Each month, the Student Journeys Series features a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s. They write about how their lives have been shaped through their global education experiences. This week’s Student Journey post is written by Lucienne Brown, who is currently working in the Global Real Estate & Facilities department at Amazon in Seattle.
I’ve been privileged to travel in the Chinese-speaking world many times during my life. When I was in elementary school, my family moved to Hong Kong for a few years. In high school, I was lucky enough to travel to mainland China as part of my school’s global education program. In university, I studied abroad in Beijing, spending half a year at Peking University and another month or so on my own. The last wasn’t planned, exactly, but happened for the simple reason that I’d fallen in love. It was messy, it was complicated, and you’d better believe it had its ups and downs. And the unlikely object of my affection was Beijing itself.
I’ve always had a weakness for history and, as an American, my access to places with a real sense of history was very limited. Beijing was the first place with a deep, historical legacy that I was able to truly get to know.
Ask any taxi driver and they’ll tell you that China has 5,000 years of unbroken cultural heritage. They’ll also tell you that everything has changed; it’s a new China, and nothing is the same as it was. Both are true. Neither are true. It’s a city of over 21 million people, and each person has their own truth. No history lesson or guidebook could have prepared me for the simple, everyday complexity of everything I saw in Beijing.
There are many historical sites to see in Beijing, but the old gates are my favourite, not so much for what they are today as for the story they tell. City walls once encircled the imperial heart of Beijing, and every gate through these walls had a name and a particular significance. Xuanwumen was the “Gate Proclaiming Military Strength” through which imperial soldiers would march when setting out on campaign. Returning, their triumphal entrance would be through Deshengmen, the “Gate of Virtue Victorious”. All but three of these old gates were demolished in the modern era, many simply because of the history they symbolized. But Beijing’s modern subway still follows the line of the vanished walls, and the memory of the old gates lives on in the names of the subway stops. Every day, people bustle through the doors of these stops, just like the people who once passed through the now-vanished gates of the same name. The fate of the walls could be a metaphor for modern Beijing: empires rise and fall, leaders come and go, but Beijing endures.
Against the backdrop of centuries-old history, modern innovation, families living in their ancestral courtyard houses or glitzy apartments, and a veritable sea of humanity, I was deeply struck by my own identity as a stranger. People commented (in the most well-intentioned, ways) on things I’d thought were utterly commonplace, universal aspects of everyday life. They questioned things I’d utterly taken for granted.
There’s an implicit assumption in the idea of travel that each experience happens in relation to you and your own perspective. You travel to see the world; you’re the observer. But the further you go from home the more you begin to realise that’s not quite right.
When you’re visibly of vaguely European descent, tourists from less metropolitan parts of China often ask to take photos with you. City people generally don’t, but you get used to a certain amount of staring and people commenting on you to their neighbours as you walk by. From dawn ‘til dusk, your personal identity is subsumed in your classification as “foreigner.” It’s not in any way ill-intentioned – humans are evolutionarily designed to notice patterns and, by extension, any deviations from that pattern. I was no exception. One day on the subway back to my apartment on the outskirts of Beijing, I noticed another white person further down the train. I didn’t realise until they met my eyes that I’d been staring. It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen a white person before – I see one in the mirror every morning. My unknown fellow white person was such a conspicuous deviation from the norm that I was gawping like a carp.
For me, this incident drove home the real lesson of travel: you can start thinking that you’re going to see the world, but instead you’re travelling to let the world see you. You’re not an observer – you’re the outsider, and you stick out like a sore thumb.
Most of all, try as you might, you can’t hope to really understand the entirety of what you’re seeing. It’s like being at a restaurant when the next table over is singing “Happy Birthday;” you can extrapolate from experience what each person might be feeling, but you’re missing out on all the personal, private context that makes the event significant. The American myth of the melting pot tacitly assumes that we’re all the same, when you get down to it. Differences are assumed to be superficial. Travelling forces you to realise that, while we’re all human, it takes time, effort, and experience to understand people who are different from you. It is the single most rewarding and life-changing experience you can undertake, and it’s absolutely daunting.
All of this also puts you in your place with a vengeance. Everyone around you is living their normal, day-to-day lives. You, by contrast, are a stranger, more or less bumbling and incompetent, possessed of a Tarzan-like lack of both sophistication and manners, comical at best and an embarrassment at worst. It’s tough sometimes. And in a city like Beijing, you truly learn what it is to be alone in a crowd. The thing is, being vulnerable makes you appreciate each person who smiles at you and every local who extends a helping hand.
The middle-aged woman who took me under her wing when I was bewildered by the Beijing bus system probably doesn’t remember me; I only knew her for about four bus stops. She swooped in, unscrambled my confused account of where I was trying to go, cross-checked everything with the bus driver, and then sat with me to ensure I got off at the right stop. Did that matter in the big scheme of things? No. But I was a beached, directionally-challenged starfish, and she tossed me back into the sea. You’d better believe that mattered to me, and it’s that simultaneously personal and global perspective that gives travel its true value. When you see yourself from a global perspective you accept a challenge to be a better person than you were before. Once you realise you’re just one person in 7.6 billion, being kind is simultaneously the most insignificant yet profound thing you can do in your life.