In exactly three weeks from today, I will be on a plane back to the United States, leaving the country that in the last three months, has become my home. This thought causes me a little bit of panic, and a lot of heartache. And for that, I am grateful. That is how I know that the past three months, every day here, meant something. It mattered. And it changed me deeply.
I have spent the weekend mapping out our travel plans for the next three weeks – budgeting and scribbling down train schedules, Googling the weather (when Google works), and pouring over our now-worn guidebooks. I have sketched out several lesson plans to use as I teach each class for the last time, just to beat it into their heads one more time that their English teacher loves them and always will – but not one of those lesson plans has felt right. And that is because leaving my kids, feels wrong.
The past few days, I have found myself trying to take stock of these three months – to measure them in terms of Well, we’ve seen this place. We still need to see this place. Or I need to do this, but we’re out of time. I’ve found myself almost remorseful, thinking in terms of – we didn’t check this place off our list, or we don’t have time left to do this. And really, how ungrateful is that? How laughably and deeply human is it, to look back on an incredible experience and instead of seeing the masterpiece, picking apart the places that could have held more detail, more color, more beauty. More. How weak is it that I surrendered, even for a moment, to the all-too human feeling – that an experience can and should be done again, and better? That I had to see blank, and had to do blank, to have properly experienced this place.
After some solid mental chastising, I found myself sorting through my literally thousands of pictures from the past three months. Honestly, I spent a point laughing out loud at my own ridiculousness, at the notion that there could have possibly been more.
I saw myself – all lanky, travel-tired, and smiling – at the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, the Olympic Training Grounds, Kung Fu dramas and Chinese acrobatic shows in Beijing. I saw myself in Shanghai, lost in the green of the Yuyuan Gardens by day and entranced by the lights of the Bund over the water at night. I remembered night market after night market, enjoying a Confucius temple in Nanjing, walking the rocky Chinese coastline in Qingdao. I scrolled through picture after picture of beach after beach from our week in Hainan, China’s Hawaii.
I have seen more of the geographical world in this semester than many people get to see in their entire lives. I am extremely lucky and deeply grateful. But beyond the things I have physically seen, I am most humbled by having seen the following truth today; China, and indeed, life, have been made beautiful because of the times I was travelling to people – and not places.
The view over the tangled green mountain from the Great Wall was given life by the laughter ringing out as I shared it with my best friends. My first time swimming in the ocean was given glory because of the people who shared in it, and knew just what that meant, what a fear I was conquering.
My favorite train rides or bus rides or waits-in-line were not made beautiful by the scenery, however additive, but rather were given power and joy because I was travelling deeper into the knowledge of who someone was – who I am, and how that connects. The most beautiful sights I have seen were not palaces or palm trees, but rather the faces of those I love – the people where I have traveled.
You can’t describe in words how it feels to arrive at the place in a person where they tell you what movies their family watches every year for Christmas, to see the involuntary joy on their face as they tell you about their brothers and sisters back home, their mom and dad. There is not language for the understanding that passes in silence between two friends on a rainy street in a foreign country. You cannot accurately freeze or photograph the laughter on a bouncing bus in the middle of nowhere as tacky movie quotes and ugly faces evolve into a second-language among the group.
You can’t bottle it up, you can’t measure it, you can’t place these things on a map with certainty; imprison them with a timeline.
But I can tell you this. When you find that truth – that knowledge that people are the places we must travel, that they are the most vital and worthwhile of journeys – you find a power and a comfort in all the coming and going. You understand that there is always time – time to travel, time to see this place or time to do this. Because you can travel a world of people within your own neighborhood, within your first period class, within your workplace, wherever you are. You can grow enormously and be affected and connected for good. There are innumerable destinations and sights more beautiful than you can imagine waiting, waiting for us to open ourselves to the travel. And that is something you can’t map out, or budget in your time and patience. It’s something that happens along the way. And before you know it, you’re standing at the peak of the most beautiful mountain you’ve ever climbed, staring into the sunrise – only it’s no sunrise at all. Rather, it is the beloved and beautiful face of someone who has become family to you, a brother or a sister, a friend in every sense of the word. Someone, who, across an age gap or thousands of miles, despite a language barrier or seeming lack of any common experience, settles your being with the knowledge that their heart knows yours.
My favorite places here were not places at all, but people. Everything I have seen, the skyscrapers and the tombs and the temples, they pale in comparison to the people. The instant-friends I made on our arrival tour, teaching in other cities. The friends we made through church attendance – the families that took us in. The Muslim woman I call mama, who feeds us free lunch at her restaurant every day and buys us gifts when she goes on trips. The woman in the fruit stand who gives us discounts for smiling. The best friends I had all through high school who came to China too, whom I’ve grown to understand and appreciate that much more deeply. The beautiful girl with whom I am privileged to share an apartment and to live life, who teaches me volumes daily. The 1,500 children who love me every week and give me soul-smiles. The boys who exercised their priesthood, took care of us, and became our brothers. The friends back home who stayed constant and with whom I grew closer. The hundreds of people who change my day and my perspective each week I am here.
As I look back, the most poignant experiences were special because they were shared – through words and silence or simply smiles or even emails. They were special because I felt them with someone else, if even some days, they were shared only my Heavenly Father in prayer. I was never, ever alone in my travels.
And carrying that knowledge, helps me to feel that even though my time here is ending, no matter where I find myself in the future – I will always be travelling.