The first time I left the country by myself, I was two months away from my last year of high school, with hundreds of domestic flights under my belt. I had only one stamp on my passport – a green rectangle from my trip to Italy with my parents the summer before. On that first international trip, I didn’t even handle Euros, let alone try to buy lunch by myself; my parents settled everything, down to the very last detail, despite their confusion over traffic rules. Consequently, I felt an exhilarating and terrifying sense of independence as I tried to find the international terminal in L.A. I’d traveled alone many times, but never to China, never far enough that my parents couldn’t get on a plane and be with me in a few hours. Although I’d promised my parents I’d call them as soon as I possibly could, when my new friends and I arrived at the hotel, we were more interested in exploring the expansive Beijing hotel than purchasing phone cards. Surrounded by new friends in a new place, it was up to me to take everything I could from a once in a lifetime experience, provided for me by the Global Young Leaders Conference.
I bought food from street vendors and tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants in which the regulars stared at me and my friends; I tried things that I never would have touched at home. At the end of the trip, I was proud to say I’d only had McDonald’s once, compared to one member’s tally of 12 Big Macs. I took the harder path on the Great Wall, and despite resting on the stairs for half an hour, I made it all the way to one of the signal towers. I bought stuffed pandas with my friends at the Beijing zoo, almost got lost in Hangzhou, and was kicked out of a Hong Kong bookstore because I had ice cream. I hugged people with reckless abandon after knowing them from a few hours to a few days. I talked not only to the few people I originally made friends with but also the other people on my bus.
While I took the obvious benefits from the experience – appreciation for different cultures, a broader outlook on life, I also learned even my most self-confident friends don’t know which way the C in the YMCA goes, sick people will indeed get you sick if you hug them too much, and there will always be girls fighting over a boy. I learned the Macarena, how to ‘chill,’ and that Kanye West appeals to teenagers across the globe, no matter how they pronounce his name. As a conference, we spent time in groups discussing different leadership skills and why cultures clash, but the real life experience that I took away from the two weeks left a much bigger impact on my life than the theories we’d talked about.
At home, I couldn’t stop randomly talking about things I’d seen in China or the friends I’d made. It is easier for me to talk to strangers than it has ever been, and I have started trying things I normally would have avoided. All the unwritten rules that I had stockpiled for myself over the years have been pushed aside to allow overall change and personal growth. China was a reality check for me; throughout the trip, I found myself holding back and then decided to do things simply because I might never have the chance again. The conference was a wake up call, reminding me that some things only happen once – like life.
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