China is huge. It’s bigger than the U.S. if you don’t count the Great Lakes. I’m riding on the bus from Nanning in southern China to Hanoi, Vietnam and it’s striking how different these landscapes are than in the northeast. The mountains down here and in Yangshuo are dark grey and black and covered in green splotches with tropical branches and leaves hanging down. There isn’t a slow increase in height with these mountains, it’s as if the earth just stuck out it’s thumb trying to hitch a ride. My previous trip to China was spent almost exclusively in Shenyang, near the border with North Korea, and Qingdao is still considered a northeastern city, so before this trip I hadn’t had much exposure to other parts of China; I definitely hadn’t been in the far south near the border with other southeast asian countries. The people look different, they drive different cars, they talk different (a lot of them don’t speak the same language), they have different cultures and heritage, they eat different foods etc, etc. But they’re all still Chinese. So is China really that different from the U.S. in that respect?
It brings to mind the one statement that gets me into more arguments than any other, in almost every hostel I’ve ever been to – “Americans don’t travel”. If I had a nickel for every time I heard that sentence, well I’d probably have $2.00 but it’s enough to get me going. Why does it piss me off? I don’t know. I’m happy to criticize American policies and deficiencies when appropriate, but I feel the need to swoop in to it’s defense when being criticized this way, and to be honest, most of the time it’s my fellow compatriots doing the critiques. Those young guns who sit around the common room making sure that they’re breathing in cigarette smoke every time they think someone is looking at them. I was one of you goddammit! We all were. “Americans don’t travel.” Well, sir and ma’am, first of all, that’s bullshit because I’m standing right in front of you, and we both know that most of the hostels you’ve ever stayed in have had at least one American, if not a majority, staying there at the same time.
But that’s beside my point. “Americans don’t travel”. Well, sure we do. The United States is absolutely massive. The distance of traveling from Maine to New Mexico is more than double the distance of London to Bratislava, but traveling that route would be considered a great trip filled with history and cultural differences. Is it more meaningful than the same distance covered in the U.S? Could be. But why? What if the European Union grew even stronger and turned into the United States of Europe, then those imagined lines in the sand would grow more and more arbitrary until it would be just like driving from Philly over to Trenton to buy alcohol from a scary corner store when you’re 17 (sorry again Mom!). Many Latin Americans I’ve met consider their continent to be the land of one united people and despise the separation into different countries. And the U.S. has those cultural differences within itself. I argue that traveling from Braintree in New England, to Harlem, to deep Appalachia, to a Cuban neighborhood in Miami, to a Native American reservation in the Dakotas to, a ranch in Texas, to the redwoods in Cali and off to Hawaii and Alaska is fine. Not better, not worse than anything, it’s cool. *Hooooooooooooly shit a Chinese soldier just stormed on the bus demanding to see my credentials. Wow, that was a really big gun. What was I saying? Oh yes, how China is more like the U.S. than people think. Wow, calm down, gotta put on some chill music. Frou Frou? Sure thing.
This doesn’t need to be a quantitative comparison to anyone else’s travels, just your own. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone. Maybe you’ve been living in your parent’s house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania for your whole life and you make the move to northeast Philly and have to start paying your own bills for the first time. Man, that takes some courage. The hardest thing I’ve ever done is moving to New York City and sleeping on a friend’s couch while trying to start a life as an actor. So yes, travel. Please travel. Travel everywhere you want to go, but you don’t need to go to China, just get out of your comfort zone. That in itself will help anyone see the world through someone else’s eyes.
So in my conversations with Chinese who ask how many countries I’ve been to and their eyes open wide, I tell them not to worry. Your country has enough to offer until the time comes when you’re able to travel further. Unless you’re smuggling drugs or people, those lines on a map don’t actually exist. Happy Thanksgiving!