During my college years, my biggest goal in life was to see the world. I wanted to backpack Europe, hike all the national parks in the United States, and eat from local food vendors in Southeast Asia. After I graduated in 2009, I managed to land well-paid jobs and began traveling solo in China, before forging amazing and unforgettable experience in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Europe.
In October 2013 I quit my job and traveled full-time for two years. Many of my friends were jealous — pursuing my dreams and traveling the world seemed a desirable lifestyle. However, few of them understood the hardships a Chinese female traveler has to face and how hard I had fought to get where I was. Independence and the spirit of adventure are not qualities that everyone in China appreciates.
I was born and raised in an ordinary Shanghai household. My dad works as a bus driver, and my mom was a drug inspector before her retirement eight years ago. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment where I had to sleep on the couch without my own space or privacy.
My parents always thought that I would be a typical Shanghainese girl: attend college, get a good job, find a boyfriend, get married, and deliver a grandchild before the age of 27 — after which time single women are considered “leftover” in China. Chinese men face similar pressure from their parents, but it is particularly bad for girls.
Since my parents don’t particularly like traveling and didn’t have the money to fund family vacations anyway, I didn’t even get out of Shanghai to see China for the first 20 years of my life.
It wasn’t until university that I suddenly got the itch. I became friends with many international students who shared with me their life experiences and travel stories, and I couldn’t help but wonder how we could be the same age and yet so different. I met my first boyfriend — a Londoner — when I was 20. That’s when I began having lots of arguments with my parents. Most people in their generation married their first boyfriend or girlfriend, often arranged by their elders. It took me almost a year to make them accept the idea that a person doesn’t necessarily have to marry their first partner.
However, although that particular argument was resolved, other fights surfaced. I remember at one point I suggested moving out when I reached my senior year of university. I expected them to be supportive and proud of me for taking charge of my own life.
But this desire to move out confounded them even more than the boyfriend issue. They questioned what my boyfriend had said to me, and expressed their reservations about the toxic ideas my Western friends were poisoning me with. They asked me to stop dating foreigners.
As opposed to parents in the West who expect their children to learn to fly the coop after high school, Chinese parents value community and social cohesion. Many parents in China demand obedience from their children and don’t know how to communicate with them as individuals. It is generally understood that a son or daughter won’t leave home until marriage. It took me a full year to persuade my parents to let me move out — I wanted to be happy, but I also wanted to make them happy. We finally compromised that I would live somewhere nearby them and have dinner together several times a week.
They were nervous when I first moved out in 2009. None of their friends’ kids lived alone and my parents felt constantly judged by their peers. To my relief, after about three months they calmed down and all of us began enjoying our newfound privacy and space.
I began getting good jobs and I could suddenly afford to travel. First I worked at the Shanghai office of American Public Media for a couple of years as a news researcher, before moving to work as a research specialist at a consulting company. My two former bosses, both American, supported my travel desires and appreciated my sense of adventure.
Western culture is adventurous and exploration-based. It values discovery, invention, and rational thinking. When I stayed with a local family in Australia, the parents often encouraged their young children to be adventurous by taking them hiking in the snow, canoeing in the river, and sliding down sand dunes. I remembered how when I was 24 and told my parents that I wanted to travel to Beijing on my own, my father simply responded,
“Beijing is such a dangerous city for a girl.”
I first told my parents that I wanted to leave and travel the world in 2013 and they weren’t against it. I guess they had become used to my dramas. To help them through my absence, I bought them each a smartphone and taught them how to use the messaging app WeChat. I wanted to share my moments on the road, to show them how happy I am, and how wonderful traveling really is.
After spending the past several years hopping around the world, I’ve noticed the attitudes of those around me beginning to change. My parents and friends actually prize my independence now. They are happy that I have followed my dreams and admire my spirit of adventure. Many of my friends have even confided that they can’t wait to hit the road themselves.
This article was originally published on Sixth Tone.