“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things—air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky—all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” ~Cesare Pavese
Although aspects of this characterization of traveling ring true for me, I would counter that overall, traveling is less of a brutality than an opportunity. An opportunity for personal growth in so many ways. Traveling does force one to trust strangers and be distanced from family and friends, but in such circumstances one is compelled to make new friends, and perhaps even family. Trusting strangers deepens empathy, forces one to be humble and allows one to understand other ways of being. In this sense, I enjoy the feeling of being “constantly off balance” that traveling inevitably brings and see it more as a positive sign of growth. The feeling of being off balance derives from the absence of the kind of comfort we find in familiarity and routine. Each day here in China, I add to my list of #chinathings, i.e. cultural differences from life in the United States, be they subtle or glaring. The chaos of the streets, with mopeds, pedestrians, bikes and cars all vying to get where they need to go, jockeying for space in accordance with some unspoken set of rules that has ostensibly little to do with the lines painted on the road or the color of the traffic lights. Toddlers sporting pants with a slit between the legs for easy relief on the streets, in the park, or even (yes, really) while being held by mom over a trash can in the train station. Old and young, man or woman, hocking up loud, rattling loogies to spit unabashedly onto the sidewalk. A father and son, squatting on a main street corner in the evening around a blazing fire, fueled by fake paper money in remembrance of a deceased relative. Red lanterns decorating the awnings of restaurants and shops (red here represents prosperity, good luck, and national pride). Pairs of stone-carved dragons guarding the entrance to important buildings. The face masks, decorated with colorful patterns ranging from anime characters to the Apple logo, or simple blue or white surgical mask-esque. The contrast of the orderly lines that form in the subway in accordance with the neatly marked arrows painted on the ground where the train doors line up with the pushing and shoving and hardcore race that breaks out for the coveted train seat when the doors actually open. Construction everywhere, anytime. Something is always being demolished, while nearby, something is in the process of being built. Ancient buildings far older than the United States of America juxtaposed with McDonald’s, Starbucks and the local favorite: KFC. Young women strolling along the street on a sunny day, wielding decorated parasols to shield their skin from the rays of the sun. Elderly ladies out in the early mornings or evenings in the park, square, or parking lot, dancing to Chinese pop tunes or communist era songs emanating from a crackling boom box, possibly from the same era. Young and old men gathered around a card or Chinese checkers table, perched on short stools while animatedly slapping cards down or consulting each other on strategy for the next move. Often one of the men has brought his birdcage along (presumably for good luck? Or perhaps he just likes the soothing chirps to lower his blood pressure while he plays…) Young couples out in the parks or tourist spots taking wedding photos, the groom looking nervously modest, while the beautiful bride shines in an elaborate red or white (often rented for the occasion) wedding dress. Peddlers of fresh fruit, piping hot sweet potatoes or chestnuts, candied fruit, or skewers of chuan(r)—various types of grilled meat—lined up along the road and selling their wares off the back of a three-wheeler cart, mo-ped, or little boxlike truck.
These are but a few of the #chinathings I have noticed so far. They liven up life here and make each day new and exciting. However, they also reinforce the sensation of difference and otherness that breeds a feeling of being “off balance” and homesickness. The amazing thing about human beings is that we can become accustomed to nearly any environment. As opposed to non-stop traveling, reflected by Mr. Pavese’s sentiment, the study abroad experience allows one due time to become accustomed to a new place (often just in time to return to one’s home-country and re-accustom oneself to life there!). Upon arrival, many of the above mentioned #chinathings seemed strange to me, and I most certainly held a negative and judgmental attitude toward some of them. However, after having lived here in Beijing for nearly two months, I have become accustomed to most of it. My established routine brings a sense of order and comfort to my life here, and I can always retreat to the relative safety of my dorm room if things get too strange. Traveling affords so many opportunities, both in terms of personal growth as well as in regards to the plethora of new things to try and to make yours.