Education Through Travel
I have several Facebook friends whom I’ve met through travel who don’t have a college degree. Instead, that line in the “About” box on their profile pages reads something like, “University of Life & Experience.” As a teacher and returning student, I’m an avid supporter of schooling, but I agree that long-term travel is an education with the potential to change your life in ways no traditional classroom experience can.
When you’re living in a single place for an extended period of time, it’s an opportunity to get to know the locals on a personal level. You learn about events happening in the area; often you’re invited to attend. You learn which places are the best to eat, and what and how to order. You learn the transportation system, whether it’s public or you have your own wheels.
You learn how locals live, because you’re one of them. Do they take their shoes off at the door? Do they change into house clothes as soon as they enter? Do they eat together on a traditional floor mat, or share the large bed in the main room? You learn the cultural customs that are often overlooked by short-stay vacationers simply because you’re putting in the time and effort to do so.
In my first few weeks of living in rural Thailand, I attended three wedding ceremonies, of which I knew only one bride. I quickly discovered the best restaurant for a date night and the best roadside stand for pad thai. However, it took me four months to discover the best Muay Thai trainer lived in my town, and I promptly went to watch the young fighters practice. It took six months before I was invited to a rooster fight at the local stadium just outside town (where illegal gambling often takes place). But none of this would have happened if I weren’t already involved in the community.
Culturally, I dressed up in traditional Thai costume and paraded down the street with my coworkers, on multiple occasions. I began removing my shoes at the door. I bowed to Buddha three times – the way the locals taught me – each time I entered a temple. I learned locals almost never use chopsticks, despite the all-encompassing Asian stereotype. I cooked dinner on a floor mat swarming with ants, and I ate a fish eye for good luck.
I ran with water buffalo on the dirt track out of town. I rode a scooter everywhere I went, and I stopped worshipping the sun. I lived in a tiny, wooden hut on stilts, and had a pet duck and a pink chicken. I lost my sense of time, my impatience with waiting and my typical American eagerness to get as much done in an hour as possible.
I was practically Thai. And then I moved to China.
There, I lived in a typical Chinese apartment, where I showered over my toilet and cooked a multitude of things in a rice cooker. I willingly consumed chicken feet, an entire frog, larvae, snails and pig hooves – and I ate everything with chopsticks.
I stood on a packed bus for hours, and allowed a crowd to pack me into the (rather efficient) Guangzhou subway like a sardine. I rode a bicycle amidst the unruly traffic. I witnessed locals relieving themselves on the sidewalk as I passed, and vowed to continue my Thai habit of removing my shoes at the door.
In a few months, I had learned about the country’s one-child policy, the strict rules regarding the university entrance exam and that most Chinese people don’t speak English, despite the eight-plus years they study it in school. I learned that rules exist, but few acknowledge them and money can easily buy you nearly anything you want.
I learned just how much control the government has over things such as banking and local media, for my own experiences at the local bank were never simple and making new friends meant I couldn’t legally continue that friendship on Facebook; It’s blocked, along with many other social media platforms and news sites.
I became one of those who paid money to break the rules. To continue my blog and stay in touch with friends and family back home (even Gmail was often inaccessible), I had to use a (illegal) VPN, or virtual private network, to trick the servers into thinking I was outside the country.
My Facebook “About” box reads “University of Oregon,” and though I’ll be returning to The States to earn a master’s degree this fall, I still annoyingly bob my head in agreement when I listen to someone rant in defense of why he or she chose to travel instead of college. My wanderlust is not cured, even with two-plus years of school pending my near future to fulfill a personal goal of a different sort. I firmly believe I’ve learned more in nearly 18 months of working and traveling abroad than I will in my eventual eight years of university.
In fact, when August finally approaches and I find myself bogged down with books and assignments, wondering which crazy adventure led to this decision, thanks to my lengthy love affair with Thailand and extended stay in China, I now know how to escape via a home-cooked Thai meal and a free VPN trip around the world.
Jessica J. Hill, the Teach Abroad Editor for Wandering Educators, is an Oregon native currently working in Thailand. She writes about traveling, teaching abroad, and coming home. Find more of her stories here: http://www.missadventuretravel.com/