I was at the U.S. Consulate in Osaka today getting more pages inserted into my passport, which had run out of room for any more visas and was full. Sitting there waiting, I reflected on all of these stamps marking my entry and exit to and from various countries and I thought about what it all meant, where I was, and how I was feeling about my trip so far. It seemed like a good time, after five months traveling, to take stock of things and report back the significant or insignificant findings to this blog’s vast international readership.
People have asked me if I am still enjoying myself, how my trip is going, and whether I still like being on the road. I’m pleased to report that the resounding answer to these questions is YES; I am having the time and experience of a lifetime, I enjoy being a backpacker, and I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of adventures I dream of having. The mindset is still good, spirits are high, and physically I am feeling great. The hair is a few shades lighter and a few inches longer, I’m outside more than I am inside, I’ve taken about 3,000 pictures, and I have been able to read tons of books and meet so many other people. Naturally there are times that I’m lonely or wondering “what the hell am I doing?” “what the hell am I going to do?” or “where in the world am I?” I stick to my convictions and remind myself that adventure is a worthy pursuit and that my original plan was to leave everything behind and travel the world, so that’s what I’m going to do.
Moreover, I emphatically encourage everyone who has followed in any way my travel photos and exploits, young or old, to get out and travel whenever and wherever you can. Let yourself go. Go somewhere you never thought you would visit or go somewhere you’ve always wished you could see. Just do it. If you really have the desire to travel, the possibility is there and the only limiting factors are the ones you’ve set for yourself.
Okay, so five months traveling in Asia – the Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Macau, Indonesia, Japan – where do I even begin???
It was important for me to start a trip like this in Asia because it was a part of the world I knew very little about but somewhere I felt connected to on a very personal level. I am half Filipino but aside from visiting family in the Philippines frequently throughout my entire life I had never been anywhere else in Asia aside from a short work trip to Hong Kong, and I had never come here on my own. Part of me needed to go and see for myself what the rest of the continent was like. I felt that spending time here as a solo traveler might give me a different perspective or a better understanding of what it means to me to be an Asian American. Anyone who knows me might cough when they read that last sentence, because I look about as caucasian as they come, but I assure you that being half Asian and coming from an international family but looking white and growing up in America “as white” has been a part of my identity I’ve struggled with my entire life. Part of me sometimes felt like a puzzle piece that didn’t always fit , like there was this palpable dissonance between how I perceived my identity and how it was portrayed outwardly to others. While I didn’t discover the holy grail or the meaning of life and I still don’t look like I’ve got a drop of Asian blood, at least now I know I did it. I came here to Asia and explored; gained a deeper understanding of the place, and somewhere in these travels I’ve hopefully grown a little and developed greater appreciation for Asia’s vastness and diversity. It’s been unforgettable.
So what have I learned??? If I had to boil it down, I’d say my travels so far have helped me learn more about patience, compassion, and self reliance. Patience in that things take time and the best strategy sometimes is to stay calm and let things play out. The world doesn’t work on your schedule so sit back, be a part of it, and smile while you wait. Compassion in that meeting and seeing so many people from different walks of life, with backgrounds, circumstances, and world views apart from your own makes you appreciate and value others more. Travel humbles you when you recognize the things you have, how lucky you are, and makes you care more about people in general. Self reliance in that no matter what it is, where you are, if you keep a clear head about you, when faced with a problem, you can figure it out. No one is going to do it for you, so be confident in your convictions, stay focused on what’s important, and don’t be afraid to make a decision and go with it.
Other things I’ve noticed…
“I haven’t seen too many other Americans” is something I’ve heard a number of times. It’s true- in the grand scheme of things, compared with our European and Australian counterparts, Americans don’t really travel that much. Everyone seems to have heard the statistic that only a small minority of Americans possess passports. My experience anecdotally confirms the fact that America as a country is underrepresented on the travel and backpacker circuit – at least in Asia. There are probably a myriad of contributing factors – maybe Americans just travel inside America or stay closer to home. Maybe the corporate culture in America is prohibitive to extended travel and Europeans with their four and five week work vacations will always be able to see more of the world without having to leave their jobs. Maybe Americans just don’t like or see the value in travel. Who knows. Again, if you are reading this – I encourage you to commit to taking that next vacation. Go see a different part of the world and you’ll be better for it.
America doesn’t have that negative stereotype that I think it once did. At least that’s what I’ve noticed. Back in the late 90’s after high school when I first backpacked around Europe, I noticed it a little more – that small disdain for the “ugly American” traveler. This time around I haven’t really gotten that vibe, and for the most part people tell me they like America and say that they’ve met other Americans “who were cool.” I don’t know what to attribute this too, but it seems that our standing abroad has gotten a little better. Sure, people abroad like Obama more than Bush. But I think it also has to do somewhat with the overall growth in technology and a new generation of young people that view America more positively in general. So to you Canadians who still rock the Canadian flag patches on your backpacks, really for the main purpose of saying “Not American” – I say remove the flag or we’re confiscating your Facebook account.
One more thing I’ve noticed. China is like a scary big red octopus with tentacles all over Asia. They’re building pipelines down into Burma, laying railroad into Laos, they’ve closed off the Tibetan border to tourists, they beached a military vessel on a Philippine shoal in a territorial dispute, and have just recently sent more war ships to claim islands from the Japanese. They’re flexing their muscles and it’s important that we all take notice.
In Japan now, up next Korea for a bit then off to Nepal and hopefully Tibet (if China starts issuing travel visas again).
That’s about it- I’ll try to write more frequently if I can. Thanks again everyone – keep your notes, comments, and emails coming!
As I said, adventure is a worthy pursuit; I set out to travel the world so that’s what I’m going to do.
Philosopher’s Path – Kyoto