Somethings you can only understand after someone has passed

You will always wonder if you should have spend more time together.

I realize that no matter what, one will have have such questions on the back of one’s mind. Instead of using up mental space to ponder the “what ifs,” spending time to understand people after they have passed is a more valuable use of time. Going through my grandfather’s things, I found that he kept the ages of each one of us in the family following traditional Chinese methods of keeping track of years. It is not very obvious. If one doesn’t take the time to really observe, one could easily miss the fact that he was keep track of specific people. From this process, I learned that some things just aren’t spoken, There is always more to learn about each person and there will be some things that can only be learned from carefully going their work after they have deceased. Moreover, the way in which a person is understood can never be separated from the perspective or curation of the person trying to understand. My image of my grandfather will be very different from my father’s or my sister’s. Inevitably, we each strive to project onto the dead our hopes of what they ought to be.

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Snippets from 21st Century Vagabonds, No. 2

I met the most persons while traveling in Cape Town. In a dodgy hostel that appears to lodge local druggies, I found a place that felt like home for the first time in weeks. Again, I was reminded of the tired cliche that home is not a physical place, but the company one is in.

First, I met one of my roommates, a reserved, independent German lady, who is traveling in Africa for the very first time. In one of the rare times of my life, we appeared to click almost immediately. She was inspired by my bravery and bemoaned her own 9-5 life. She was on holiday from her job in Frankfurt. I will never forget that moment when I told her how I visited one of the poorest slums in Lusaka, Zambia and how shockingly eye-opening the experience was. I relayed my observations, inarticulately, as words could not describe some of the things that I saw and feelings that I felt. To my surprise, she expressed a genuine sense of awe that I had the courage and the opportunity to visit these places. Partially, due to our conversation, she decided to extend her stay in South Africa. I found it really special that my experience inspired someone else to expand their horizons and open up to the great big world. Perhaps, I could join the ranks of some these 21st century vagabonds one day. 🙂 Her words were also very special to me. She told me that though we have met only very briefly, she feels that we can speak to each other from the heart. That statement alone tells me that German must be a more romantic language than English, because those words are something that I have wished to  express in a long time, albeit in the negative, but had never found any conventional English forms of expression.

One of the things that I enjoy the most about speaking with non-native English speakers or English speakers from different parts of the world, is how they use English to express concepts in their native cultures in a way that I never knew English could express. I expand my understanding of what English is capable of, from every person that I meet.

Ok, back to the story. In turn, at this dodgy hostel, I also met a solo-traveling elder lady from China. I have recounted my awe for this lady countless times now. Unlike the typical Chinese tour bus style, this 65-year-old lady from China who spoke very little English chose to go at it alone. She reminded me of the Chinese revolutionary spirit of the mid-1900s. She’s not one who has gotten comfortable and soft from China’s eager development. Her salt-and-pepper hair was in a short, almost-buzz cut. She spoke in a rush, ready to get on to the next task at hand. She dressed in a greyish-floral, pant-suit-esque attire from the revolutionary era with a water canteen hanging from her neck. Her movements were swift; she appeared healthy enough for rough traveling. Her story is such: she’s a retired schoolteacher from Jiangsu, a historically wealthy and cultured province that borders Shanghai. She has always dreamed of traveling the world and decided to finally let go of the fetters of social norms. Her husband prefers to play chess at home. Her plan was to visit a continent each year, stopping when she hits 70. First she traveled around China, then US, then Europe. Africa is her fourth continent so far. When asked about her travels in Europe, she described it as a piece of cake, given how well connected the countries are, by rail. Africa was her biggest challenge so far. She once waited four hours for a car to fill so that she could travel from one point to the next. I hope that I can have her courage at her age and similarly, never become too soft for rough solo travel.

Within two days or so, I also met a couple from New Zealand and Belgium who are rounding the African coastline by motorbike. Since, they were the first long-distance motorbikers that I had ever met, they left a huge impression on me. (Subsequently, I would go on to meet or observe countless many others, which unfortunately dampens the novelty a bit, though of course they are still incredible endeavors.) As a relatively mainstream (**cough cough capitalist) person prior to my travels, I thought everyone was career-driven, more or less. What most shocked me is that the couple quit their jobs in their mid-30s to embark on a 2-year motorbike voyage. I had always imaged the mid-30s to a prime time in one’s career. A time when things start to snowball and accelerate really fast. Plus, that is also a time to start a family, etc. A time to be a real, real adult. Many questions started to brew in the back of my mind. I, too, started to become aware of my fetters.