As any teacher can attest to, a semester of teaching can be long and tiring despite the joys that come with teaching. But the end of the semester brings a time of rest that is welcomed with open arms! Having almost two months of summer vacation is a huge blessing, one that most Global Mission Fellows do not have. This time of respite provided an opportunity for me to see other parts of China with eager eyes, connect with family, and meet new friends.
But traveling is a privilege, mostly because takes money. Being a missionary with a budget and a commitment to simple living, I asked myself, how do I travel simply? This was a question that I continued to ponder before and during my journey across China.
Initially, I approached this with an emphasis on money. How do I travel both cost effectively and safe? Throughout my first weeks traveling alone in southern China, I lived in international hostels and stayed with host families, traveled mostly by bus, metro, or by foot, and sought out local markets to buy fresh food versus eating in restaurants. Environmentally, I committed to filling my water bottle with the free boiling water on the train, versus buying a cold bottle of water. I committed to walking over other modes of transportation if possible. And I committed to washing clothes in the bathroom sink. These conscious decisions allowed me to develop new friendships, see China from new perspectives, and essentially live more like I do in Guyuan.
When I was joined by my family in Shanghai for a three-city tour across China, my life style really changed. Suddenly I was staying in hotel rooms with private bathrooms, riding in air-conditioned vehicles, and eating bigger meals in nice restaurants. What a treat! It was nice to experience such luxuries and I am incredibly thankful to those who made the trip possible, but I ultimately had to face my privilege. I realized that privilege isn’t just about me. Privilege is also about whom I am connected to and what resources I have access to.
I ultimately found that there were aspects of my independent and simple traveling that I missed! While a private hotel room was nice with my family, I missed the interactive nature of staying at hostels or with hosts. While the AC was nice, I missed the adventure of taking the metro and figuring out what exit to take. I realized that committing to simple travel in China meant, in many ways, living like a local.
I am a foreigner and will always be a foreigner in China, but being a foreigner and being a tourist are two different things. In Guyuan, I am not a tourist. I’m a living, breathing resident. But traveling, I am obviously a tourist, which puts me into a box. I believe in being a tourist like a local, if that even makes sense. I think the key to traveling simply is to ask, how do I travel like a local? How do I eat like a local? How do I see these sights and monuments from a local perspective? In this way, I removed myself from the tourism box that caters to everything that is comfortable. At times, it put me out of my comfort zone, but with open eyes I found that there was much to learn from this perspective.
My question has now become, how do I balance the social capital that I have and still travel simply? Travel will always be a privilege–I can’t change that. And yet, being a lover of the world I hope and plan to have many years of adventures to come. But what I can do is continue to question and change the way in which I travel.