“There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.” Romantic poets inaugurated an era of travel because they were the great apostles of open eyes. Buddhist monks are often vagabonds, in part because they believe in wakefulness. And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.”
– Pico Iyer, Why We Travel
Dear travellers, teachers, parents and friends,
Welcome to the Norfolk Academy Yak Board!
My name is Mark and I will be one of your instructors for our up and coming adventure in China. This will be my 20th Dragons program and words can’t describe how excited I am about meeting you all in Kunming!
It is testament to your character and sense of wonder that you’ve chosen to be a part of this program in China. Although this is a shorter program it will still have a profound effect on you…if you are willing to step outside your comfort zone and fully embrace this new and wonderful culture. Without a doubt you will learn and grow so much from your time in China.
As I sit here at home in England writing this introduction letter, my mind keeps taking me back to my own travels, experiences and transitional moments over the past 15 years I have spent living in Asia.
I keep coming back to that moment 15 years ago, just before I boarded the plane to China for the first time: the anticipation of what was to come and the trepidation and fear of whether I would truly be able to assimilate into a completely new and foreign culture.
At that time in my life I was actively seeking the unknown. I had just graduated from university and I wanted to be confused and bewildered by China and all she had to throw at me.
As the plane took off and we left Britain behind, I found my mind was still full of pre-conceived notions of what my new life would be like. I envisioned dusty roads, locals wearing conical, bamboo hats, men wearing blue, communist style ‘Mao Zedong’ suits and everybody eating rice and only rice! These preconceived notions seem silly now as I look back and they were quickly dispelled the moment I arrived in Shanghai. Dispelled to a certain extent that is, as these things still exist in many places in China, just not everywhere.
Of course, it is natural to approach experiences in this way, especially ones that we perceive to be ‘strange’ or different. We all see life through our own cultural lens, a lens shaped by our experiences, family, friends, media, our governments and school life, amongst other things. It is also perfectly normal for us to want to apply our own cultural blueprint to different and new experiences; it’s a natural survival instinct.
What I have learned though is that it’s equally important for us to be able to shred that blueprint into tiny little pieces, go back to the drawing board and start again. The new blueprint you create will be larger, more varied and abound with a new sense of freedom and a deeper understanding of the world around you, and more importantly yourself. It’s a complex process that takes intention, time and patience; concepts that stand in stark contrast to the 21st century concepts of immediacy and instant gratification.
What preconceptions do you have about China at the moment? How are you looking to widen your cultural lens and rewrite your own cultural blueprint? How will you approach this?
Those first 6 months of living in China were probably the most difficult for me. I felt like life was testing me everyday and there was no let up in the barrage of daily challenges. I struggled with the language, the food, buying daily necessities and even just navigating the city by myself. I seemed to struggle with everything. I recall feeling a deep sense of frustration at that time. If I’m honest, there were more than a few times when I wanted to throw in the towel, give up and go home.
Now, when I look back I realise that this time was actually a seminal moment in my own personal development. It was during this liminal period that I learned the most. In Tibetan Buddhism they have a word, ‘Bardo’, which can be translated as a ‘liminal’ or ‘transitional state’.
Metaphorically it can be used to describe a period when our usual way of life becomes suspended. There will certainly be times on this program when you are in your liminal state. I truly believe these times are the very best times to learn, though it would be foolish to assume these periods come without challenges. I believe that it is during these times that our subconscious mind becomes more active and we soak up experiences and information.
For me, I stuck it out and found my own ways to deal with daily challenges. I threw myself into becoming a ‘learner’ rather than a ‘prisoner’ and took every opportunity to try and expand my view of the world around me and widen my cultural lens.
What challenges do you foresee for this coming program? How will you approach these challenges during our journey together?
After the first 6 months in China I fell in love with the country. Things became easier as I learned more of the language and culture. The process of assimilation became that little bit easier, so much so that I ended up calling China and Asia home for 15 years!
During that time I have done a whole host of different things and lived in many different places, from living with rural families in villages on the banks of the Mekong in Laos, to spending time in Tibetan villages high up on the Tibetan plateau. All my experiences have shaped me in some way and I continue to learn so much from the people I meet in Asia, as I’m sure you will too.
I have a deep love of education and it’s something I have been involved with for 15 years now, as a teacher, educator, facilitator and trainer. In all that time I have continued to learn from my experiences and those around me. I am also incredibly passionate about development issues and I have worked with numerous charities and NGOs helping to educate and raise money and awareness about a multitude of differing issues here in Asia.
I look forward to sharing all I know about life in China, as well as continuing to learn from our experiences together and the world around me. I am very keen and eager to converse with you all on every aspect of China, the world. I’m so excited to get to know you all and learn what experiences and things have shaped you and put you on this path.
I am so excited about treading unfamiliar paths, discovering new places, meeting new people, making new friends and feasting on sumptuous Chinese cuisine until our distended bellies swell and groan with satisfaction.
It is my love of all things Asia, travel and working with young people that I believe makes this my ideal job and that’s where you come into the equation. As instructors we can only lay down the details of the program, but this course is your course and it is you that will make this the experience of a lifetime.
I urge you to say a big hearty ‘welcome’ to the Yak board. Posting on this board goes hand in hand with the Dragons experience. Yaks are a way of letting the world share our unique experiences, are an amazing reflection tool and a vital document of our unique journey together.
If anyone has any questions about our imminent adventure then please don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected]
If you feel it is a question or query that the whole group would be interested in then please post a yak.
Before I leave you all I would like you to ponder on these final questions:
What are you looking to gain from your experiences in China? What are your goals for this program?
So, I will leave you all for now and I can’t wait to see you all in Kunming and embark on our adventure together.