I’m doing independent, pre-thesis research in China, and a byproduct of that is traveling on my own. Before I arrived in China, I was excited about the research and the going-to-China parts, but much less excited at the prospect of being alone for such a long period of time. I’m not one of those people who needs much “me time” and I thrive when I’m around people. On top of that, I’d heard all kinds of reminders to be extra vigilant because my race, gender, and age would make me a great victim for any number of crimes. But now that I’ve been through four cities and five hostels on my own, I’m much less terrified and I’ve even made some discoveries along the way.
1. I’m surprisingly not lonely. Being lonely was my number one fear, but I honestly don’t think I’ve gone more than a day or two without meeting up with someone. I know people in most of the cities that I’ve been to, so I’ve reached out to them and met up. Beyond that, I’ve made a few friends (Chinese and foreign) from staying in hostels and have joined them in grabbing meals, doing touristy things, or going out for drinks. And then of course, in this age of iPhones, social media, and Skype, I can reach out to my friends and family anywhere in the world if I want to talk to someone (if I have wifi, which is sometimes a big if).
2. It’s important to reach out to people. Before I arrived in China, I was dreading sending emails to people I knew in China. It seemed awkward, as I hadn’t seen some of these people in years, or I didn’t know them very well. A few of them were people I’d never met before at all. I was worried nobody would respond. And on top of that, most of the emails would have to be in Chinese, meaning they’d take me more time to write. But I did send all those emails, and I’m so glad I did. I reached out to former professors, teachers, and other professional contacts. I reached out to my Chinese host sister from four years ago and my Chinese roommate from two semesters ago. I reached out to Pomona students and recent graduates. I reached out to a girl named Cassie who I’d briefly met over coffee before, and ended up going to a tiny town outside of Kunming to visit her at the school where she teaches. I reached out to a girl whom I’d never met but whose thesis I’d read on the internet, and we ended up meeting in Beijing and talking for five hours. She also provided me with contacts in Lugu Lake, where I’ll be going later in the summer. A former colleague said he wouldn’t be in China, but had friends who were tour guides in Xishuangbanna, another place I’ll be going later. A former tutor even invited me to his Marxist book club. I really doubt I’d have reached out to so many people if I was traveling with someone else or as part of an organized program. I’m so glad I took the time to send all those emails, as nearly everyone wrote me back, and now I’m reaping the benefits of having all kinds of interesting people to meet with.
3. I get to make all my own decisions. A.k.a. I can be as selfish as I want. I definitely didn’t realize this was a perk until I got here. When I first arrived in China, I spent three days in Hangzhou with my former roommate. On the train leaving Hangzhou, I realized that while I’d miss her company, I was thrilled that I could now make all my decisions for myself. I don’t have to politely tiptoe through any “what do you want to eat?” “no, what do you want to eat?” rituals before deciding on a place to eat dinner. I don’t really have to compromise on anything. I decide what is affordable for me. I decide how much walking is enough. I decide when I’m hungry. I decide who to trust. It’s rare to have this total personal freedom, without any pressure or influence or guilt, and I’m definitely enjoying it.
4. It’s exhausting. So exhausting. Constantly moving around is draining, and I can’t establish myself in one place. I don’t really have a sense of routine, which I find kind of disorienting. Everything is self-directed. I plan and do everything myself, from figuring out my daily and weekly schedule to tracking down the right public bus. I get lost a lot. Absolutely nothing is planned out or organized for me and I don’t have a supervisor to guide me in the right direction. My friends’ internships and research positions suddenly seem so plush, and I’m sometimes a bit jealous of them, knowing that they’re more or less taken care of, have a set routine, and get to establish themselves in one place all summer.
5. I can engage with the world around me in a real and meaningful way. I’ve been to China a few times before, but it’s never felt this real. Because I’m not spending much time hanging out with people I already know, I am very open. Open to meeting new people. Open to hopping on the back of a motorcycle taxi. Open to having conversations on the train. Open to invitations. I interact mostly with Chinese people, in Chinese. I’m not part of any program that’s creating a structured, comfortable world for me. If I were traveling with someone else, I’d spend a lot of time engaging with them, but alone, I’m free to engage with the whole colorful landscape of places, people, and opportunities around me. Traveling solo, I feel like I’m experiencing a much more real China than I have before and it’s a great feeling.
Traveling alone is not something I could do forever — I’m sure exhaustion and loneliness would catch up with me eventually (maybe they still will…it’s only been two and half weeks!). But so far, it’s been surprisingly enjoyable and valuable, and I’m proud of myself for doing it.