If you’ve ever been on Facebook, you’ve probably seen amazing pictures of your friends travelling; pictures of them petting a tiger, tanning on the beach or at a world-famous landmark. This is exactly what I anticipated for my four-month journey to China this summer. But once I was on the plane from Vancouver to Guangzhou, I knew that it wasn’t going to be the case. Those pictures are from tourists; my experience would be as a local.
The journey I am currently on requires me to buy fish from the gory fish markets, learn basic Chinese to haggle with vendors and even adjust to the extremely uncomfortable squat toilets. Everyday, I get the pleasure (and challenge) of experiencing the everyday life of Chinese people living in Guangzhou. While this was initially a terrifying concept, I realized that I had two options for my trip.
Option one was to bring my comfort zone to China. I would only befriend other English speakers, spend my nights binge-watching a Netflix series or finding refuge from Chinese cuisine in a local McDonalds. This option is based around the concept of ethnocentricity, where tourists judge foreign concepts as strange and cling to their domestic norms — essentially bringing the attitude of “my way or the highway” to travelling. At the end of your “journey”, you might be able to say you physically went to a country, but you cannot truly say you lived there.
Option two was to leave my comfort zone in Canada. I would eat at only local restaurants, shop at wet markets over supermarkets and visit the local attractions as opposed to the tourist traps. This open-minded attitude allows people to step into the shoes of those around them to the best of their abilities. This person lives outside of their comfort zone while constantly growing from their new experiences.
The above two options are on two ends of a spectrum. While I try to immerse myself, sometimes I just want to recharge and watch some Game of Thrones. To make the most out of my experience, I have developed three guiding principles to get the most from living in a country:
1. Be a Yes Man
Always say yes to an experience, even if you aren’t comfortable.
- Want to play on our company basketball team? You bet.
- Want to go to karaoke after an exhausting day of work? Of course.
- Want to try this bbq goose intestine from a mum and pop restaurant?Sounds delicious.
By saying yes to every opportunity that comes your way, you will maximize your exposure to the new culture and make some awesome memories in the process.
2. Fear an empty schedule
Always have something to do and don’t waste your time in another country. While downtime and relaxation are extremely necessary, they can easily be sprinkled into an activity.
After a particularly hectic week, I wanted some alone time where I could recharge. Rather than sitting in my room, I opted to visit a nearby park. It turned out to be a beautiful area and I spent the afternoon, walking around, writing in my journal and sipping some coffee. This experience would achieve similar outcomes to being in my room, but I had a wonderful cultural experience in the process.
3. Don’t get too comfortable
Remember starting high school or university? This new frontier was unknown to you at the time and you were likely stepping out of your comfort zone. In that first month, you are putting yourself out there — willing to make new friends, try new things and expand your comfort zone. But as months passed, you may have become less willing to make new friends, stop trying as hard to experience new things and get a little complacent.
The same attitude goes for travelling. After the initial shock, it may be easy to latch on to your same friends, go to the same restaurants everyday and stop exploring. Avoid this attitude by constantly throwing yourself into new scenarios.