen in person.

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I was walking in a food market here and the mother of this baby handed him to me and asked to take a picture, first on her camera and then mine. Isn’t he the cutest?!

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These little schnookums were a few of my primary students back in 2012. Once they warmed up to me this is how I was greeted every time I saw them. Could you imagine anything more wonderful?

Lastly, this was my fan club at a Halloween party a kindergarten was throwing. Nothing could feel better than a hoard of toddlers screaming your name.

Lantern Festival

You’ve seen the movie Tangled right? If you can picture the lantern scene when Fin and Rapunzel are on the lake, you can have a good idea of what the Lantern Festival in China is like. I’ll tell you right now, if you have a potential loved one, taking them to this Festival would be a good time to lock your relationship down. It has some serious romantic potential.

The 2018 Lantern Festival will be on March 2, if you’re in or near China be sure to check it out!

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Water Safety

I mentioned water briefly in an early post, but it’s such an important topic that it deserves its own post. The first and only rule is this, DO NOT DRINK THE WATER. I wouldn’t even trust water filtration systems in most Chinese apartments. 

China just doesn’t have the water sanitation systems or sewage treatment plants we are blessed with here in the States. Oftentimes raw sewage, even from large cities, is pumped right into rivers and lakes. A few miles down stream that now-tainted water is pulled into another town. Even if the water itself were clean, it would travel to you through miles of untreated piping that is who-knows-how-old. 

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One time I got to translate for an American basketball team that was playing in China for a season. As soon as I met them I recommended that they avoid the water, but one of the players thought he could drink just a cup or two and be safe. I don’t want to get too graphic…but he was wrong. 

It is just as easy and cost effective to buy bottled water as necessary. A bottle of water, depending on the brand, will cost between 2-10元 ($.29-$1.50). Your health is well worth an extra few cents a day.