I Drift Like a Cloud – Epilogue

“I drift like a cloud,
Across these venerable eastern lands,
A journey of unfathomable distances,
An endless scroll of experiences…
Lady Zhejiang here we must part,
For the next province awaits my embrace.
Sad wanderer, once you conquer the East,
Where do you go?” 
- Tom Carter, China: Portrait of a People (book)

After finishing the trip in December, I spent January to April getting back into normal life in Boston. Though life on the road was exciting, I was very much ready to be home. I could finally let my guard down completely and not have to worry about where I was going to sleep that night. I wouldn’t have to repeat the same conversation of where I was from and where I was going to every person I saw. Some people who start traveling remain vagabonds for the rest of their lives, but I have found that friends on the road can never replace my community at home. Being amongst friends and family, feeling close with others, having deep conversations, going to the movies, hiking in the woods–normal things–these were all things I missed. And most of all, I missed being a nerd. It was my delight then, when in April I found a new exciting job in San Diego and engrossed myself once again with plugging calculations, being awkward, and arguing about science.

Now that I am back to “normal working life”, most of the time it feels like all a dream. Every once in a while, there is something that tries to convince me that it wasn’t–that the person who rode that bike was indeed myself–but often it’s not convincing enough. When Ulugbek showed up at New York JFK airport, I still wondered how I could have possibly met him in Nukus, in the desert, speaking Chinese with a bunch of Chinese construction guys. What?! Nonsensical.

I find as a traveler, I live two separate lives with two separate identities. My friend Orian says it’s like being Clark Kent. You have your normal life, where you follow social norms and everyday routines, and then there’s your superhero life, where you follow everything but those norms and routines. Whilst you are living in either life, you can’t imagine living in the other. On the road when I’m sleeping next to pipelines tucked away in the mountains, I can’t see myself going to a normal job everyday. Yet when I am now sleeping in a bed at home, the thought of being on the Silk Road seems like only a story I read or a movie I saw. It’s hard to explain our double lives to people. If “normal people” hear about your long term travels, they might think you an irresponsible person for not working or taking care of family at home. Or they might think you resemble a dirty homeless person commonly seen on city streets. Yet, if travelers see you as a “normal person” dressed in a suit, they might think you a narrow-minded person only focused on money and having no world view. But I have learned that no matter what other people’s judgement of you may be, you can learn from them. I am equally inspired by CEOs who have worked hard to build a successful career as I am by travelers who walk around the world for a decade.

For me, the road is simply a different means of learning. The money you spend on an adventure is like tuition for school. It’s an investment for better understanding the world around you and to make lifelong friends. Afterall, isn’t that what the point of school is? Now when I read the newspaper, I can feel more connected to the people and places. I’m glad and blessed to be able to straddle both the traveling world and the working world.

Since my trip has ended, many people have asked me, how did this trip change you? In response, I’d like to share some thoughts I wrote in Mongolia to Tom Allen, a bike blogger:

1-Trivial things
Last April, I started my Istanbul to Beijing trip, my first solo bike tour. My first few days and nights, I couldn’t stop worrying. Every little thing about my bike seemed wrong–wobbly headset, brake adjustments,
rack screws, lost spare tire. Though I was pedaling, I didn’t know where I was going, what I was doing, and why I was there. I had no confidence that I could deal with the problems that I would face and I worried constantly about traveling alone. Would my wheels seize on a big downhill? Would there be bad situations? Would I be too naive to miss the signs of a bad situation? 

Then, only 3 days into the trip, my friend Sean Collier was killed by the Boston Marathon bombers. I never felt so alone and so far away from home, in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language. I felt the world so unjust, taking away one of the nicest and kindest souls I know. thought, if the world is so unkind, how would I ever make it to Beijing? When I thought of Sean, I just cried and cried, and everything else went out the window. All my bike problems, all my constant worries seemed so trivial when you can’t replace a friend.

At some point, I then realized that everything else IS so trivial. Everything else I worried about I could buy or fix or eventually think through and figure out. I knew that Sean would want me to bike to Beijing and meet tons of new people; I knew he would be traveling with me in mind and spirit, and that filled me with motivation. From then on, everything worked itself out. I went to the local bike shop, bought new tires, got all the necessary repairs, and started biking again. When I had fears of being alone, I would tell myself that Sean would fight off all the bad guys. And I made a point to meet a lot of people, because people are more important than anything else and they are worth knowing and understanding. There’s an incredible world out there with so many incredible people that would welcome you with open arms. At the beginning of the trip, I lost a brother Sean but by the end I had gained a brother Ulugbek.

