Burn the Ships

There is a story about the conquistador Hernan Cortes, that when he got to Mexico, he ordered his men to burn their ships so that they could not return home. This story is held up by many people as a real visionary move, a succeed or die trying statement of leadership. (To be clear I consider Cortes to be scum, someone whose place in history is next to Hitler, Stalin, and Columbus. Cortes destruction of the new world cultures was appalling and as such he should be remembered as evil, though the story of burning the ships is somewhat inspirational).

I have returned to Beijing, seemingly the one thing that I have want to do since circumstances forced me to leave a year ago. But ever since I got here, I have been looking for a reason to run.

I am not sure really why I want to leave, I think the it’s because this time I can, when I first moved to Beijing, I had spent everything I had to get here, and I wasn’t making enough money to go home, now I make enough to buy a plane ticket every month.

Sometimes the simple fact that we can leave will keep us from settling down and digging in. I think Cortes knew that, and that’s why he set fire to his ships. He felt that he had a bigger purpose in Mexico, and he didn’t want the ability to leave to keep him from accomplishing what he set out. I have reached the point where I either cut run now or go all in and burn the ships and don’t look back.

I have taken a good long look at myself, and realized that there is nothing to go back to. My friends and family may still be in Nebraska, but it is no longer my home. Beijing may not be where I am meant to stay forever, but it’s where I am now. If there is move in my future, I need to figure where and then put a plan in place to get there, but in all honesty when I left America I left with purpose of working in Beijing until 2017, and it will take at least that long to set up my next step. So now I dig in and wait for what’s next and watch my ships burn.

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Why?

This piece was originally written for a friend’s recruiting website.

I have been living and teaching in China off and on for the last six years, and the most frequent question I find I am asked, other than what is the strangest thing you’ve eaten (three tie between a silkworm, a scorpion, and a donkey burger), is Why? Why would want you live there? Why do you like living in China? Why, for love of god, do you keep wandering around China?

The truth is before I came to China in August of 2016, I never had any desire to visit China. I came because I graduated college, was stuck in an unfulfilling job, and had nothing better to do. Ultimately, I fell in love with the country.

Why? There are so many reasons why, and they’re not always apparent in every situation.

China is old, really old, and it feels old, when your standing on the Great Wall or at the pits of the Terra Cotta Warriors. I studied archaeology in college, so of course the history is appealing.

The people are super friendly (in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, this isn’t always apparent).  It’s fairly easy to make friends with the locals.

China today is like the American west in the mid 1800’s, basically it’s full of opportunities. As a foreigner you can do anything you want. I have friends who originally came to China to teach English and ended up owning bars, restaurants, and breweries, some have gone on to acting in Chinese movies, and others are now tour guides. There is an amazing sense of adventure that comes from knowing that you literally can do anything you can dream of.

Also there is a really awesome feeling that come from popping out a subway exit and realizing that you’re in Tiananmen Square.

In short I am China, because in my mind nothing else can compare to it. Teaching is great. And the experiences will last you a life time. And as I said when I first came to China all those years ago, it’s only year, you might as well take the Chance.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Today, I read a post from the Art of Manliness (a website I thoroughly enjoy), and it stirred in something in me, perhaps, it was just my own defensiveness. The post was entitled Against the Cult of Travel. I will say that I was not offended the opinions this post contained, but felt like it missed the heart of the true nomad.

This post stated that: “Modern culture is in the throes of a real love affair with travel. It’s become a central element of our zeitgeist, a main tenet in living a fulfilled, non-pedestrian life. Everywhere you turn, and no matter the dilemma, travel is offered as the cure… Travel isn’t just framed as a cure-all for what ails us, either, but as a goal around which to build the other elements of one’s life. Don’t have children, the thinking goes, because they’ll hinder your ability to travel. Work for yourself and create passive income, so you can jaunt off to exotic locales whenever you want. In a relatively safe and prosperous time, in a society that lacks many built-in challenges and hardships, travel has become the way to have an adventure, to demonstrate a kind of bravery — a cosmopolitan courage where one ventures into unfamiliar territory and undergoes a rite of passage to become an enlightened global citizen. Travel is thus seen as both a tool of personal development and an almost altruistic moral good. In short, as the old religious sources of guidance and identity have fallen away, a kind of “cult of travel” has developed in their place. But is our faith in travel justified? Or have we forced it to bear the weight of far heavier expectations than it should be made to carry? “

I agree that there a lot of people out there who tout travel, but they are pseudo travelers, when the journey to their 5 star hotel and their carefully curated tour (missing all the grit that makes that place what it really is) end, they return to their comfy houses and their 9-5 jobs and pretend they are better because they “traveled”.

But what about the nomads, what about the nameless, placeless ones who travel simply because our hearts won’t let us rest. Those who do not fit into the modern paradigm of being born, getting an education, shackling ourselves to a desk and a mortgage, getting married, having kids, retiring, and dying, or in modern shorthand, settling down.

I have spent the last five years of my life on the other side of the world as a teacher. I have had many friends who feel as if they have let their parents and friends down because those not to do what was expected. Many of their family and friends also feel as if this person has failed because they did not fall in line with the status quo. This same guilt used to affect me, I always felt like I was missing something, but at the same time this “something” eluded my best efforts to find it. All I knew, was that I was happiest living in China, and that was really what mattered most, opinions be damned.

The funny thing about the AoM post was that the author stated that The Hobbit is considered the Bible by these “travelers”. I love the Hobbit, I love all of Tolkien’s work. I feel like if it is a book about travel, than it is one about the hardship, loneliness, and deprivation of the road. I can relate to Bilbo Baggins simply because I felt similar things during my travels. However, if I were to recommend The Hobbit as a travel book, it be with the words, “this book is about why you shouldn’t travel”.

The nomad’s bibles are books like: The World is My Home by James Michener or anything by Paul Theroux or Pico Iyer.

Although going back to The Hobbit, there is one thing that resonates with me, and that is the quote (although the author of the AoM post does his best to chop it to pieces), “Not all who wander are lost”. Unlike many, I do not take this as license to travel or justification for what I do, but rather as a cry of hope that my way of life isn’t a lost cause just because everyone thinks it is.

When it comes down to it, the AoM post was basically self- justification for not traveling and also self-defense by someone feeling as if society is pushing them to go a direction they’re not comfortable going in. This is a sentiment I can relate to as someone has been urged to give up traveling and settle down. At the same time, many people I love have no desire to travel, yet do not force their way of life on me.

In the end we must follow our hearts and our conscience, or God, if you believe in one, which I do. I believe that my being nomad is somehow part of who he made me to be therefore I shouldn’t mess with it.

And to those feeling pushed to travel remember most of those Instagram pictures were posted by people just like you, people who have the nice cozy life, but want to pretend that they are somehow better and more adventurous than you. Don’t be fooled be the apparent lack of safety nets and security, they’re there, they’re just hidden.

I don’t really think that there is only one way to do life, there is just one way that works for you.