Interview with a Traveller: J

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This is the first instalment of a series I’m working on: the “Interview With A Traveller” series. In these posts, I’ll be interviewing fellow travellers to try to gain a better understanding of the huge variety of motivations, experiences, hopes, dreams, and desires that lead people to a life of travel. And if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll dig up some funny, bizarre, and/or gripping stories.

My first interviewee is my partner, J. It’s fair to say that she’s has done a fair bit of travelling and living abroad. She taught English for two years in Northern China; has taken the 9289 kilometer Trans-Siberian railway from its terminus at Vladivostok across eight time zones, all the way to Moscow; and meandered her way around Europe. A year into getting her law degree, she spent a summer back in China, travelling with a friend and remarking on the changes that had taken place in just one short year away. We’ve traveled together a few times now, usually on short road-trips, but also on a trip to New York for my birthday last year, and her zen-like ability to deal with difficult and unexpected snags inspires me. The woman is damn-near unshakeable. We’ll be travelling to China together in a few short weeks, where she’ll (hopefully) keep me from getting into too much trouble, silly “wàiguórén” that I am. 

On a lazy Sunday, as she winds down from having taken the bar exam and graduated from law school, I asked her for some perspective on her past experiences and her future travel goals.



Name: J

Age: 33

Nationality: Canadian

Occupation: Student-at-Law

Favourite Travel-related Book: “Anything by Murakami”

Favourite Destination: Hong Kong

Least Favourite: Novosibirsk

Favourite Airline: Xiamen Air

Dream Destination: Salar de Uyuni

So, who the heck are you?

[Laughs] I’m J.

I should probably know that by now, shouldn’t I?

I guess, yeah. I’m J, I’m 33, and finally just finished three long, agonizing years of law school.

Congratulations! I hadn’t heard about that [laughs].

Oh yeah, okay, sure.

At the risk of being super obvious with my questions, what got you into travel? Was it an interest in international law, or did it start before that?

My family travelled to the US quite a bit when I was younger. So growing up, I loved travelling; I loved going places, I loved the idea of picking up and taking off. I had friends from all kinds of backgrounds growing up.

Really though, my interest in travel was an outgrowth of my interest in language. I tried to learn Japanese because I was watching Sailor Moon —laugh all you want. I watched Sailor Moon when I was in grade six or grade seven and I thought it was so great, but I could tell the editing was really awful. So I decided “I’m going to learn Japanese, and I’m going to watch it in Japanese so that I can get the jokes”. Needless to say, I didn’t go that far with it, just learning a few phrases here and there.

When I got into high school, I was just really taken with Russian literature, but I thought “you know what? There’s ideas here that I’m missing.”

Missing out on the cultural and linguistic context.

Yeah. Like, in high school, it was all about Shakespeare. And reading Shakespeare, you learn to deconstruct the text and you realize all the layers of meaning, you think “well, what am I missing in the translation?” So, I started to learn Russian.

And again, I didn’t get very far with it, though I did get further than I had with Japanese.

It’s sort of incremental with you, huh? Each time you try to learn a new language, you get further and further with it. By the time you hit your tenth language, you’ll be just hyper-fluent.

[Laughs] Yeah, pretty much. Maybe Georgian? Turkish?

That’s pretty much what happened with Chinese! I was living in Chinatown, and I was seeing all these signs in Chinese, and thinking to myself “I’d like to know what these things say.” I’ve since taken classes at university, and just last year finished the HSK 5 [ed: the HSK tests are a series of standardized Mandarin tests for non-Mandarin speakers].

Anyway, sorry, long story short, my interest in languages has taken me to the places those languages are spoken. So, my Russian is better now, my Chinese is a lot better now…

So rather than going to a place, falling in love with that place, and learning the language, the way a lot of people do it, you sort of worked in reverse.

That’s exactly it!

