“I truly believe the world is not half as dangerous as other people think it is, travelling has taught me a lot” (Cecelia Xu)
Born in a military hospital in Huangshan, Cecelia was raised on an army base until she was 5 years old. Tragically, her mother passed away from cancer at that time, and her and her father moved back to his hometown of Wuxi; where she was to remain until she was 17 years old. Opening up to the Nanjinger, Cecelia revealed her story; the more she revealed, the more it became a shining beacon of independence born out of modern day China.
Young Chinese are becoming more independent and slowly we see social changes amongst them rippling in thought and behaviour. However, when it comes to venturing abroad, Chinese people still notoriously travel in packs. Tour groups on mass descend upon famous sights all around the world, while study abroad students stick together, rarely venturing into local social scenes.
Back in Wuxi, Cecelia’s father later remarried. “His new wife was very mean to me. A year later they moved away and sold the house. My school marks were good and the school didn’t want to lose me, so they offered me free study, food and accommodation. I was much happier spending time at school than at home. So from age 10 on, I lived at the school, alone. I became very independent, physically and emotionally, from a young age”, she said.
“I remember that I was horrible at taking care of myself at the beginning; I didn’t shower for 3 months, didn’t eat one proper meal for a year; only snacks and porridge (not because my family was poor, but merely because of [a] lack of care) so from age 12 I got much better at it”, she went on to say.
At university Cecelia watched a lot of western movies and TV shows; it was at this point she fell in love with Western culture. Her favourite movie became “Into The Wild” and that is what she wanted to do.
When we think of world travellers and back packing youths, Chinese faces do not come to mind. Instead, we sterotypically envisage Western dreadlocked and tie-died 20 somethings; growing beards and working on farms. Nevertheless, the youth of China today is going through what we may call a revival of the travelling soul; going at it alone, not afraid of what might come or what might be left behind. Numbers are still few but they are out there, in the wild, having adventures.
Cecilia’s first idea was to teach Chinese to foreigners, yet there was not even a market for that at the time, so she set about teaching at English schools. “[In China] there is a big range of foreigners. There are a few unbelievably ridiculous ones but most of them are great. Foreign friends in China made me realise that the world is so big. I thought, why not go out and see it myself?”
So, after working in the ESL industry in Nanjing for almost 8 years, she set out, alone, with a backpack and her savings. “I spent 2 weeks island hopping, in the Philippines before rubbing shoulders with the Chinese ambassador in Laos. I went on to Thailand and Indonesia for a friend’s wedding and I also spent some time in Malaysia”, she said.
Aside from cheap hotspots such as Magaluf, Ibiza and Mallorca in Spain, where youngsters only go to party, Southeast Asia is usually a first stop for most young backpackers when they set out to go “travellsing”. Known for its cheap countries and laid back attitude, youngsters can be heard one-upping each other for how many countries they have “done”. So it is not surprising that Southeast Asia is now the number one travel destination for young Chinese travellers. It is close, cheap, well used to tourists and set up for Chinese people.
“The UK, however, is where I had the most fun. I couch surfed the whole way and spent only £2,000 for 3 months of travel. My very first host was Italian. The first day we met, he had to go to work, so he just left me with the key and the empty house, and asked me to help myself! They’re super friendly people and there’s so much trust”.
When asked what her family think about her decision to travel and live abroad, Cecilia said, “I think it’s more about ‘face’. They think I have put shame on them because their neighbours know that they have a very ‘old’ daughter who’s still not married. My grandma thinks I’m worthless because I’m no longer in my early 20’s. She thinks only divorced men or widowers would want to marry me now because I’ve lost my value. My dad’s just like any other Chinese parent; can’t wait for me to get married and have children. Otherwise I am being selfish and irresponsible”.
It is hard to accept, as foreigners, that Chinese families treat their children in such a manner, shaming them out of living a life of their own. So it is refreshing when I meet young Chinese people choosing to live the way they want.
“I became good friends with Lee, a busker in Cardiff. We spent a week together; busking, talking, drawing, dancing and laughing. He treated me very well [and]unconditionally; I think his heart is pure as gold. One of my other hosts Ralf (a Zoologist) gave me his books to read. I didn’t even have time to visit the city because I was so busy studying! I was so inspired by him”, said Cecelia as she reminisced.