Often people ask me “What did your parents think about this?” Though my parents didn’t understand my trip and didn’t advise me to do it, they have always expressed that their children should follow their dreams. My family comes from a typical immigrant story. They came from a poor village in China. When they arrived in America, they couldn’t speak
English, and they had nothing; they worked long hours, sometimes 18-hour days, in whatever work they could find: as a seamstress in a sweatshop or helping out in a restaurant. They saved money like crazy; they wouldn’t even buy new clothes when everything was worn to rags.

They worked hard all their life for us–their children–to give us opportunity. Hence, my parents never wanted us to stay close to home; if we did, they would think we weren’t maximizing our full potential. They wanted us to get ourselves out there. Once a family friend asked my father, “You let your daughter travel all over the place? Don’t you want your daughter to be like you, find a good job as an engineer, get married and have a family?” My father responded: “I don’t want her to be like me, I want her to be better than me.”

Ultimately, the trip is your decision to make. Your parents can only offer a suggestion. I think if you are really committed and passionate about something, they will usually come around to your side. Explaining your reasons for the trip will help. If you’re committed, you’ve probably already had those reasons figured out for yourself. In general, I think parents’ biggest worries are that their children will make rash decisions without thinking them through. The more information that you can provide, the better. It shows that you’ve done your research (parents like to know that they’re kids are smart). They also like to feel they understand you and your decisions (afterall, you are their child). Possible things to consider are: how you will take precautions to stay safe, how you would find places to stay, how to keep in touch, etc. If you don’t feel 100% committed because you are not quite comfortable or the timing is not right, you might reconsider the trip for a later time. Life is long, and just because you’re not ready for it now, doesn’t mean it will never happen. I suggest doing some soul searching and make sure you’re ready for it. Only do what feels comfortable and right.

After I finished university, I traveled for almost 3 years, some of it on a bike and some of it backpacking. In the US, we don’t have “gap years” like in Europe. If you have missing time on your resume where you weren’t working, that’s a bad thing–the concept of “traveling” is quite foreign to many employers. Most people probably think you’re a trust-fund baby going on luxury cruises around the world. Why would employers want to hire me? I had no real work experience and three years is a long time to “not be doing anything”. I felt very awkward in job interviews when people asked about my travels.

But through 6 months of job search, I discovered that it’s mostly about mindset. If you think that no one will hire you, no one will. The more I embraced my travels as a part of me, what I wanted to be in my career, the more I felt people wanted to hire me. Because ultimately your career is about who you want to be and finding the right fit between you and a company. Sure, many employers looked at me funny, but then I also realized there are employers out there that understand the concept of travel. It only takes one to employ you for you to have a job. If you explain how your experiences contribute to your career goals, some are willing to listen. I would also explain how traveling, especially traveling alone, has made me a better leader. Employers really like leadership skills.

Eventually I found a job that fit me perfectly–a job that combined my 4 years of university education in engineering with my love for meeting different people and learning different things (which is why I travel). I became an engineer designing solar energy projects. In my job, I got to travel to different places for potential projects and meet all kinds of people from construction workers to architects to business managers to other engineers. My employer had worked in Haiti and Mexico for several years as a solar contractor and understood the desire to explore different parts of the world. (Thanks Paul!)

4-Leap of Faith
One final thought regarding lack of belief in one’s skills, one’s knowledge, fear of the world, and not knowing where to begin: The world has a funny way of working out. The more I travel, the more stories I have to prove that things always work out and there are a lot of good people in the world to help you through your struggles. Its not hard to see that from reading other many other bike blogs. The best way I found to overcome those fears is just to start–with whatever you got. If you don’t like it, you can always go home. But you figure out a lot of things quickly once you start. Maybe you brought too much stuff and mail things home. Or you give away half the things you brought to someone who needs it. Or someone you meet on the road will give you a map you need. Or fix your bike for you. On this trip, every time I had a problem with my bike, someone (either another cycle tourist or a local) took my bike and just fixed the problem for me. I didn’t have to do anything! Stuff like that always happens on the road. But the hardest part is taking that leap of faith.

Everyone has a different way of taking that leap of faith. Some people find it through religion. I find it through inspiring quotes or books or other cyclist blogs, but most of all from supportive friends that believe in me and tell me I can do it. And with each bike tour, my faith develops more from all the good things that have happened to me. So my best advice is to find something–whatever it takes–to hold your breath, close your eyes, and take that leap of faith.


One Thought on “I Drift Like a Cloud – Epilogue

  1. Thanks so much for finishing your story. I may have once inspired you. You continue to inspire me!
    Only point I will disagree with now that I am 57 years old: life is short. Do it now. Or soon.
    love and best wishes,

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