With one-third of my program in Shanghai complete, I am now questioning my very reason for going abroad and traveling. When I first began this journey with you all, I expected to gain new life enhances/experiences and to grow culturally relative to the people of Shanghai. In many ways, I am being allotted these opportunities for growth: I am visiting museums, trying new foods, engaging in the nightlife and local entertainment, etc. I am even learning to speak Simplified Chinese. However, something still isn’t clicking for me, and sometimes, I still feel somewhat empty. While this could very well be a textbook case of acute nostalgia, I am still searching for the meaning and reason for why I travel and for ways to extract all I can from my opportunities abroad.
Having traveled to 16 different countries outside of the U.S. thus far, it is as if a voice inside of me is begging me to travel and see the world. Sometimes, I feel like I am becoming a serial traveler. I vividly remember my first trip abroad to South America. I would occasionally call my mom crying. I was so blessed to be having these experiences and seeing different types of people and cultures. They were tears of joy because I knew many of the people my age from where I grew up never imagined a world outside of our hometown or neighboring states.
Part of me was expecting life outside of the States to be starkly different. During my European travels abroad, I often found myself comparing the countries I visited to different places in America. However, I noticed those countries were surprisingly similar to a few of the cities I have visited or frequented in the U.S. Now, in Shanghai, I find myself comparing it to New York. Fashion and style just ooze out onto the streets, and restaurants and shops cater to your every desire. From the many skyscrapers and its state of the art subway system, Shanghai definitely has the flavor of the Big Apple. I am beginning to realize that while the scenery and weather of places may contrast, the hearts and souls of each country’s indigenous people are strikingly similar.
I recently asked a friend of mine why he travels, and he stated, “I travel to find myself, to find truth, and to find meaning. This weekend, I had a conversation with an 86-year-old woman; she told me one of her biggest regrets in life is she didn’t travel when she was younger…that can’t be my life, Jonathan. I need to see the world, to engage in different cultures, and to hear/share the untold stories of others.” I engaged him a little bit more and asked, “How do you find yourself?” He answered, “By meeting individuals who don’t come from ‘a U.S. background.’ I really found that through my friend, Farhat (a student my age), in India. I learned so much about myself through him & through our exchange of stories.”
From my friend’s answers and my own reflections, I realized that getting the most out of your abroad experience comes from hearing the history and culture of a place from the mouths of its natives. Talking and asking the difficult questions will not just get you the answers you seek, but they will also alleviate and remove any ignorant stereotypes you may have associated with those people. I also find myself connecting the same dots during my trips to museums. I have learned that I do not have to see what makes each place different, but rather see how we as people from different places have commonalities or share similar values like the importance of family, tenacity, humility, and maintaining focus.
In the grander scheme of things, I realize that the empty space or fulfillment issue isn’t a bad thing after all. Instead, it is the chance to occupy my time with the things that matter most. One of the most profound lessons I am learning is that life doesn’t always have to be about life-changing events, and that is okay. There is a beauty in the simple things and strength in the unknown. Thoughts of my future ring loud as I finally have the time to map out the things I both want and need to do. As I think about the rest of my time here and the travels yet to come, I smile and thank God, for I now know am doing exactly what I should be doing.