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.

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. 

18 Truths Learned from Kung Fu Panda

  1. Shifu means master
  2. Wugui means turtle
  3. Filial piety is a huge part of Confucianism
  4. Parents make decisions for the kids, sometimes even their careers and spouses
  5. In the North noodles are eaten for almost every meal
  6. Pandas are adorable
  7. Noodle/food carts are everywhere and you should eat at them
  8. Weird names like “special ingredient soup” are normal
  9. In mom and pop shops bowls line the walls
  10. There are a million kinds of dumplings and all of them are amazing
  11. Not all Chinese people use chopsticks, but the ones who do have incredible skills
  12. Like the Five, some children are sent to boarding schools and training centers to learn a skill or trade
  13. Pandas can eat and eat and eat forever
  14. The temple where Master Wugui lives is authentic
  15. The architecture of the village is also correct
  16. Bluntness is part of the culture
  17. Climbing a billion stairs to get anywhere is a real part of life
  18. The cool mountains where the Five fight Tai Lung are similar to Zhangjiajie

Scams to Avoid

You’ve probably heard horror stories about people being scammed in China. I’m sure most of them are true. To get started, click here to see the comprehensive list Clever Travel Companion put together of the 40 most common scams around the world. China Mike also put together an awesome list specifically for China.

I’ll just highlight a few that are particularly popular in China.

  1. Black taxis: they’re not literally black cars, just unregistered. They usually will take you to your destination, but they’ll charge you 10x what you would have paid a regular taxi. Taxis in China have to be registered and in each train station there is a specific area they are allowed to pick up passengers. The best way to avoid black taxis is to find the taxi line and stay in it until it’s your turn. While you’re waiting in line a lot of people will come up to you and ask you to to take their taxi. If you go with them they’ll take you to a regular parking lot and put you in their personal car, this situation is best to be avoided for obvious reasons.
  2. Art Scams: an “art student” might approach you on the street and invite you to an art showing. If you go with them you’ll be pressured to pay an entrance fee or purchase a very expensive knock off print.
  3. Tea or Lunch Invitations: Young people might approach you on the street and ask you to go to lunch or tea with them, their treat. They’ll take you to a super expensive place and duck out just before the bill comes.
  4. Knock Offs: There are a billion places to buy cheap merchandise, which is fine to buy, but make sure that you don’t pay American prices for whatever it is.

All of these things being said, Chinese people are so kind and you really can make friends  with people on the streets. Just keep your wits about you when you’re meeting new people. If they pressure you to go somewhere with them it might be best to politely decline.

A story illustrating a scam:IMG_5927 My sisters and I were visiting the Bund in Shanghai. Two college students approached us and made small talk in English for a few minutes. Eventually they asked us to go have dinner with them. We declined, but they pressed pretty hard and I began to get suspicious. Other people would have been a little embarrassed and moved on to another topic of conversation. Luckily, I understand Chinese so I understood when they said “they aren’t coming, next ones.”

A story illustrating kind-hearted people: 10891511_10153189878770733_8772654989348924322_n

Once I went to Chengdu for a weekend trip. I took a long distance bus that took me to the Leshan Buddha. It was about a 2 hour ride, but I chose the bus over the train because the bus would take me straight to the Leshan Mountain. Anyway, I wandered around the beautiful mountain for hours and had a great time. During my wanderings I ran into the same group of people 3 times. After the third time meeting they insisted on taking me to lunch with them. After lunch they asked what my plans were and it turned out we were all going back to Chengdu. They insisted on traveling together and I didn’t see any harm. But they had train tickets and I had planned on taking the bus so I didn’t have my passport with me. They told me they would take care of me like I was part of their family. I told them I felt a little bad that they were going to so much trouble for me, but they said if their relative were traveling in America I would show the shame kindness so I shouldn’t worry. With some expert bargaining they got me onto a train and eventually dropped me off safely at my hostel.

The moral of the story is that, while it is important to be aware of your surroundings and trust your instincts, it is entirely common to meet kind and generous people. Don’t be so suspicious that you miss out on meeting new friends.

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.