Back to WhereThereBeDragons.com
Rice paddy terraces

Thoughts on a plane

My first time traveling abroad without my family or friends was in my early 20s. I decided to study abroad for a semester in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I still remember the trips to REI for gortex this and quick dry that. To CVS for travel size shampoos. I remember packing and repacking my brand new backpackers bag. I remember the proud but nervous faces of my mother and father.

I set off and after the external stimuli of crappy overpriced airport food and inflight movies (this was back before you had individual TVs built into the seats, 18 hour flight to Malaysia…looks like we’re all watching that new Cameron Diaz romcom) I was finally alone. Alone with my thoughts in a student dormitory on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. I started to freak out. Oh s**t what had I done! I called my mom and told her I wanted to come home. My parents calmed me down and then told me I could come home if I really wanted to but only once I had really committed myself to this experience and truly given it my all. After a week I had made some friends, figured out how to have all my basic needs met and I started to feel that rush that comes with every adventure I’ve had since.

I write you this story as I’m on a plane to Bangkok to meet with Long Yun and Madeleine, along with the Mekong and Indonesia teams, for our fall semester staff training. I write you this story because I’m nervous for this upcoming semester. Yes even after more than a decade of traveling I still get nervous. I want you to know that this is perfectly natural and one of the most beautiful parts of travel. That fear of the unknown, pushing yourself into a foreign place where you maybe do not know the customs or language. However, there is also another fear there that we don’t often talk about. Not just entering an externally foreign place but an internally foreign place as well. Traveling with strangers and being asked to think about things you’ve maybe never had to think about before. Like your privilege or your place in this world. We’re going to push you out of your comfort zone. Not because we’re some jerks that enjoy seeing teenagers suffer but because we want you to grow and growth comes from times of challenge.

As you meet your fellow Dragoncitos (I spent 4 year as a Latin America instructor so I’m going to use a lot of Spanglish with y’all) in the airport or in Beijing I encourage you to try to imagine what they may be feeling (or better yet ask them what they’re feeling, let’s build a supportive culture around expressing our true, raw emotions.) You may feel nothing but excitement, not a drop of fear or insecurity. That’s totally fine but we encourage you to use this excitement to support your peers who may not be feeling the same. And if you’re scared or insecure know that you’re not alone in feeling that way. Know that we’re all here to support you. This is your community for the next 3 months. Go above and beyond to look out for each other. Put the needs of the group above the needs of the individual. Don’t see this trip as just a carefree 3 months gallivanting around China and Tibet. See it as a time to grow and push yourself (and push each other). As soon as your settled in here and the initial jet lag wears off start owning this once in a lifetime educational experience. Constantly ask questions (well maybe not in the middle of the night when everyone else is trying to sleep), practice Mandarin and Tibetan, support and truly get to know your fellow travelers.

We’re so excited to meet you all and share this experience together. Know that we’re here for you if you have any questions or concerns.

*I’ve included a picture of me and my homestay family in Kunming. Like I said I have been working for Dragons for the past 6 years but mainly in Rwanda and Latin America. So in order to improve my Mandarin I have been living with a family here in Kunming. Some of you may be nervous about our upcoming homestays, I know I was before I moved in with Duan Jiwei, Jing Pu and little Duan lun xi. Over the past decade I have had dozens of homestays. Even when you don’t speak the same language, homestays, in my opinion, are hands down the best way to truly learn about a culture. We can get obsessed with studying about China through purely academic means, reading through mountains of book about this or that dynasty. Meticulously dissecting the subtle grammatical nuances of Chinese. While those are important and will be part of our curriculum know that a lot of your learning will also come from just living the experience and making time to process/debrief it.

*Sorry this note is running on. It’s a long flight, I just finished my book and we don’t have those fancy shamcy mini TVs. Speaking of books. If you’re wanting a good introduction (or review) of modern Chinese history Madeleine, Long Yun and I recommend this book that Long Yun is using as a very stylish hat in this photo of us with your language teachers. China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom. It’s a quick, easy read. We highly recommend you read it before you arrive or at least bring it to read on those long train rides (or for the long flight to China).

Reach out to us with questions. See y’all in a little over a week.

-Zack