This is the hardest question to answer after a trip, and it is inevitably the very first one people will ask. I was asked almost a dozen times the day I returned to work, and I’m afraid I didn’t answer it very well; I hadn’t prepared a good response like I usually do when returning from a trip, an eloquent and thoughtful “elevator pitch” to summarize my experience for inquiring minds. I’m hoping that in writing this post I’ll be able to sift through my thoughts enough to develop a good one.
This is something I often talk about with my students; how do you condense a year or even a semester’s worth of what was probably one of the most meaningful experiences of your life into a few sentences? I remember returning from my year abroad with this same struggle. It was exacerbated when well-meaning people asked, “So how was your year in Paris?” and I would respond dryly, “I wasn’t IN Paris,” effectively shutting down the conversation, because if you don’t even know WHERE I was, how could I even begin to share HOW it was? A student of mine from a developing part of the world shared her very real concerns about this with me before she left NYC a few years ago. Her year had been incredible, she said, life-changing, but it wasn’t all positive – there were times that were really hard (as study abroad should be, I would argue.) But how could she express this to people at home, who only looked upon her experience as a marvelous opportunity, and might take any complaining as snootiness? I advised her to organize her thoughts, to share a few general impressions of the US, a few of her favorite moments, and above all some humorous situations in which she had made some serious faux pas, to show that she was still humble about her experience and could laugh at herself. I won’t pretend that condensing my 2-week trip is anywhere near as difficult as condensing a whole semester or year, but I have to say it’s still a head-scratcher. So I will try to follow my own (rather sage, I must say) advice.
Goals – how did I do?
First I’ll start with the goals I set for myself – let’s see how I did, in words and photos:
- Become more comfortable eating with chopsticks – 100% accomplished! I even bought a nice set to bring home and think I might continue eating with them.
- Try at least one dish that is outside my comfort zone. Not just different or new, but really pushing my boundaries – I definitely tried some things I hadn’t had before, or at least prepared in new ways. I also did sample a few seafood dishes, but not with great results – I actually had to spit out some jellyfish I tried (it was crunchy! How… why… just… *shivers* ). I just couldn’t bring myself to try the sea cucumber.
- Practice a few Chinese phrases daily – I got hello and thank you down; not so much with the others
- Have a meaningful conversation with a Chinese person (not necessarily about China) – this I accomplished with my former students in Beijing, and again with JungHee in Seoul
- Have at least one experience that is really unique, special, and after which I can say, “Now most tourists would not get to do that.” Eating dinner in a hutong, and the spa in Korea definitely count. I also think all of my school visits fall into this category – they really gave me an insight into Chinese and Korean cultures that I wouldn’t otherwise have had.
- Take a few really amazing photos – done and done!
But my trip was not all highlights and success stories; I certainly discovered a few challenge points to work on:
- Although I am adventurous with food, I do just have a wall when it comes to seafood and, well, things like roasted pig heads. Which is fine – I’m coming to accept it and realizing that I’m never going to be that traveler who takes shots of snake blood in Thailand. My gag reflex is just too strong. BUT I need to learn to school my face better – I found myself involuntarily wrinkling my nose at dishes, which is so terribly rude! Pull it together, Romesburg. Raise your eyebrows if you must, but keep that nose un-wrinkled.
- Traveling with too much crap. You would think, with all the traveling I’ve done, I would have gotten better about this. To pack light is to travel happy. I do blame it on traveling for work, but still, it made me miserable more than once – never again.
- I realized I had focused so much on China, I completely neglected Korea (as you can clearly see in my goals – all China-based). I only cracked a guidebook on the plane to Seoul, which is a real shame, and I had not prepared one word of Korean, not even please or thank you. I felt terrible – shame on me. True, Korea was only 3 days and China was 13, but I really should have done my research a little better.
The importance of people
The most important person on my trip was my intrepid companion Alyssa. I know from experience, a traveling companion can make or break a trip, and a good one is worth her weight in gold. Alyssa and I had traveled together before in South Africa and Brazil, all through work, so I already knew she was an awesome travel buddy, but I continue to be grateful for her company and for our compatibility. We made each other laugh, never minded taking photos of the other, shared resources almost without thinking, and pushed each other just enough in areas where we alone might not have pushed ourselves. I wouldn’t have had remotely the same experience without her, and would travel with her again in a heart beat!
