Traveling greatly expands one’s mind. That first travel experience overseas affects an individual in innumerable ways, from learning about language and culture, to understanding how people value and perceive the world. China was my first international travel experience. My high school offered Mandarin classes to the incoming freshmen and planned a two-week trip to China the following summer. Thinking that I may never have another opportunity to visit Asia, not knowing about programs like GLA existed, I signed up. It would prove to be one of the most meaningful and important decisions of my life.
Almost immediately after I landed in Beijing I thought, “this is another world.” I studied French throughout high school and have lived in Spain and Peru. Discerning connections between English and American culture with European languages and cultures is fairly easy. In China, those connections are almost non-existent. One cannot simply read a sign or eavesdrop on locals and get a basic understanding of the main idea. From this I experienced culture shock; however, not in a negative fashion, but rather in an eye-opening one.
The first few days were surreal and I soon learned that we live in an extremely diverse world.
I visited four cities in China all of which required us to take an airplane. This solidified how massive the country is. Each city was huge but they all contained unique attributes. Beijing was like a bigger, more spread out New York City and the food was phenomenal. Shanghai was a metropolis with impressive modern architecture. Xi’An held amazing historical artifacts such as the Terracotta Warriors. Guilin displayed China’s natural beauty. Traveling to each of these cities showed me that we live in an enormous world with so much to see and do. It was meeting the locals that made it clear how similar we all are.
While in Beijing I had the chance to meet a family and see their home. Their small house was decorated with glass and porcelain figures from traditional Chinese myths and folk tales as well as family photos. They were cooking dinner and would eat soon after we left. Despite not openly displaying their affection, it was clear that the family was close and they were proud of their traditions and culture. This experience was both fulfilling and refreshing as I learned that even though we live on opposite sides of the planet, we are not so different in what we love and in what brings us happiness. Standing in that house made me feel closer to other people and made me appreciate my position in the world.
If you decide to take the journey, be aware of a few things. When traveling abroad, especially to a developing country, mind your waste and be considerate of the locals. Always clean up after yourself wherever you go. When you meet the locals, learn from them. Ask about their culture, language and history, but also ask about that individual. Make it a point to understand the culture through the locals’ eyes and specifically from their unique perspective. On a practical note, when you travel, take only what you need and be considerate with your food and water. Taking too much will be burdensome and you may part with things you don’t want to leave behind.
If you get the opportunity to travel, take it. Few experiences in life will shape how you view the world, and traveling is perhaps the most meaningful.
Contributed by Anthony Zamarro