Many an adventurer finds their way by first becoming lost. This is the art of travel, to be an interloper and know it. But no one ever became lost through epic estrangement, like in high tales from fiction; one must place themselves into the unknown in our world. If one is traveling according to a plan, how can they be lost? By taking large strides forward to where one’s eyes no longer see.
As I prepared for my flight from Boston to Beijing in early September, I felt surreal. Not anxious with the butterflies everyone talks about, rather a heightened sense of self. Such existential lenses are blurred by travel, and when I knew that come the next day I would be on the other side of the planet – unable to call my family, unable to kiss my girlfriend – I felt the world dissipate until there was only me. No longer manacled by the life I had created, I felt an almost eerie sense of being lost. The feeling only amplified when I was transplanted into the airport, then the aircraft itself.
I met others in my program headed off to China, the land of dead empires and gold horizons, but new people only made me realize the bones of my life, the important things I wished to speak of, and the gluttony, that which I told no one. No matter how many people I met, I always knew – and still do know – that this was my journey, my path to carve. I took a large stride coming from a small rural town in Maine to Beijing, a mega-metropolis and capital city, and as time sets into me I become more and more at home. But when I think about it, I am a wanderer, a 外国人wàiguó rén, a foreigner. Even though the Chinese writing on buildings and the sounds of people speaking Chinese all about me becomes normal, I know I am still an interloper.
China is as radically different from my home as it gets. No amount of preparation truly prepares you for the scope of another culture. The moment you think you know, you do not. The most enlightening part of travel for me is knowing just how much my life depends upon me. The world does not revolve around me, but my life, my ability and my success, does. It seems simple, yet this simple fact is never more evident than when you take a great stride. I had to leave my home and travel to the other end of the world to fathom the gift of travel: awareness of myself.
This awareness lets me understand China better than if I kept to the comfort of American things, than if I had come to China without the focus on myself and what I can do while here. I needed to first unfurl myself to begin unfurling another culture. Now I can explore with an open mind the alleys of Beijing, fearlessly bike among other 同学tóngxué (schoolmates), and fully soak myself in the experience of living in China中国zhōngguó, the middle kingdom. Being lost is the best way to learn, so I have embraced the experience of travel in Beijing. I hope that my introspection fuels my exploration of this new world and increases my sensitivity to Chinese culture as I struggle to learn the Chinese language and create a different life for myself in Beijing.