Four countries, five airports, and 60 hours later, I’m almost home. I look out of the Minneapolis airport—creaking by on around 4 hours of sleep for the whole trip, wondering if I’m just writing dribble and will have to scratch all this later—and I feel a growing dread.
Across the tarmac, dead poplar and thin fir trees are laced among paths of snow and frozen wheatstalks. Exhaust from the trucks rolling by hangs in the air with the crystals. An American city, its collective of twelve floor alternating 1970s concrete and glass business blocks, peeps above the trees. English over the intercoms, English between passengers, English yelled down a walkway asked for coffee given documentation. The dunkin donuts window the Mcdonalds smile the HoHoHome for the Holidays. The Merry Christmasses, wished with all affection and answered with wide, white smiles a, “You too!”
I’m practically home before I’m home.
I guess you could say it’s been a gradual re-adjustment, the way they don’t immediately release a captured animal straight back into the wild. Stages. Getting to Bangkok’s airport with three busses after the skytrain broke down, with one bus ending abruptly and another slamheading the breaks from an unexpected train (my water bottle, spilling down the wooden floor). And none of it particularly phasing me: I’d get there, frazzled but not broken. I wouldn’t have been so confident five months ago; you’d have found me curled up on the cancelled first bus’s floor mumbling something like “it’s not like this in Japan, it’s not like this in…”
It sure isn’t. When I arrived in Bangkok in May, chaos was the markets, the streets, the temples. In a fever dream of eight days I clung from feeling to feeling, swung by the tides of my violent culture shock in the ceaseless city. I only saw broken transit lines pushed through endless shanties, smelled rotting meat and incense, and felt a sense of nowhere to this place.
Back in December, I’m struck much more by a feeling of everywhere. Coming in from Cambodia, after the much deeper disruption and chaos of the other countries, I couldn’t believe how modern and orderly Bangkok is. Unlike the rest of Southeast Asia, it’s got malls, metros, luxury establishments, and fucktons of 7-11’s serving just about the most beautiful ready-made meal to be found: the immortal toastie.
That all exists against, around, above a poverty, a working class, and a spiritual traditionalism as vivid as anywhere in Asia. Wooden homes clustered around bog canals stare down the golden palace across the street. Underneath a bridge, around a broken couch cardboard boxes and garbage a cat rifles through, a shrine, painted in bright yellow and white, is decked with flower garlands. The city made infamous for its ping-pong sex shows, gay and trans openness, and insane backpacker bars is completely beside itself in mourning for the king: every local wears black and a memorial ribbon, towers are repainted with the king’s face, and a memorial song is played everywhere at 6 pm.
In May, these contradictions either swung me from emotional pole to pole, or all hit me as an immobilizing mess that refused to make sense. This time I embraced the contradictions: Bangkok became my city of everywhere. And this time I biked through it, fought the touk-touk drivers and street-by scam artists with grace, and greeted every local with a smile and well spoken sawa-dee-krap. Ending the trip where it really began, since that Golden Week trip was what inspired me to drop everything and come in the first place, couldn’t have been more fitting. I saw how much I’d learned and the confidence I’d gained, in navigating environments so completely different from where I’d grown up.
I’d become—dare I say it—just a little bit of a world traveller!
In that sense, my 72 hour sojourn back becomes an opportunity to look at all I’ve done at the same time that I’m seeing what I’ve got left to do. I thought I was done with Shanghai: God damn, I was long past bored with it the six days I’d already been there, never mind a 13 hour layover on 5 hours of sleep. I carried that feeling with me as I fought my way through the long lines and the crowded subways. The pushing, the stares (from people and cameras), and the different guards asking for ID. The been-here-done-that part of my brain that closes off the world past my nose as I sit there with a semi-smug smile and a notebook open on nothing.
But I step out of Lujiazui station, and the Oriental Pearl tower, three purple glass spheres, rises into the mist. It creates itself around hundreds of other glass towers, ring roads loaded with cars, and the long brown river roaring with boats and countercurrents. And what’s so striking isn’t that this is all new, but precisely because I’ve seen this before—I’ve been here, it was me who saw these things, me who made something of it. And I’m hit with a thought that falls into my sub-consciousness, becoming a feeling spreading through my blood: the amazing things seen, at 23; where I’d been, at 23.
And my day in Shanghai became anything but been-here-done-that. The eclectic life of a Chinese city, its alternating clicks of complete control and complete insanity, struck me almost like I was seeing it for the first time. Bikes lacing between honking cars. The fires of street cookers mixing with that lowhang smog. The fact that the crook-street neighborhoods siding up against Nanjing Avenue (the jewel in Capitalist China’s crown) are some of the oldest, most spontaneous, and least wealthy in the city. Or how an aroma, a pungent mixture of ginger deep-cooked meat raw-stripped intestines garbage and exhaust, follows you wherever you go—follows you and reminds you this couldn’t be anywhere other than China, forever and after China.
