A few summers ago, I was offered the chance to travel there for ten days with a group of ten other educators. We would spend several days each in Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai; we’d visit various schools and travel to historical and cultural highlights throughout our stay. The friend who offered me the opportunity—he had gone on a similar trip the previous summer—assured me, “You must go. It’s life-changing.”
It turned out to be ten days of amazing food, sight-seeing, and perspective-gaining. I ate Peking Duck! I climbed the Great Wall! I saw the Terra Cotta Warriors! I saw the spots where Communism thinking had stifled and killed; I saw the Olympic village from the XXIX Games. I saw poor and rural; I saw rich and glitzy.
It was a special and unique glimpse into a world I didn’t understand.
But it wasn’t life-changing the way my friend probably thought it would be. It changed me in unexpected ways. Mostly, it got me thinking about what I value. It made me adjust the way I think about myself as a wife, mother, and emerging homebody.
This is some of what I learned.
The opportunity to travel across China—for free— was something I felt I couldn’t pass up. Although I had traveled internationally on multiple other occasions, the Far East was something entirely new. I’d see places in the world and have access to entirely new people and ways of living. When I talked about it with my gal pals, women I respect and admire, they all encouraged me to go: It’s the chance of a lifetime, they told me. What would you want your daughter to do? Be grateful your husband can step in and be the full parent for ten days. This chance will never come again.
But the moment my plane took off, I felt a regret so deep it left me breathless. I’m missing ten days of my children’s lives, I realized. I’ll never get that back again. It was something I wrestled with throughout the entire magnificent trip; each amazing experience had a gray hue to it because of what I’d given up to be there.
“Lonely” isn’t only an adjective. It can also be a living animal that needs managed.
Spending ten days in across the world re-defined loneliness for me. I was traveling with a phenomenal group of people, some of whom were close friends and some of whom grew into close friends. There was never a time I was alone without having someone to turn to. But even surrounded by people—my friends, of course, and let’s not forget the zillions of people who live in China—there was an ache. For my kids, my husband, my home, the green space I see when I look out my kitchen window. For clean air and the things that ground me. It took focused, gritty effort to handle the loneliness—to get up every day, get in the shower, put on nice clothes, and muster up some enthusiasm for the day’s itinerary. To endure time passing, while simultaneously finding meaning and respect for the trip itself. It took energy and thought and focus. It took active management.
Extended international travel feels different than domestic travel. I’d been to multiple European countries during my twenties, but my recent travel had consisted of a few domestic trips each year—just a few work and leisure trips with my friends and family. But getting on an airplane—alone— and crossing an ocean or two—? Yeah. That’s really different. It meant I couldn’t get home very easily if I needed to. It meant I didn’t just need a working credit card and a rental car to find my way back to my family. It meant I needed passports and kind customs officials and long, long, long hours to wait on the airline industry. It felt a lot different than a girl’s weekend in Tampa or attendance at a professional conference in Dallas. It made me really, really uncomfortable.
A country like China has a distinct hierarchy of people. I noticed it especially with the women. There are women who work important and powerful jobs, and you can feel their presence as they march along the sidewalk with stompy, angry, heel-y feet. And there are women who make dumplings, or do manicures, or who manage shops stuffed full of trinkets. And there are women who wake before the sun, don their prison-like blue scrub outfits, and walk city streets with a stick-and-stalk broom, doing the work of sweeping the filth that comes with zillions of people living amongst them. Their faces are cold and sad. They take restroom breaks in tiny, filthy stalls that reek of human feces, crouched down low, the only break they’ll get in a long, unrecognizable day of cleaning other people’s crap.
I’m really glad to be an American. China scared me. There are so many people, so many buildings, so many miles and miles and miles of gigantic skyscraping apartments; so many cars; electric wires; and gigantic spewing smokestacks. It’s dirty, gray, and eye-burningly smoggy. Everything seems orchestrated for foreign visitors, as if there are really bad things happening, but there’s no way anyone is going to talk about it. A lot of the people seem to walk around as silent, brooding ghosts.
I’m so glad that my America feels different. It’s clean and clear, even when the clouds are heavy with cold rain. There’s a light here. There’s clean air and the freedom to breathe deeply. I love this country more than I ever knew.
That’s not all.
More to come.