As soon as I return from a long-term trip, that’s what people ask me. And as usual, I’ve known my answer since before I even took off.
Next year, I’m headed for Asia – specifically, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, with (hopefully) a stop in South Korea on the way. This is a trip I’ve had in mind for a few years now. At times, I’ve wondered why I didn’t do it sooner. Why did I take the extra-long route and traipse through over 30 other countries before finally heading to the motherland?
I actually have been to all three of these countries before – twice to China, three times to Hong Kong, and once to Taiwan, though the last was for only about 30 minutes at the airport. But I have yet to visit China or Taiwan on my own terms, without my family, and explore them the way I have countries such as Spain, Italy, and Australia. One of my uncles keeps reminding me of that, and my response has been that there are so many fascinating places in this world that China just has to wait.
Next year marks a couple of milestones for me – it will be 10 years since my last trip to China and 10 years since my last Chinese class. I’ve had a complicated relationship with that country and its language. To me, they’re both like those distant relatives I was never properly introduced to before I was forced to get to know it intimately.
My mom signed me up for Mandarin lessons when I was in 5th grade, after my Taiwanese friend’s mother asked if I wanted to join her class. It wasn’t a beginner’s class, and I didn’t speak or understand a single word of it at the time. Cantonese was my first language, and I’d been going to Cantonese classes since kindergarten, geared toward developing my reading and writing skills, so I guess my mom figured I’d be able to pick things up before long. I did manage to catch on to a certain extent, but I was always 10 paces behind my native-speaker classmates, who had a background in written as well as spoken Chinese that I had never been adequately schooled in at my previous Chinese school or at home. I basically dozed through classes, letting the teacher’s words fly right over my head without acquiring or retaining much from her lectures. Homework was always a major struggle, and even now I can barely write a simple sentence or read a children’s book, let alone the newspaper. Somehow I managed to put up with this routine all the way through the end of high school. As soon as it was time for me to head off to college, I abandoned my Chinese language studies, never to resume them again.
My first trip to mainland China was in 1998. The country was booming by then, well on its way to becoming the next major world superpower. I was looking forward to visiting my ancestral homeland, eager to finally be in a country in which everyone would share my ethnicity, after having been a racial minority my entire life. But after I arrived, I quickly realized that I was not considered to be “one of them” but as much a foreigner as other North Americans or Europeans. And while people back home assumed this would be a trip for me to discover my heritage, I found it to be anything but. The locales we visited on this trip, as well as the subsequent one two years later, were nowhere close to where my ancestors had lived. They didn’t even speak the language my family spoke. Even after a few years of studying Mandarin, it was still as foreign to me as Spanish. We visited sites with a lot of historical and cultural significance, but to me they might as well have been in India or Ukraine.
I wound up in Eleanor Roosevelt College at UCSD, where study abroad was enthusiastically promoted, and my parents initially tried to push me to go to China. But my dream had always been to go to Europe, so they had to resign themselves to the fact that I wasn’t going to embrace motherland travel anytime soon. Besides, if I was to study abroad, I wanted it to be a truly foreign experience, and China just wouldn’t be completely foreign to me. I figured I’d had enough exposure to the language and culture at home that I didn’t need to go abroad to immerse myself in it. And backpacking through Europe – drinking sangria on a night out on the town in Madrid, nibbling on croissants from a Parisian patisserie, and seeing the Colosseum up close – was a rite of passage for a lot of young Americans. I didn’t want to miss out.
So I spent the summer between my third and fourth years of college in London doing an internship. Then, instead of entering the workforce after graduating college, I studied abroad in Madrid and Paris and gained proficiency in two languages in the process. I Eurailed around the continent on weekends, breaks, and for 7 weeks before it was back to reality for me.
Of course, I couldn’t give up the vagabonding life for good. I continued my travels to countries like Thailand, Australia, Hungary, Argentina, and even Hong Kong. China has been on my horizons, but each year I’d hear about yet another amazing country I need to visit right away, pushing it farther down my list. And now, for the first time, I’m feeling more of a pull towards Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei than I do to Rio, Istanbul, or Santorini.
My Mandarin is rusty now, after more than 9 years of neglect. I can still understand basic conversations, but I fear I’ll be tempted to speak Spanish in China because it was the last foreign language I used in my travels. I have felt the guilt of abandoning it, and of not putting more work into it. But in my defense, none of my learning experiences has been ideal. My family has raised eyebrows at the fact that I showed interest in mastering pretty much every language except Chinese. After all, my younger sister, who had quit her Chinese classes while in high school (prematurely in my parents’ minds) and a cousin who did not grow up speaking or studying Cantonese at all, spent time studying Mandarin in college. I’d entertained the idea of taking a course in Beijing, but it’s still a 12-year-long nightmare that I’d rather not revisit. I still feel obligated to master it, but it might never happen.
My plan is to start in China, working my way from Beijing to Nanjing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, crossing the border to Hong Kong, and ending the trip in Taiwan. I’m hoping to document this in a book, a sort of “Eat Pray Love” in which I’m re-discovering the motherland and two countries to which it has historic links. It’ll be a timely subject, since China is a country that will be on the international radar for years to come, and so many people still fairly ignorant about it, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan. Hopefully, I’ll be able to convince a publisher that it needs to be in print. Otherwise, I’ll just print out copies for anyone who’s interested.