“And damnit,” I think while waiting in a McDonalds they’ve kicked a screaming homeless woman out of, “I won’t ever stop being fascinated by this place. Even when it kills me,” as her banging against the windows defines the rhythm to my frenetic brain waves.
I’m forced to consider what I’ve done in these four months. I’ve seen some of the most amazing places in Asia—whether that’s getting sucked into the Chinese megacity, scaling the great wall, getting lost in the jungle, biking through Laos, or feeling like a full-fledged temple explorer in Angkor Wat. I made great friends in the great times and have so many stories to tell. But was any of it real? What did I make in my time here? What do I have to show for it?
I fight against the neoliberal circuiting of my brain—the whole, how much is this degree/trip/person worth to me, or will this show up on my resume. If I was looking, at the end of Japan, for something that was gonna better some future career or impress some distant relative, “Mate, it isn’t this.” It’s a hard tightrope to balance across, when one side’s the dollar treadmill, and the other’s the hourless dayless days where the only obligation is the cash you earned on said-previous treadmill.
I’ve done both in the 20 months since graduation. One left me strained, drained and cynical, the other aimless, lazy and bored. In the end they both came back lacking. Pure backpacking, I’ve come to accept, is not the life for me. When I travel, I want to travel outside of myself as much as I want outside of my home territory, and that only comes in places completely outside of my comfort zone. When you’re getting hostels with hot water and wi-fi, travel agencies that arrange all your transport across whole countries, and not needing the local dialect beyond hello and thanks, you’re never going to be forced to really work for your place in a place that never needed you.
I might not have recognized this if I’d done the backpacking part first. Taking the pictures might’ve been enough. But Japan showed me what it means to really discover—it’s as much an internal process as external. Learning the language, absorbing the culture, gaining access to a people and way of life in many ways opposite to my own: I’ll still be reeling from Japan’s impact for years. When I travel again—sooner, for the love of God, rather than later—I need to travel more like then than now.
And now I’m coming back after a year and a half and on the surface I’ve got nothing to show for it. Two years away while friends are finishing masters or nabbing real jobs with fun buzzword position names. When I left UBC, there was always the chance I’d come back one of those people too—making some kinda tangible difference, with a law degree perhaps? All of this was supposed to be leading towards some kind of international relations area. All of this was part of a plan. Plans, in the end, didn’t crumble, they just got more honest:
I was never gonna be a lawyer; all of this writing, well, it just lead to more writing. And all those stories I accrued? I guess that’ll make me a great storyteller. See, bleed, write, bleed, write, see.
Because in the end, the things I’ve seen? A sunrise pulling up over the world’s largest religious structure, the spires shooting fire across the dawning sky. Losing time sense and self in the face of the world’s newest and oldest superpower, along its great walls and endless towers. Witnessing the physical genocide in Phnom Penh’s school-turned-prison, feeling the cultural genocide across China. Understanding the nature of personal peace between the sunlit spires of Ha Long and the starry temples of Luang Prabang. Gaining the worlds upon worlds of Japan’s immortality.
Maybe I can’t make anything of them yet, but there’s no way all these things haven’t been absorbed by me. They’re working inside me somewhere, moving towards something really incredible, that’ll be as much mine as it is all the different parts of Asia. I’ll create it, and this will all make sense.
The first night back, I go to my brother’s concert. He’s an amazing guitarist, and once his band develops a couple hooks to their songs they’ll start making their way round the soundcloud circuit. Both brothers and all their friends, with their beanie hats and leather jackets, their scarves and their semi-lean. Maybe they’re no closer to anything than me, but I’m on the edge of 24 and this is all starting to feel too real. But right as I’m leaving my brother’s longtime friend reveals to me he’s been reading all my blogs along the way, and,
“You’re an amazing—like dude, really, an amazing writer.”
And the dread recedes, possibly just long enough to figure out what’s next.
Maybe in the end it all comes back to Bangkok. To Shanghai. To that life force they hit me with again and again.
When I first came to Bangkok in May, as crazy as it all was I forced myself to keep looking, telling myself that “as overwhelming as this is to you, as outside of your comfort zone, this is life. See it, absorb it, or you’ll never be worth your stripes.”
And when I came back, I was able to look past slogans, stereotypes, or preconceptions. I met with a lady making sticky rice, an old man pulling a cart of chickens down the street by push bike, a girl practicing English so she’d make it into a big college. In Shanghai as rushed to the subway to make it back to the airport, a (possibly homeless) man in a tracksuit rushed beside me, and we exchanged my first proper Chinese conversation ever, ending with me:
中国很有意思! (China is very interesting!)
And him laughing loud and whacking me on the back.
It’s these things I was travelling for, these things I saw and can tell. I set out from UBC saying I’d make a difference, and maybe that can still happen. But it’s only gonna happen on here—this pen and these keys. And if there’s one thing these 17 months have really taught me, it’s that telling these stories is all I ever was but maybe, if I keep telling them, not all I ever have to be.
So there’s no time for resting! Ho Ho Ho Let’s Go!