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.

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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.

Touchy Subjects

(This post is going to be heavy, but don’t let it scare you. As you can see above, even Chinese officials are stoked to hang out with visitors.)

In the spirit of full disclosure, the descriptions of the events and situations below are super watered down versions. Politics, economics, history, and culture play roles in current events that I still can’t understand completely.

Falun Gong – 

This is by far the most serious subject to avoid. Falun Gong was started in the 90s as a yoga/meditation business, but quickly grew into a spiritual organization. Falun Gong had the support of the government when they were just teaching physical health and happiness. However, when a spiritual aspect was added and the group gained popularity, the government withdrew it’s approval. Despite the withdrawal of government sanction, the group’s membership grew into tens of thousands. Technically Communism is the only religion approved for practice in China, so this new “cult” posed a huge threat by teaching emotional freedom and other illogical ideology. It was at this point Chinese officials began persecuting the group members in order to irradiate their ways of thinking. It’s not spoken of, but there are labor and re-indoctrination camps dedicated to the detention and reform of Falun Gong members. I’m not going to get into what goes on in these camps. Talking and asking questions about any religion, especially Falun Gong, should be strictly avoided. Don’t even google it or email about it while you’re on Chinese soil.

Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet – 

The situation for all three of these territories is vaguely similar. During the Qing Dynasty China owned a huge chunk of Asia. As seen in the maps below.  Through war and political dissension, they lost some ground, that they are still trying to reclaim. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and many islands in the South China sea were once part of China. They’re still Chinese territory as far as the current government is concerned.

Qing Dynasty Map –Qing_Empire_circa_1820_EN.svg

Current Map of China – chinamap

Hong Kong was the property of Britain for about 150 years. During that time Hong Kong was transformed from a fishing island to one of the biggest international hubs in Asia. English and Cantonese were taught in school while Mandarin became the official language of Mainland China. Democracy was taught and implemented. So Hong Kong has it’s own legal system, which allows freedom of speech and assembly. In 1997, Hong Kong was turned back over to Mainland Chinese control. As you might imagine, there has been a significant amount of conflict since that time. In the past few years there have been peace protests and riots conducted mostly by college students. Per the turnover agreement, China can’t do much to stop the riots, but that still doesn’t mean they have to listen to the will of the people. It’s a good topic to avoid.

Internet Censoring – 

I’m sure that most Chinese nationals are aware that their internet, and all media really, is censored, but you shouldn’t bring it up. This is another good reason to stay off your VPN in public.

12 Zodiacs

In China, you’ll often be asked what your “sign” is. They’re not talkin’ Leo or Capricorn, but rather the Chinese Zodiacs. They like to know your sign because it is a polite way to ask your age and they will know a little bit more about your personality.

Here’s how it works: each year is assigned a Zodiac and each Zodiac features  specific personality traits. The picture below will tell you what your year’s sign is and what that sign’s prominent traits are. For example, if I were born in 1996 I would be a Rat.

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This is a fun video explaining the origins of the 12 Signs.

Whether or not you believe in the Zodiacs it’s still fun, right?

The Elderly

Do you remember that scene in Mulan when the grandma grabs the lucky cricket and crosses the street without looking? She comes out without a scratch, but all the drivers on the street end up in a multi-cart pile up. You should just watch it:

I think this depiction of how the Chinese treat their elderly is pretty true even though it’s exaggerated for children’s entertainment. Grandparents are at the top of the all the food chains, including the traffic hierarchy.

All women over 70 can be called 奶奶 nǎinai (grandmother) and all men can be called 爷爷 yéyé (grandfather). I’ll do another post on family names later, but we can get by with just yéyé and nǎinai  for now. Because the status of grandparent is so respected you don’t need to be afraid of using the above terms as long as they are are obviously well into their grand-parenting years.

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Grandparents are invaluable in families worldwide, but in China they are especially involved in the lives of their families. The current culture is for parents to work full-time jobs and delegate many of the “parenting” duties to their parents.

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I think you’ll be surprised at how active elderly Chinese are. They’re outside from the break of dawn to midnight. They love to knit, play mahjong and chess with others in their social circle. They get together as groups to dance or practice tai chi. Many people, like the man in the first picture, like to write poetry on the sidewalks. Staying active and social keeps them young.

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Now, for my personal theory on why Chinese adults are so respected. Think about what these people have been through. If they’re over 38 they might have been abandoned as an infant because of the One Child Policy. Or, if they’re older they may have been forced to give away a child. If they’re over 39 they’ve been through an economic revolution that dislocated millions of people. If they’re over 59 they survived the Great Leap Forward which killed 45 million people. If they’re over 68 they were witness to a political coup that changed the course of the world. If they’re over 80 they might have known one of the 300 thousand people who were killed in the Nanjing Massacre. You see the point, just surviving for these people is impressive. Being a functional part of society is nothing short of a miracle.

I hope you’ll keep these things in mind when you’ve been jostled by an old man on a crowded subway or bumped out of line by an old woman while standing in a train ticket line.

Chinese Law

The first rule for staying on the right side of the law in China is to use your common sense and just be a good person. That being said, here are a few things to be careful about:

  1. Register with the local police if you’re staying for more than a week. If you’re staying for less time than that the hotel or hostel you’re staying at will register it for you.
  2. Don’t let your visa expire. The length of your stay will vary depending on the visa you’re issued. The visitor (L) visa allows unlimited stays up to 60 days at a time. A student (F) visa will allow you to stay up to 180 days. If you’re not wanting to be banned from China, it’s imperative that you not overstay your welcome.
  3. Don’t take pictures of government buildings or personnel. That’s pretty straight forward.
  4. China is zero tolerance when it comes to illegal drug use. Getting caught with marijuana will land you a significant amount of jail time.
  5. Any material speaking negatively of the Chinese government will be confiscated.
  6. Don’t talk about politics or religion. It’s easy for Westerners to be critical of the Chinese government, which is illegal. Active and passive proselyting for any Western religions is completely illegal. You are free to practice your religion as long as it is in private with no Chinese nationals in the vicinity.

These laws are all basic and not limited to China alone. Like I said in the beginning, just be a conscientious person and you’ll be just fine.