When I first arrived in China, I was asked the serious yet simple question:
Are you going to be a tourist or a traveler?
I chose traveler! Becoming a traveler is not an easy task but I promise once you choose to be a traveler you will be rewarded with great satisfaction and purpose. As a traveler in an unfamiliar environment, I was uncomfortable at first. So, I realized quickly I either had to adapt really fast or be that one annoying person who wouldn’t stop complaining. So, I chose to adapt and adapt QUICKLY!
The difference between a traveler and a tourist is simple; a traveler is willing to adapt to a new environment, ultimately becoming one with the people, places and things around them. Travelers deal with adversities and adjust to differences with ease. On the contrary, tourists are willing to seek new experiences and go to different places but only to a certain extent. Tourists are more willing to visit places just to get a 15-minute “tour” and then get back to their plush hotels and stable Wi-Fi. Travelers are not afraid to go beyond their comfort zone and get their hands dirty if they must. Clearly, it is much more rewarding, fulfilling and fun to be a traveler!
Within my first two weeks, I traveled to Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, Wenhai (Naxi village), Lashihei (Nanyi village), Shangri-La/Tibet and Chengdu. In each place I studied Ethnic Minorities, Development and the Environment. Basically, I had to actually stay in villages and live like the ethnic minorities that called these places home – resulting in an adventure I’ll never forget.
I have clubbed in Dali with locals, spent hours aimlessly walking around markets in Dali and Lijiang, observed the way locals interact with each other and tried to blend in to the best of my abilities despite my obvious skin color difference. I hiked up mountains for a total of 5 hours just to get into the Wenhai village. Then, I spent two days without electricity, hot water to shower with, and to top it all off- I had to use a squatty potty in order to go to the bathroom! It was difficult, but I made it work and have no regrets or complaints. During my time in these villages, I learned that many villagers only eat potatoes and corn everyday simply because those are the only two things they can grow. I learned that simple things like being able to have food options, hot water, or even paved roads were all luxuries - that I would’ve normally considered necessities. Many villagers have to hike hours outside of their village to work so they can make a living and feed their families. Paved roads were only built about 3 years ago, so traveling was mostly done by foot. (Can you imagine?!)
Having the chance to experience how ethnic minorities in the Southwest of China live was such a humbling experience for me. I did my best to make myself right at home with the villagers by helping them clean and prepare dinner, as well as, talking to them to learn about how they make a living in such poor environments.
On the brighter side, Tibet was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. I visited one of the biggest Buddhist Temples in China, located in a town called Shangri-La and learned so much about the way monks live. In Chengdu, I spent hours in a Giant Panda reserve and discovered that pandas are more like humans than I thought. Their mannerisms resemble a lazy old man, especially when they are laying down eating bamboo and sleeping. Though they are becoming an endangered species, there are people in China who dedicate their lives to the study of Giant Pandas and are finding ways to help them survive.
Every experience I had while traveling through the Southwest of China has contributed to my enlightenment. Overall, my experience was been one for the books and I am so excited to see what the rest of the world has to offer.
Being a traveler has allowed me to expand my mind, get out of my comfort one and most importantly grow. I learned so much about myself during those two weeks and can say with no hesitation that I am a much better person because of it. I am more open, less ignorant and more tolerant of other people and cultures. The thrill of traveling is something I do not think I will ever lose. The more I travel, the more I learn and the more I learn the more I want to travel.
So, my advice would be: travel, get lost, find yourself and lose yourself some more only to find yourself again. Be in the moment and love every minute of it whether it’s good or bad - because those moments are something you will always hold on to and think of with a smile.
Be a traveler, not a tourist.
Felicia Romain is a senior at Syracuse University, majoring in Political Science (Pre-law track) with a minor in Chinese studies. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Felicia enjoys traveling and expanding her mind on different cultures, religion and people. She finds great fascination in the Chinese culture and considers herself a Chinese enthusiast. Her aspirations in life are to explore the world, while doing what she loves by one day obtaining a career in Comparative Law.