Tag Archives: Travel

Traveling in a Box

There’s something that so many Chinese people tell me about myself that makes me very sad. I know that a lot of different flavors of people from many different countries travel the world and they all have their own motivations. They also have their own hangups, preconceived notions and cultural expectations of how things are supposed to work in the world. I’ve worked really hard to stay completely open to whatever situation and culture I arrive in, observing and interacting with, as often as possible, more curiosity than judgement. I feel like this is the best way to extract the beauty in differences between the way that cultures have evolved. Ultimately, this allows a greater understanding of what got them where they are and, ultimately, how I came to be who I am.

people in glass box over cityYes, it seems crazy that African people are cooking inside their huts with no ventilation. They’re “doing it wrong”. But it turns out that if you move the cooking outside, the smoke from the stove doesn’t rise up through the roof. If the smoke doesn’t rise up through the roof it doesn’t keep away the termites and, in literally a matter of days, they’ll go into a feeding frenzy and you’ll have no roof on your house. Every part of a long established culture is woven into a network, an integrated ecology of systems, methods and beliefs that impact each other in uncountable and unpredictable ways. Certainly more ways than can be quickly discovered by an outsider who immediately attacks each separate piece of a place that is unlike their own.

There was an Australian who wrote a long post on an expat board recently about how angry he was that, in China, peasants were allowed on trains, especially standing in the first class area. He had several people agree with him. His idea of how an experience of riding on a train should be was in conflict with the reality of another world he had chosen to enter.

He was also unable to take a moment to revel in the countless fascinating implications of this. Those peasants are now able to move quickly from place to place, filling roles essential in the rapidly growing cities of China. The growth of industry couldn’t happen without them. By “them”, of course, I’m talking about people who are exactly like every other person in China only a few years ago. Everyone was a peasant and only recently have the Ferraris appeared. The difference between the two was not desire and hard work but location and opportunity. He might as well complain that there are Chinese people in China, and too many mountains.

With every conflict between your expectations and the reality of another place or culture there is also this fantastic moment to see yourself for the first time. There is a moment to wonder why it bothers you that people walk shirtless down the street when it’s hot. If you think about it, it’s quite practical. There is no health or safety concern. But if it’s tugging at some part of you that you didn’t realize was there, now you can go talk to it and ask for its justifications. You may not decide to change your belief or action, but for the first time you can transform what was formerly an unconscious decision implanted by culture into a choice you yourself have made.

I used to live in a large old house with seven unrelated housemates. In America, this is not very common. When people would step into the house they all had the same first response. “Wow this place is amazing!” Next came, “how many people live here?” Then their brains kicked into gear. A new choice was suddenly visible that had not been before. They had to think about how they lived and why they lived that way. After a moment of thought they would end with either, “I could never live like this” or, “are there any rooms available?!”

So when I talk to Chinese people and again and again they tell me how absolutely different I am from every other western foreigner they meet (and some of these people meet quite a few), I would like to believe that they are referring to my amazing ability with chopsticks. Unfortunately, it seems like my desire to understand, instead of blame people from other countries for doing it wrong, is much more rare than I could have ever imagined. I can only hope that this myriad of travelers looking out from their carefully sealed cultural boxes, with the fingers they use to point, complain and laugh, accidentally punch a few holes in those boxes.

Image links to photographer’s site


When I first came to China I didn’t plan to become invisible. I didn’t use any of the invisibility skills I learned in woodland survival training. I just walked out into the street, with my foreign clothes, white skin and braid trailing from the top of my head and moved around as inconspicuously as a great ape sucking a pacifier in the middle of a kindergarten class.

Every head turned and every neck craned to look at me. Children stood frozen in amazement. Despite this they did not speak to me. They let me pass. The language was a distant wash of sound that surrounded me, trigging no response in me. The environment was so strange, so different, that the feeling filled me that I was moving through a universe not my own, a ghost, an observer. Nothing interacted with me then. It was as though I could move my hand through objects. Other than the silent looks I passed untouched through crowds.

Invisibility changed my habits. I’ve never spent much time on my hair or how I look generally, but suddenly I was aware of the little I once did care when those instincts vanished completely. When you are moving invisibly among people, what is hair? What is a stain on a shirt? Choosing a shirt at all is meaningless.

After my years of overwhelmingly overactive social life back in Austin, I felt a huge relief. I didn’t feel any tension that I might have to interact with anyone. I didn’t feel any obligation to chitchat or say nice things, as no one would understand me or… as a ghost… even hear me. I could leave my room and wander, still maintaining that same feeling of being alone, feeling fearless, feeling calm.

