April 02 2015
Written By
Josey Orr
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Pathfinders: Six Months in China

Our Pathfinders series is a collection of guest posts from Adventurers all around the world. If you'd like to contribute, please send an email to Today's post is by our friend Ryan Ball. 

China is a lot of things. It’s big, its industrial, and its full of people. But the one thing that I will remember it as above all others is that it is beautiful .The people, the country, the music, and the ease of travel all lend themselves to being the most amazing place that I have ever been lucky enough to call home. After enough fights and relationship troubles with my degree in Economics, I finally had to call it quits. It became painfully apparent that I needed a change of pace. And being impulsive as I sometimes tend to be, and not knowing anyone who had ever been to China, within a few short weeks I found myself signed up to be an English teacher for the next six months there.

Soon enough I landed in a country about which I knew little, destined for a city whose name I could not pronounce. I expected big cities, bad air, and who knows what else. And I wasn’t disappointed. The first thing that I learned stepping out into the cold grey air of Shanghai is that there is a distinct smell found everywhere in China. As if each city bathes in the same perfume of coagulated streets and constant hum of day to day activities from work, night markets, and everything in-between.

After a few weeks, not understanding a word of what was being said around me became commonplace and didn’t bother me in the least. In fact I loved it. I was lost in a whole new world, one that I understood almost nothing of, far beyond the language barrier.

I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was going on at any time of day. People dancing in streets, smoking indoors, and random words in English used in conversation because that was the coolest slang of all. However, the lack of understanding of what was going on around me gave me a much greater understanding of what encompassed everything else in my life. I’d been plagued for as long as I could remember with ideas and dreams of “adventure”, of living up to all the Hemmingway and Thoreau books I’d read in high school and college. I never considered myself an adventurer or anything of the sort, and still don’t.

I grew up in Colorado toying around with hiking, camping, snowboarding, but never taking any of it seriously. Always focused on the next step, on college. And now finding myself void of any grand vision, or next clear step, I found myself truly content for the first time. I had never even owned a camera, but bought one the day before I left for China and decided I would do my best to figure it out while I was there.  And to the best of my ability I did.

My camera wasn’t new or expensive, but it did the job. I fell in love with the idea of capturing moments through its lens. Nothing that would ever be in national geographic, or make any money, just capturing moments that I saw in everyday life, scenes and places that I wanted to be able to look back on and remember. But as my time in China grew longer and I had the opportunity to travel across the country, the beauty of the country began to unfold in front of me like the pages of a book written in mountains, small towns, crumbling buildings, giant skyscrapers and people more kind and caring than anything I had experienced before.

The cities were bigger than my mind can even now comprehend. Giant malls and building built next door to crumbling houses and homes. Old markets where flowers now bloom out of the rubble become every day sights. And if you're not careful can be taken for granted. However, the mountains, and the landscapes once you get outside of those cities and all the secrets they hold still confound me. I cannot adequately express the feeling of being lost on mopeds in the middle of the Yangshuo (Dr. Seuss) mountains in the midst of a rainstorm, running low on gas and having no idea how far it is back home. With your friends stopping to pick flowers and another friend picking up rocks and explaining that these are impossible to find in America, it all only drives home more that you are truly lost in a place beyond yourself.  Whatever you thought you were getting yourself into and no matter how good or bad you ever imagined it could be, it had surpassed all expectations and turned into something else. Something that all those great authors wrote about and I always thought I understood, but not until those moments, lost in Yangshuo, Hangzhou and Huangshan, amongst the yellow mountains, tea plantations, and on ancient rivers did I feel like I finally gained a glimpse as to what those authors were truly writing about.

To sit on train seats harder than a wooden bench for twenty five hours with a poor farming man on his way to a city for the first time to attend his sons wedding sleeping on your shoulder. Or a student my age treat me like a master of the known world asking me to please give him an English name that he might have some way of relating with the world he had for so long wanted to identify with that I then had finally found myself so glad to finally be rid of. Adventure is not that same cheesy thing our friends all post and share articles about on Facebook. But to be lost, mentally, physically and every other way possible and be immersed in a foreign place to the point that even though I could barely understand a word of what was said or going on around me I felt like I was at home. It is something I have found myself trying everyday to recreate now that I am back at home in the same small college town in Utah. And I try every day to look at the mountains that surround this valley where I live with the same awe and wonder that I viewed everything else I saw and experienced in China.

My time there changed my life dramatically. I could write another ten pages about it. Getting outside your comfort zone, outside your house, your state, or your country will never leave you disappointed. Don’t worry so much about your next Facebook status, your next tweet, or friend request. Your eulogy won’t be written in status updates, and your worth isn’t measured in followers or likes. It’s measured in the calluses on your hands, the friendships you’ve made, places you’ve been, and the people you helped along the way.

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