The other people that made my trip were the ones I reconnected with or met along the way – my colleagues and former students. Laura in Shanghai, who took us for soup dumplings; my colleagues in Beijing, who helped me with my ATM card and treated me to Peking duck; my former students in Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul, who gave me a glimpse into their cultures I never would have seen otherwise. This is why I love traveling for work – if I were traveling on my own, there is no way I would have had these connections and the resulting experiences. These people all made my experience more unique, more real, than what it would have been had I just been a simple tourist, and I am incredibly grateful to them. It makes me not want to travel anywhere unless I have an “insider” to meet me on the other end! It also encourages me to pay it forward when people visit the US/NYC, which I regularly do anyway, but it just drives the point home.
Giggles and blunders
My trip was full of flub-ups and laughter, sometimes at my own expense. Highlights include:
- Almost getting conned in Shanghai
- The incompatibility of dumplings and Caucasian noses
- Missing the boat to Yangshuo
- Figuring out how to share a hand towel between friends
- Learning I have legs like bamboo shoots
- Losing my ATM card on my last day in China – Rachel for the win
and so much more.
At this point I should share my series of almost-failures on my trip home, since I haven’t yet written about them. Again, following the theme “Don’t Travel with Too Much Crap,” I was delayed at the Seoul airport by my overweight luggage. But a desk agent took pity on me and let me check a 2nd bag for free. I thought, “This bodes well for the rest of my trip!” Not so. I got on my 10-hour flight to San Francisco to discover it was an old plane with no individual screens (I know, I know, #firstworldproblems), and then even the main screens were broken – no movies whatsoever. So I exhausted my reading material and took a nap. I knew I had an extra book in my checked luggage and figured I’d grab it in San Francisco before my connecting flight to Newark. That plan was dashed when we landed in SFO later than planned (I only had an hour and to make my connection) and our flight attendants informed us that the immigration computers had been down for the past 3 hours. They were up then, but there was a backlog. Of 3 hours worth of international flights. I was resigned to missing my connection.
Miraculously, they moved us at lightning speed through immigration and customs (a good thing, as I did have some questionable food products in my bags!), I dropped my bags to be transferred to my flight, and I RAN. Thanks to a delay on my flight to EWR, not only did I make it, I even had a few minutes to charge my computer before boarding.
Alas, arriving in EWR brought more troubles, as it often does. After waiting 45 minutes for luggage I was forced to admit that my 2nd bag was not coming, although the first had made it. I filed a claim and slogged through the cold rain to hail a cab. 45 minutes later I was home, and 12 hours later my 2nd bag followed me. Trip accompli!
What I have been saying to anyone who asks is that even though I was ready to throw in the towel at the end, I am so glad I went to Korea, if for no other reason than it provided a fascinating contrast to China. Going to Korea gave me a different perspective on some of the things I noticed about China. This is a silly example, but chopsticks in Korea are shorter; I wouldn’t have even thought about variation in chopstick length if I hadn’t seen them in Korea. These two countries are very close geographically, and do share some historical similarities, but especially in the last 100 years they really diverged, and that splitting of paths has made all the difference. While China lunges headlong forward with little to no regulation and serious environmental consequences, Korea has leapt forward beautifully, and is a marvel of modernity. Or, it could just simply be I was literally seeing everything in a different light in Korea, given that I could actually see the sun and blue sky, after days of polluted skies in China.
Korea has also been open to the West for much longer than China, and I really felt that there. In Korea nobody stared at me; they were too busy with their phones, and I wasn’t that interesting anyway. In China, I was an object of curiosity (sometimes respectfully, sometimes not), but there was an innocent interest that I found refreshing, actually. In a world where so many are jaded, cynical, and materialistic, I felt a genuine curiosity and hospitality in China that I did not see in the “more-worldly” Korea. I’m sure that will disappear over time as more Westerners go to China and as the Chinese middle class increases.
The final general observation I will make is about myself. Previously I’ve quoted Marcel Proust, who famously said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” This is why I love to travel, but I must be honest: not every trip gives me new eyes. This one did. For the first time in a long time, I felt like a minority. I was really out of my comfort zone, learning new ways of eating, interacting, responding. There were situations that I simply couldn’t handle on my own, and I had to rely on the kindness of near-strangers (and sometimes complete strangers). I was forced to think about censorship and progress, and the complicated mix of factors that leads one country in one direction and another country in another. I realized my own ignorance and tried to remedy it, while ultimately realizing that the world is simply too large to be educated on every country’s history and culture. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.