I have been traveling to China a few times a year for my job and it has changed my world view in some unexpected ways.
I think previously I could have been defined as what you would call a snobbish traveler from my years traveling in North America, Europe and Southern Africa.
I thought that I knew it all about Chinese business and culture. China has an unexpected way of flipping the script and my travels there deeply impacted me on how I see the world.
Let me begin with the most obvious difference when traveling in China. There is just no personal space! When you have a population of 1.5 people and these huge mega cities in a nation with 1.4 billion people, you are going to be in massive crowds. I have been in large cities before, but not THIS kind of large city.
I have been sardined more times than I can count into the packed subway cars and yet I have survived. When visiting my Beijing friend’s apartments who has been able to fit her entire family of 5 (two adults, two grandparents, and a baby) into a 2-bedroom apartment successfully, I have seen a different way of living. When space is limited and expensive, you learn to be creative.
It is put things in perspective as I see people have less space than an average American, but the little space the Chinese have is multifunctional space.
Maybe I don’t need to have a formal dining area AND a breakfast nook. City living is just different, and cities in China are at a scale and price just unimaginable but if people are happy then how can you try to say that their way of living is better or worse? It is just different. And it’s changed how I think about my personal space in the US.
The world is bigger than just your own country or community
There are days when I don’t want to hear the news coming out of the US, and I know I am not alone in that. Traveling in China, I have met some many people more informed about world news than I was and it changed how I try to live my life now.
I don’t want to just meet other Americans on my trips to China. I want to hear about the lives of people who grew up in China and have seen the challenges of developing more rapidly than any other civilization in human history.
It is easy to be trapped in a US-centric bubble, but staying engaged in what is going on in the world is the best way to pop that bubble and start seeing the world.
Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is so worthwhile
I have lost count of how many times I have been uncomfortable traveling in China. From failing epically to eat noodles with chopsticks to being followed by taxi touts at the airport, I have had my fair share of encounters that left a lot to be desired. I have learned I can really adapt to almost anything.
Some of the most incredible adventures I have had are from my frequent visits to China. I would leave the hotel and could never have dreamed of the shenanigans I would get myself into that day.
Some days I just had to let go, stop trying to control everything, and learn to enjoy myself on this crazy ride. Traveling around China and seeing huge smiles from all walks of life is a reminder that happiness is not made in one way. Happiness is something that doesn’t have any specific formula.
For me, I have learned that pushing myself out of my comfort zone and allowing myself to grow makes me most happy. I love experiencing new places and talking to people from different walks of lives with completely different backgrounds.
You can connect with anyone on a human level
Somedays it feels like you couldn’t possible have something in common with some stranger on first sight. Hey old Chinese man on the subway with super long fingernails, you love to play angry birds too?!
In reality, some of the most rewarding conversations I have had are with people at first glance look like they couldn’t be more different than me.
We can discuss our families, our hobbies, and genuinely be surprised at how much we have in common. It is easy in a world that has become very nationalistic to prejudge people from other countries, but I have learned that while our governments may not agree on things, I can find many things to agree on with any person and make fast friends. People are people, and we are lucky to be able to take time to connect with people when the opportunity arises.
English can only get you so far
Sometimes to connect with these people, you have got to learn other languages and Americans have a bad reputation for being unable to do that.
The Chinese language is an incredibly difficult language to try to learn because it is not only complicated with the different tones, but Chinese characters needs to be memorized and there are more than 5,000 that I need to know in order to just read a newspaper.
Today in China, it is almost impossible to find a taxi driver that would be able to communicate in English. It is vital to everyday life to learn some Chinese, even simple words like bathroom or water.
Every word I have learned in Chinese has helped the ease of my visits to China. I have also had to learn to cope with being illiterate in China. Something I never thought I would experience.
Moments like pretending to read the portion of the menu where the waiter is pointing with his finger just for your own pride’s sake even though you can’t comprehend anything! Some people live every day like this.
Traveling in China can be humbling and push you farther than you thought possible, but that has led to my greatest periods of personal growth.
Traveling to China has taught me to continue to branch out, learn new languages, see how other people live, and listen to what they have to say. You will never find something more rewarding in my opinion!
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