In the fall of 1984, I backpacked through Asia for about eight months before taking on my first teaching job at a refugee resettlement camp in Thailand the following June. It was a heady time, full of adventures and a few misadventures as well, and through traveling in different countries, I came to learn not only a lot more about people living in other cultures, but also about walls and bridges we choose to create in our lives.
In October 1984 I entered China from Hong Kong, and for the next three months I navigated traveling in a country largely unused to solo foreign travelers. Having grown up in Virginia, I wasn’t used to crushing crowds of humanity simultaneously angling to get train tickets rather than standing in line in an orderly American fashion. Nor was I used to visiting sprawling markets where vendors would have you point to and then they’d kill what you wanted to eat, and then cook it for you on the spot!
Over a three-month period in China, I journeyed with other international backpackers. At other times I traveled solo. I became known as the American guy traveling with vegemite, as prior to arriving in Hong Kong I had been in Australia and had developed an enthusiastic taste for it. Bartering and negotiating were key to getting better deals on food and lodging, as was exchanging information with fellow travelers about the lay of the land behind or ahead of us.
Perhaps the first crack in the bamboo curtain I personally believed separated me from non-Westerners was visiting the Great Wall of China in November that year. I was traveling with a new fast friend, a fellow American, and he and I set out to do some exploring on our own there. What initially surprised me were how uneven and steep the steps could be as you walked up and down the spine of a series of walls that once stretched thousands of miles across the Chinese frontier.
Parts of the wall were cracked and decayed: other parts had been rebuilt to look as they might have been centuries ago. Built and refortified by a million plus forced laborers over nearly two millennia and a succession of dynasties, the wall served as much to keep people in as to keep intruders out. Ultimately its lifespan and purpose collapsed in the mid-1600s, when the Manchu Dynasty toppled the Ming Dynasty, when the wall fell into an even deeper extended period of decay and neglect.
Standing there, I wondered what it was like to be a citizen of the People’s Republic of China in 1984, to be largely silenced in a geopolitical chess game, to have few freedoms and opportunities compared to those I had in my own young life. My mind wandered to other places where walls had been built, such as between West and East Berlin, and the frontier between West and East Germany. My sister Nancy. as a 15-year-old, spent the summer of 1971 visiting a friend and her family in West Berlin. I recalled harrowing stories of travels with her host family through East German checkpoints to visit Austria, as well as other places in West Germany.
Around twilight that afternoon at The Great Wall, my American traveling companion climbed a steep series of steps to another section of the wall, sat down and started playing a flute he had brought for the journey.. Time seemed suspended. The music swirled and drifted in from different directions as a still warm breeze flowed over and through gaps in the wall. When he finished playing, we both walked quietly back to the guest house where we were staying, at peace for being able to experience the Great Wall, its enormity, and its meaning for ourselves.
About a month later, in December 1984, I traveled by train to Kunming in Yunnan Province. One warm evening, while I was sitting outside a cafe reading a book, a Chinese man in his early 60s who spoke fluent English introduced himself. He inquired where I was from and why I had chosen to visit China, and we ended up talking about a wide range of topics..
Spontaneously he invited me to sit in on an English class he was teaching that night. It was hard for him to teach, though, with about two dozen middle school age kids spending more time looking back at me rather than focusing on the lesson. He was very gracious, patient and calm in regaining his students’ attention, and then he invited me to speak with everyone from the front of the room.
Walls, barriers and boundaries seemed to vanish as we had a lively, fun, and often funny exchange that lasted well past the normal class ending time. Students approached me afterwards to say thanks, shake hands or bow in appreciation for the opportunity to connect with a native English speaker. Sparks had been lit and ignited in both directions. I thanked my new teacher friend, said goodnight, and never saw him again.
I was immersed in my element teaching that night, sensing the awesome opportunity and responsibility to be and build a bridge in a world where some people sought to construct walls instead, within their own and between other countries. Other serendipitous experiences over the next few months ultimately led to landing my first teaching job at a refugee camp for Cambodian and Laotian children resettling with their families in the U.S. I had found my purpose, doing things that helped people connect more deeply with their environment, and experience the interconnection we all share as humans on this one planet Earth.
2017 undoubtedly will be yet another year when a fearful few angle to build more walls between people. I have lived long enough to have learned that bridges more powerfully connect and strengthen us more than walls could ever do.
May this year be one in which you create, build and help others construct bridges rather than walls. Life, humanity and real freedom, as always, hangs in the balance.