“Let me tell you about Jason, my host in Bristol. We walked into the city centre in just a robe with bare feet; people found us funny (or crazy) but I loved it. We had nice chats with homeless guys on the street as well.
“I couldn’t find a bus back to Bristol from Cornwall after a music festival. So I wrote a note and stuck it on one of those movable toilet doors. Soon I got a phone call and I got a lift from a girl! After my experience in the UK, especially meeting old friends and making new friends, I felt that I had so much energy and I discovered that I love people so much! I love the ‘trust’ people have with strangers. It makes us feel that our world is a big loving family.”
Up until this point Cecelia had been couch surfing in strangers’ homes. When pressed about any safety concerns she had or problems that occurred, she insisted all she met were good natured and no harm came to her. While fatalities as a result of the practice are low, too many reports online expose men who have been sentenced for rape; it therefore remains a rather dangerous way for a single woman to travel.
Fortunately Cecelia did not have to stay with strangers exclusively as she had the opportunity to bunk with her many foreign friends whom she had met in China. “I stayed with my friends Tom and Jake whom have a camper van, so I got to fulfill my dream of travelling in a camper van. I learnt how to cook, wash and sleep in it. After that I met a couple, James and Anja in Manchester; the next thing I know is that they’re driving me around the Highlands. We spent 10 days together; driving, hiking and camping.”
“I stayed with my friend Nicky in London for 3 weeks. She’s a visual artist. We went to a graffiti festival and I loved it. Nicky has a friend from Brazil. He was staying in the UK illegally. He didn’t have money or a permanent job, but that didn’t stop him from being happy. Most people couldn’t imagine living like that but he was happy and generous. I guess that’s what travelling brings us; we get to see more diversity of the world.”
“I love the people, the culture, the food and even the weather! The only thing I didn’t like is that people sometimes don’t tell how they really feel, but rather say it in a very concealed way. I’d rather them tell me what they really want or dislike and be more straightforward. In Australia, I realised people are the same way. That’s when I started to think maybe I should be the one to change my way of speaking, not them”. Traveling for almost 2 years, Cecilia says she never came across any other Chinese people. “I didn’t even encounter Asians. Maybe because the places I went were too ‘local’”.
While traveling through Malaysia, she got talking to an Italian traveller, who told her about his time spent working in Australia; he described it as “life in heaven”. Cecilia applied for that job straight away.
It was while living on a remote island off the coast of Australia and working on an oyster farm, that Cecelia answered an ad that had been posted on a job search site. The ad was looking for a part-time caretaker on a 26-acre mango farm in exchange for free accommodation and food. The person who had posted the ad started chatting with her and it did not take them long to find out they were a perfect match.
After finding love Cecelia is now living deep in the Northern Queensland bush. Although she misses the convenience of China, with regards to online shopping, she says this is where she is meant to be. “The best thing is that I found a perfect job nearby; a horse riding camp, where I can fulfill my dreams”, she said.
When I asked her what she missed about China she simply said, “The food and snacks!!! I miss convenient Internet shopping in China. It’s so cheap, thorough and fast. I used to buy everything online. Now I have to drive half an hour to town if I want to buy anything”.
Living in deep-country Australia, Cecelia says she was struck by the closed-mindedness of the people there. “The native people I have met in Australia are not world travellers. Most of them haven’t been out of the country”, she said. As a foreigner living in China it is nice to hear my own rhetoric said back to me about my own country from a mainlander; the ‘awareness’ that travelling brings.
Always in the back of her mind; getting out and being away, after her hard work in Australia pays off, Cecelia plans on jetting off again. “This time I’d like to visit South America, Europe, the UK again, Italy and Africa.”
Extensive travel remains one of the only ways to fully open one’s mind and begin to scratch the surface of the world in which we live. It helps us to be more aware, compassionate, wise and understanding of those foreigners that cross borders to live in our lands. Revival of the travelling movement is only going to become stronger now that we have awoken the sleeping dragon.