I remember watching an interview for the film Saving Mr. Banks where Richard Sherman described his interactions with P. L. Travers as “coming out a wonderful, yummy, warm shower, and you feel very good and happy and up and somebody comes in with a bucket of ice cold water and pours it on top of you.”
That experience for me was Suzhou, China.
After Beijing and Shanghai, where all I got were incredulous questions when I didn’t respond to the locals in perfect Mandarin and icy glares when my American chaperone had to answer for me, followed by the icy question of “ She’s not Chinese?” I was looking forward to going somewhere else. Sure, I liked those cities, but I wanted to see more of China. And that meant going beyond tourist-y shops, and The Great Wall.
After all, I loved traveling. I loved going outside my comfort zone.
And the impression I got wasn’t a very good one. But those ten days will stay with me for a lifetime because of it. And not just because of the memory of hundreds of peddlers assaulting our tour bus, yelling at us to buy their wares and shoving their stuff in our faces.
The Welcome Carpet Won’t Always Be Rolled Out
It could not have been clearer that my host family had been expecting a life-sized Barbie to come walking out of the bus. Dinners consisted mostly of awkward silence. The moments of conversation we did have were few and far between despite my attempts to get to know them. You could say that they just didn’t know what to do with me, and that my Mandarin was basic, except for the fact that the grandparents spent every meal I ate in that house glowering at me, watching my every move. Other than that, the family stared right through me during meals like I didn’t exist.
To say that I was uncomfortable was an understatement.
My host grandparents looked at me and saw Japanese people, people who had caused them pain. It didn’t matter that I had an American passport.
You are not your heritage. Some people won’t want to know you; that’s just how the world works. You are not any of the labels society puts on you. Just because someone doesn’t want to know you doesn’t mean that everyone doesn’t want to know you.
Some People Will Just Want to Order Panda Express
As an adventurous eater, I’ve always liked trying food from different cultures. I am the kind of girl who tries the things that other people wrinkle their noses at. It’s great fodder for stories. And if you don’t like it, you can at least say you tried it, right?
Let’s just say that in China, there was one individual who leaned over our giant table during lunch one afternoon and asked, “Laoshi (Teacher), how do you say orange chicken?”
This individual proceeded to try to order orange chicken in halting Mandarin, only to receive a blank stare from the local waitress in return and 17 additional pairs of eyes staring at him. You could tell we were all thinking the same thing:
Panda Express? When you’ve traveled halfway across the world? Really?
For the rest of the trip, people proceeded to bother this particular individual.
“Come on. You’re in China. WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?”
I’m not saying to order the local delicacies every time you go out and travel. But it’s more than likely that you’ll encounter people who aren’t as comfortable as you are about doing certain things. Not just when you travel, but in life in general.
Sure, you can have your own opinion about the things someone does, but that doesn’t mean that you need to force your opinions on them or make them feel guilty.
If someone you know wants to order Panda Express in China, let them order their Panda Express (or the equivalent). It’s their life, their experience. You have no control over that.
Staying In Familiar Territory Doesn’t Have To Be Bad
I’ve talked about finding your tribe, people who can support you. Up until this trip, I had always thought that if you weren’t pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, you weren’t making the most of the experience.
But after being virtually ignored by my host family and nearly passing out on the Great Wall of China, it was a welcome relief to chat with classmates on the tour buses and share our experiences. They were able to offer sympathy to those of us who were struggling. We bonded over the fact that we slept on beds that consisted of two-by-fours covered by a sheet. And yes, when we were really homesick, we found a Pizza Hut.
I had always been irritated by foreign students who came to the US, found a group of people from their homeland, formed a clique, and refused to leave that security blanket. It took me going to China to realize this, but I finally understood why foreign students form cliques and are so often afraid to branch out.
Sometimes experiences just don’t go the way you envision they will in your head. And it’s okay to admit that you didn’t like something. Traveling to a foreign country can be scary. Having a community that can offer you support as you navigate through your experience and speak your native language with you isn’t bad.
What are the most valuable lessons YOU’VE learned from a not-so-stellar travel experience?