Eventually, other students began to arrive. I met some of them in the hallways and they spoke little bits of English. It jarred me. Things shifted. I became aware that people outside, people out there, might emerge from the foggy world and recognize me, know me as me, and that I would need to respond to them and interact. The world was suddenly paying attention to me again. I paused before putting on a shirt. I braced myself before leaving my room.

In Taipei, Taiwan I noticed something else. I arrived, knowing no one, and yet this experience was not repeated. The wealth of the place meant that people looked more like me. Many subtle familiar cues told me that I was near my known social group. Ironically the more people ignored me, the more this added to the familiarity and suddenly, at some deep instinctual level, their many small imagined judgements mattered. Did I look cool enough? Was I standing in an awkward way? Shouldn’t I know how to buy this ticket by now?

When I returned from my travels my favorite moment was seeing the smiles and feeling the embraces of my friends. I love knowing people here in Fuzhou. But I do sometimes miss the odd, safe, calm feeling of invisibility and I wonder, now that I’m learning to speak, if I’ll be able to find it again when I begin to travel west.

Just Out of Austin

There is so much to say that it’s always tempting to imagine taking the hours and hours required to write the perfect recording of an experience that misses not a moment and emotionally soaks the reader in everything I’ve known. This has never happened. As the weeklong span to write never appears, neither do updates about life experience that, through sharing, allow communities of humans to learn from one another. So I’ve learned to simply hammer out letters until my little timer goes off and, with a quick skim, send the latest notes into the world for whatever profit the world might gain from these tidbits.

So yes, the last few months have been unbelievably epic. Steaming in underground lairs that shudder and rumble as metal dragons roar by. The Korean man who stripped away my skin. Obsolete memory devices sliding liquid into delightful toys that stir our own memories. Human relationships rising and falling like ocean waves as their cores shift more slowly like the sand beneath them. But for now I’ll start with today. Today I’m in LA.

Staying with Eric Peterson has provided access to a beautiful beach, yoga and, better, a good friend to help decompress before the next step. The minute I arrived he locked the pile of bags in the car and lead me to the ocean’s edge. We both realized instantly that this was as far as I could go in my home country. The next step was to cross this massive pool of heaving water to the mysterious world, China, that lay beyond it. The next few days exist to collect myself from the gut wrenching process of leaving my home and prepare for the next stage of life.

Thankfully LA is full of the sorts of things that one does when decompressing. Bizarre yoga classes that morph into dance parties. The beach itself. Canals built by ambitious film moguls. Crazy people who’s very existence serves to remind me of the diversity of available worldviews and passions. Delicious shrimp burritos prepared in shady little stands. The exploring has only just begun but already, with a ten hour dose of sleep and the aforementioned yoga, I’m beginning to feel the tension of the last few months release its tight grip on me ever so slightly and let a little more breath creep in. Most importantly the physical stuff is gone now. Movement has begun unrestricted by its weight and I’m just beginning to feel the lightness.

Blaze is Letting Me Go To China

When I first signed up for this ride, I was looking for a launch into my next phase of life. But as I tear down all of my physical possessions a pattern emerges in the distribution of memorabilia. The framed photographs of the Chinese countryside. The paintings of Huan Xian. The Chinese sword. The Go set with flat bottomed stones. The Chinese coins. At last I pulled out the photo album sent me by my Chinese girlfriend of 12 years ago with the tiny handful of the only photographs I have from that time. There are six of our two and a half weeks in China. Six photographs. Two and a half weeks.

Even given my four year relationship with Weishi, that time seems so short compared to the lifelong sense of connection it established in me. The craving to return stayed with me ever since, and that journey has been delayed repeatedly over the years for one recurring reason.

The first big documentary film project I worked on was the story of an eccentric Austin songwriter that was shot and killed many years ago protecting an old man from his son. My friend Kevin Triplett started following the story and then built a small team including Mike Nicholson, Chris Ohlsen and myself. We interviewed hundreds of people over the years, traveling from Colorado to Georgia. Four dudes in a little van crossing the country picking up the pieces of a dead man’s story, looking through the tears and laughter and smiles of those who loved and hated him, many of whom were both, trying to get a glimpse of the man known as Blaze Foley.

Every time a relationship ended, it was time to move, and my ties were loose I would swear I was off to China. But this film, this epic project of so many years, kept creeping along. New discoveries. That one more great interview. Just plain getting it edited. At one point, after I had spent months doing early edits, all of the hard drives and computers were stolen and we had to start again from scratch.

Tonight, at 10:20pm at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin Texas, I am going to see the finished film. Exactly two and a half weeks before my flight leaves for China.

Thanks Blaze. It turns out that, now, I can fly.