By Ben Shane
This blog post is part of the Curb Scholars program.
I have faith in humanity when I travel. It comes from hitchhiking in Spain, where strangers interrupted their lives because they saw me for a total of a second-and-a-half on the side of the road and invited me into their cars and sometimes their homes. From the young woman in Morro Bay, California, who invited me surfing with her and her friends and equipped me with surfboard and wetsuit and patient instruction. From the countless people on the road who provided me with food or shelter or company, all of the most basic and meaningful necessities of life. These experiences bring me close to humankind and make me feel fortunate to be a part of it.
When I am involved in my own routine I tend to sink into misanthropy. I go the same places, see the same people, and do the same things. I have no need to go out of my way to find a place to sleep or buy cheap food, and why would I go through the nerve-wracking process of approaching a stranger when I can text a friend? Engrained in routine, I lose the simple, everyday experiences that showcase the kindness and generosity of the average person.
I tend always to be the beneficiary of this generosity. When I’m not traveling I am in Nashville, Tennessee, and not many solo travelers hitchhike through Nashville. Yesterday, however, even as the one far away from home, I was able to provide the same kind of openness that I appreciate so much when I am traveling.
I was sitting in a restaurant here in Kunming writing. A young Chinese woman came up to me and asked, “Are you…busy?” I was, actually. I was trying to finish up some work before meeting with a few friends for drinks, but I told her to sit. She sat and we talked.
She told me this was a special day for her. She has been studying English and dreaming of traveling to North America, and today she found the courage to begin approaching strangers with the goal of practicing English and learning about foreign cultures. I was the first person she came up to. There are foreign students at Vanderbilt who spend four years willfully segregated from other ethnicities, thanks to cultural disparities and a language barrier. And this girl, a native of Kunming, chose to break entirely out of her comfort zone to approach me, a dumb-looking guy with a beard. What if I had been too absorbed in my own things and told her to leave me alone? To be rebuffed by the first person she approached after building up the resolve to speak with strangers would have certainly set her back in her journey. It’s the sole reason not to approach people—fear of rejection. Thankfully, I’ve been in her position enough times that it was a natural reaction to be open to a stranger.
We talked for a while about the differences between America and China, and then I invited her to come with me to meet my friends. She smiled and her eyes lit up. “Really?”
I introduced her to everybody and she got to talking. She talked intently with everybody, and everyone enjoyed her company. She turned to me a couple of times to express her appreciation for being able to join us. At the end of the night we walked a couple of blocks until we had to go our separate ways. “I’m so happy. This is a good start to my English-speaking life.” She could hardly contain herself.
This summer I am interning for a San Francisco-based company called Compathos. One of the company’s objectives (emphasis mine): Catalyze real world interactions fostering collaborative connections among diverse stake holders including media professionals, non-profits, academics, students, skilled volunteers, compassionate travelers, and socially responsible corporations. The phrase that strikes me is “compassionate travelers.” For me, traveling showcases the compassion inherent in humans and nurtures compassion in both the traveler and host. Compathos does plenty of large-scale work beyond the compassion I am talking about. But the origin of any support for a compassionate venture is the individual.
There are loads of websites and blogs and books, all preaching the benefits of travel. For me they all miss the point. Long-term, transcontinental backpacking trips are not the only way to “discover yourself” and appreciate diversity. At its simplest, the benefit of travel is the disruption of routine. Being uncomfortable and vulnerable, the traveler must rely to varying extents on the kindness of strangers. Having no daily responsibilities, the traveler seeks out new experiences. Far from friends and family, the traveler meets new people unexpectedly. On the road these disruptions are necessary, but anyone can choose to disrupt his or her own routine without travel. I guarantee there are many places you have not explored in your city or town or even backyard. There are certainly people you have never talked to. All it takes is a decision to disrupt one’s own routine in a simple way to see the greatest benefit of long-distance travel. Take, for example, my decision to speak with the young woman at the restaurant; neither one of us needed to be open to the other, but we chose to anyway.
I believe the compassion that travel fosters is the most significant benefit, because it brings people together on equal terms. Other benefits of travel, despite being wonderful and meaningful, are essentially selfish—seeing beautiful places, having exotic experiences, and creating stories to tell friends and family, for example. These benefits are truly helpful for self-realization and self-discovery, but they put the focus of traveling on the traveler. Many people, myself included, badly need to focus on themselves in order to become better people. But self-improvement is not an end in itself; rather, it is a step toward meaningful contribution to humanity, whether that is on a large scale or small–writing a book, founding an NGO, or giving rides to hitchhikers.
In order for compassion to be truly meaningful, I believe it must be accompanied with respect. Respect provides perspective through which compassion can be most useful and most meaningful. Without respect, compassion may be misguided, leading foreigners to believe that a mere cultural difference is in fact a local shortcoming. This is the kind of thinking that brought Catholic and Christian missionaries to western Yunnan at the end of the 19th century. It’s even the same kind of thinking that led Mao Zedong to destroy thousands of years of history and millions of lives during the Cultural Revolution, when Chinese culture was deemed “backwards” and an impediment to modernization.
The work I am doing this summer for Compathos is focused on western Yunnan, specifically the Nujiang Valley where I went in April for Spring Break. As I mentioned in my posts back then, the Chinese government plans to build dams along the Nujiang, which currently flows freely from Tibet, through China and Myanmar, into the Andaman Sea. The dams in the Nujiang Valley of western Yunnan will force the relocation of around 50,000 local people, mostly consisting of ethnic minorities. It seems that China is its own worst enemy nowadays, attempting to modernize and compete globally without concern for individuals, culture, or the environment. Resettlement villages, where the current residents of the Nujiang Valley would be placed by the government for relocation, have a reputation for being poor both economically and culturally. My job this summer is to understand the actions and reactions surrounding the dam projects, and to write a compassionate account of the situation. My travels are already beginning to shift from a personal focus to a broader one. I have no delusions that I can single-handedly change the resolve of the Chinese government, but that’s not really the purpose. By returning to Nujiang and speaking with locals, I can show them that an average foreigner is interested in their well-being. I know that when I hitchhike and someone picks me up but can only take me a small fraction of the distance I want to go, this simple gesture that reveals a person’s compassion for my situation is enough to boost my faith in humanity.
This post originally appeared on Ben Shane’s blog: Learning in Yunnan