I’ll be a bit generous with myself… I can speak, to some degree or other, six or seven languages. My fluency varies… like I understand Spanish well enough that I was able to get by in the Dominican Republic.

The coffee was pretty dang good, btw.

So, given the name and mission of the blog —I’m Dave, and I aim to get lost —have you had any experiences getting lost while travelling? What’s been your best experience, and your worst experience with getting lost?

So, the best experience: I was in Hong Kong with an old roommate, and we were staying with some of her family. We’d spent a whole lot of time getting shown around by her family, which was great, but toward the end of the trip, we decided to head out and explore on our own. So we headed to Kowloon on one of these little buses that bring you downtown.

The problem was that my friend’s family lived way outside of Kowloon, and we didn’t know how to get back. So we were wandering around the district trying to find a bus to get us back, without luck, for a solid hour. I’d run out of money on my phone, and she didn’t have a phone, so we’re trying to find the bus, and asking people. The problem was that she could speak Cantonese, but couldn’t read it, while I could read it, but couldn’t speak it. And you know, after wandering around for an hour, totally lost, you get so exhausted.

Wait, so was this your worst experience, or your best?

The part where it gets good; there’s been an hour of us wandering around, and we go down this little side street, and we find this little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. I got a random dish that ended up being one of my absolute favourite dishes for the first time there; it’s called cheong fun. It’s basically fried dough wrapped with a really thick rice noodle, with soy sauce. Not only that, but I also got a pineapple bun.

By the time we got in touch with anybody, the buses we were trying to get were done running, so we got on the Metro and took it to another place further down the line where we managed to catch a local bus to get home.

And your worst experience getting lost?

My roommate and I, when I was living in Shenyang, wanted to go for a trip down south during one of the holidays. We wanted to go to Xiamen, then Taiwan, then Kinmen, this little island that’s administered by Taiwan, but is right next to the mainland.

My friend made the arrangements, but when we arrived in Xiamen, we couldn’t get internet access to find our hostel, and the phone number he had for it was wrong. We went to what we thought was the right address, or at least the right area, but instead found all these little side roads, with no indication of where the hostel was.

Eventually, we went down to a beach, because we were just so hungry by this point, and spotted a street meat vendor or something like that. And these little kids start making fun of us for being foreigners! Of course I can understand them, so I starting shooting back at them in Mandarin, and they freak out and run away. The street vendor is so impressed that he directs us to a couple of his regulars a little way down the beach; a couple of Polish expats, who helped us find where we were supposed to stay.

All told, it took us three hours of hopeless wandering, with our bags and all. It turned out my friend hadn’t even written the address down properly! [laughs] My most important takeaway from that trip was, if there’s a chance you’ll have to rely on a phone number in China to get to where you’re going, call it before you head out on your trip, to make sure the number is right! When you get to a place, make sure you have enough cash on hand that you can afford a taxi to get you to your destination.

Now, I heard that when you were living in China, you once got sort of stranded in Hong Kong for a while. What was the deal there?

So, this is a cautionary tale for anyone looking to teach in China. It comes at the end of a long series of me having jobs; some of them were legitimate jobs that could get me work visas, some of them were not. Even some of the legit jobs will just take you for all you’ve got. They’ll make you teach classes at all hours of the day, and then not pay you. My first few jobs actually paid well enough, but they couldn’t get me the work visa, as they didn’t have the proper licenses.

I finally got a job that would pay well, and get me a legit work visa. So I started working there on contract, before I got the visa, while waiting for the administrator to get the paperwork together. Finally, when the paperwork was ready, I filed the application for the new visa, and it got rejected for some reason.

My boss wasn’t sure why the application got rejected, so she was like “You know what? Your visa’s about to expire, you’re going to have to go and do a visa run anyway, so why not go to Hong Kong and put in the visa application there.” I headed down at the end of December, and as soon as I arrived, I put in the application for the new work visa. And again it was rejected.

