I arrived about 15 minutes ago to a hotel in Taizhou Zheijang China after traveling more than 24 hours via car, bus, plane, maglev, subway, and train. While I am waiting for my Hainanese rice and Tsing Tao, I thought I would share some reflections from my readings and experiences today.
With over 24 hours of travel, even with sleeping while I could, the trip offered a tremendous opportunity to catch up on my reading. Starting with Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, picking up A Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell, and finishing up (almost) with Gifts Differing by Isabell Briggs Myers. A seemingly diverse selection of books, but all somehow tied to areas that interest me. And in retrospect giving me some insight and food for thought, particularly tied to our perceptions of the world and how we experience it.
I am (at least to my best fit estimate) an INTP (An Introverted Thinker with Intuition) by preference. By culture, I was raised in a middle-class Midwest American family, although from at least some sides, with some hillbilly roots. For most of the last 15 years, I have lived in Sweden and have developed a taste for the Scandinavian life and culture.
This trip to China, although my sixth, is a different experience from every other trip. In the past, I have either had the pleasure (and support) of my Chinese colleagues, or have had thorough arrangements with pick-up on landing at the Shanghai airport by a driver that had my name, number, and all my trip details. I could sleep, or at least relax and gaze carelessly out the window, while my travel all happened with the best arrangements possible.
For this trip, due to multiple agendas that didn’t match any potential traveling companions, I was both on my own and on a bit of an adventure. My destination was too far from the airport to practically arrange a driver and pick-up, and from talking to my Chinese colleagues, much better to take the train than to fly.
Unfortunately in Shanghai, the train station is exactly opposite sides of the city from the airport. Recommendation from my colleagues was a bus that would go point to point. However as an engineering nerd, I also have had a desire for a LONG time to take the Maglev, the high speed train between the airport and central Shanghai. This would mean changing to the subway line when the Maglev ended, and in general, more navigation, which as usual I hadn’t adequately prepared with all the taxi cards and information in Chinese. But, as I purposely had scheduled a long time until my train left, I decided to try it.
By nature, I am a pretty risk averse individual who hates asking for help, primarily as it means that I need to talk to a stranger. To speak to a stranger for my benefit, rather than the greater good of a company or mission, is especially trying and something I avoid at all cost. This is my preference for introversion coming into play, which in this case was overridden by my curiosity and desire to experience new things, coming from my perceiving intuition.
From childhood, whether it was the situation in the US, some elements of the Hillbilly culture and dis-trust of “outsiders”, or a mixture of both, I have had a tendency to believe in, or fear, the bad in people. From the Baptist funeral of my grandfather, which I remember as fire and brimstone, sin and hell, for a guy I actually thought was pretty good, to the many definitions of inside and outside, and who you could trust, I at best had suspicion for most people that weren’t part of my clan.
Years studying in Chicago during times of strong criminality, coupled with a Spring Break trip and a police officer in Chattanooga TN ordering us to “get our car and our butts back on the interstate as fast as we could, as we found our way into one of the country’s top homicide districts”, as well as being present in a Safeway in Menlo Park during a shootout, only served to further perpetuate and generally raise my level of fear. Family and friends have questioned me for years, whether I am not scared, and how I can travel (and even move) far from everything and everyone I know.
I have fear, I feel fear, but I just don’t let that fear stop me. It has stopped sleep. It does limit my activities, as I am not super adventurous on my own in a strange place, especially at night. In my early years traveling, my curiousity and desire to experience new things just overrode the fear to keep me traveling, going away from what I knew, to places with people that I didn’t.
I have an extremely active imagination, which coupled with a bit of an anxiety complex, leads into all kinds of interesting possibilities and fears, especially when I don’t have completely control of a situation. I won't even start to describe the many various kidnapping scenarios my brain conjures up.
However, life experiences, and some time in Scandinavia, have challenged that fear and introduced me to a concept that I just didn’t get before. Instead of assuming “outsider” people are bad and want bad, why not assume they are good, and want good?
In the Year of Living Danishly, the author identifies the overall national tendency to believe people good and trustworthy as part of the key to the happiness in the nation (ranked for several years as the happiness nation in the world). In Denmark, and Sweden, I was shocked to find baby strollers (with babies inside) outside in the winter, while parents enjoyed a coffee or meal inside. In the US, I wouldn't even have thought to leave a stroller out, let alone my daughter.
Over the past years, especially since having a child and traveling with her, I have experienced this goodness from Chicago to Moscow, from people of skin color from the palest white to the darkest black, and many variations in between. From people with nothing to gain, and maybe even time lose. From people with whom I can’t issue a single utterance they understand, and vice versa. From people who are “supposed” to be my enemies (at least as defined by the United States at one time or another), but who went to great lengths to be kind and helpful.
It has opened up my fear to enter the unknown, with some kind of confidence that through my own skills coupled with the inherent goodness of others, I’ll somehow make it through. It has also made my life a lot less stressful and open to interesting experiences.
Now, over my Tsing Tao, I am feeling pretty darn proud, that a girl from the cornfields of Indiana, somehow managed to make it across the world, across Shanghai, and to her hotel. But it wasn’t without the help and kindness of others.
First, on the subway escalator, I lost my balance when my suitcase wheel didn’t sit on the step. Two guys behind me were quick to help me and my suitcase regain their balance, with nothing more than shy smiles and bows. What could have been at best an embarrassing episode, and at worst a hospital visit, was a complete non-event probably perceived only by two to three others.
When I arrived here at Taizhou, I didn’t have my taxi card in Chinese, only the address with my email confirmation in Swedish. As I was debating to try the card, or to ask someone, a very nice young woman approached and asked if I needed help. I explained that I didn’t have the address in Chinese, and asked if she would mind giving the driver the address.
Not only did she do that, but as she realized I was traveling alone, insisted on riding with me in the taxi to make sure that I arrived at the right place and would be charged the right fare. As we started talking in the car, and I thanked her profusely for her help, she said simply, “I visited the US for work and people were very helpful to me, I wanted to pass it on.”
As I sit now in my comfortable hotel room, I have a big grin on my face, thinking about all that goodness out there. Maybe that goodness doesn’t sell as much news, but I believe it is stronger. Go out, experience it! And please, pass it on!