As it turned out, because I’d been to China on so many different visas, including a family visit visa which must have set off some red flags, I got rejected. Ultimately, I had to mail my passport back to Canada and have my mom apply for the visa on my behalf in Toronto, and mail the passport back to me. To crack down on visa fraud, China had changed its policy so that you had to get your visa in your home country. Meanwhile, I’d been stuck in limbo in Hong Kong for almost a full month, without a passport.

In the end, it did all get sorted out. But I had a moment, when I was getting really frustrated with the process, when I realized, “I can either laugh about this or cry. I could have gone to Mongolia instead for this visa run and been stuck for a month in one of the coldest places on earth in the middle of winter, but instead I’m stuck in paradise. Might as well laugh!”

So where did you stay during this month?

I actually got put up by a friend of a friend of a friend… that type of thing. I put a call out on Facebook, which you can actually access in Hong Kong, and through the grapevine managed to find a place. The guy had an apartment, but was staying at his fiancé’s place. He didn’t know my friend at all, but the fact that I was in such dire need of a place to stay had trickled through so many people that the news got to him. That’s the power of guanxi, man! [ed. Guanxi basically means “network” or “connection”]. This is how guanxi works, right here!

It wound up actually being a great month of forced vacation. The apartment was about the size of a shoebox, so I spent a bunch of time in the parks, and the Hong Kong library. I spent a fair amount of money, but made it back pretty quickly once I got back to my job on the mainland.

So I guess part of the reason you’re so attached to Hong Kong is that, aside from it just being straight up beautiful, is that it managed to be sort of a little oasis in what would have otherwise just been a nightmare, dealing with your visa troubles.

Absolutely! I didn’t want to have to give up and buy a ticket back to Canada.

So, you’ll be going back to China in a couple weeks… what’s next after that? Do you have any big plans on the horizon?

Having finished law school, I’ll be articling with a law firm for ten months here, starting in August. I’ll be done around May or June next year. Whether I get hired on as a lawyer by that firm or another firm, I’ll get that whole summer off. So the tentative plan is do sort of a “round the world” trip. Maybe start in Australia and New Zealand, maybe head to the Philippines, then Southeast Asia. I’d really like to see Central Asia, and Eastern Europe, since I didn’t really get the chance to last time I went to Europe. I have a friend from Bulgaria who’s told me many times how beautiful her country is. North Africa would be cool too. I really want to go to Latin America, but that might have to wait. I haven’t really planned anything out, I just have all these little ideas.

The cool thing about living abroad is that you meet people from all over the world who are also living abroad, so when they go back to their home countries, you have all these connections all over the place.

J, looking toward a bright future (note: she made fun of me for typing something so corny)

What kind of advice would you give to someone who might be planning to teach in China?

So, there’s a number of pitfalls to teaching in China. The first one is getting a real work visa. If any boss says “Oh, we can bring you, but we can’t bring you on the ‘Z’ work visa,” don’t do it. It’s too risky. If you get caught, you could get fined, your school could get fined, you could get deported, you could even get blacklisted from going back to China. Just don’t risk it.

Also, make sure you read your contract really carefully. Make sure there’s exit clauses for you as a teacher. The employer will always write themselves an “out” in case they need to fire you, but their contract might not give you any recourse in case they decide to withhold your pay. My first job did exactly that to me.

Finally, the contracts have to be in Chinese; if they give you something that’s only in English, they’re totally unenforceable. They’ll usually have an English translation as well, but make sure you’re signing the Chinese version.

So, the biggest points are: make sure you’ve got the right visa, and make sure your contract leaves you an “out”. Any last pieces of general advice? For any traveller, not just people looking to work abroad.

The big one for me is: wherever you go, try to know at least a little of the language. Knowing Mandarin has kept me from getting ripped off, and knowing some Russian kept me from getting stranded in Irkutsk.

Thanks so much for your time!

“Mei wenti”. [laughs] No problem.

But really, you owe me one.

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