Why Did I Want A Different Life?
You know, since I had lived in the Netherlands for more or less 6 years, I had acquired the Dutch frankness. My classmates who were doing their Postdoc either in Harvard, Yale and other major biomedical institutes were… rather… boring….. especially if I compared them with those people I met along the way, drivers, fellow travelers or my couchsurfing hosts. They were nice to me but my days spent with them were not so memorable. Their life focus was essentially in their work and nothing more.
My classmate who was doing her postdoc in Yale even did not know the English name of the State of Connecticut, the state where they lived! Why bother? What she needed to know was just the route from her house to work, then to supermarket and a couple of restaurants, mainly Chinese ones. They were living in US, but essentially their life did not look much different than in China. Then why did they still bother to go abroad? The other classmate who was doing her PhD in Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City could not even pronounce the name of the hospital of her college (Montefiore). Even my uncle, who had lived in US since 15 years ago still could not and did not bother to remember her daughter was learning French or Spanish.
No, the Chinese was not a species interested in external things, especially those from mainland China. They were even less interested in discovering the interesting things in their everyday surrounding. Saddest of all, THEY WERE the top elite of Chinese education. This constituted the most important reason why I could not live in China, the narrow-mindedness, the conservativeness and the indifference to everything other than money, family and career.
Therefore, when I was with them, I became even more aware of myself, of those experiences which had made me ME. We generally just gossiped about our fellow classmates. They did have much curiosity about my travels but the ignorance they expressed was astonishing. I was not expecting them to be well versed about world geography or African anthropology but seriously many thought Montreal was in Europe. Many Chinese women, once they are married, their interest in social life and the outside world sharply shrinks into a little ball which is called home.
I suddenly remembered why I stepped out and started exploring in the first place. The world is a big place and it would be such a waste of life if I just stay in one place and move around one tiny circle. The beauty of life itself lies in the fact that it holds endless possibilities. When one shuns or kills all the possibilities, he essentially shuns or kills life itself.
After Boston I took a bus to New Haven, which was perhaps the city with the most Gothic buildings in the whole New World. I did try hitchhiking. I stood at a best spot for 4 hours in Boston, even after two short showers. Nobody stopped. There was a homeless old man 5 meters from me. I guess that did not help either. Eventually a policeman came and told me simple and plain ‘One can not hitchhike here. It is not allowed’. From New Haven I went to New York City, where I stayed for about 10 days. I first stayed with a classmate who was doing her PhD there. She had been among the most unsociable people in my year and now after much improvement, she had become more sociable but still quite unsociable. She belonged to the group of Chinese people who would be scared to death if a stranger smiled at them on the street. When they very occasionally came out of their house in the evening, they would think everyone they saw hanging out there was plotting how to kidnap them and kill them. I am not kidding. I know many Chinese young people like this. They get worse when they get older. I know you are going to tell me you have met different Chinese people. Sure, me too. However, a substantial percentage of them are indeed like what I write here.
Some of them, only some of them are so scared that they still ask their parents to live with them although they are already perfect adults. Their parents, especially the mothers have such a strong will of controlling their children. I have met Chinese women in their mid-thirties and still make almost every life decision based on what their mothers say. It is scary. Many of them might be successful in their studies or career, but their EQ and social experience are rather minimal.
When I was in Europe, we always made fun of the Germans, portraying them as far too strict and not sociable enough. However, even the most unsociable German must have been to a pub once in his life while many Chinese youth really have never been to a pub in their whole life. If you ask them why not enjoy life. They will tell you that going to be pub is a big risk and is not worth it. After all, enjoying life to them means totally something else, such as having much money and enjoying the respect and admiration of others in their retirement. Many of the young Chinese people I know of are already waiting for their retirement. They are only 28 or 29 years old! One of them told me: ‘I am married already, have bought a house and a car and I have a stable job. I feel sometimes I am just waiting for retirement. Life is the same, essentially everyday.’
When life stays the same everyday for a long time, you start to believe that it is the only way life is supposed to be, even when the trees start to blossom outside your house, you will not stop to appreciate it, because for you life today is the same as yesterday, and tomorrow.
This feeling scared me. I suddenly remembered why I set my foot on the road in the first place — I wanted a different life, a life that I can remember without regret.
New York City
I did like New York City a lot. During the time when I was couchsurfing just a few meter away from the Central Park, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art almost everyday. They had a great ticket policy. One could pay as much/little as one wished. I had several one dollar visits. In front of the entrance there was often an African American street musician performing loudly. His repertoire curiously involved largely the Communist songs of China and he sang them in broken Chinese, attracting enormous attention. In MoMa I saw the original Starry Night of Van Gogh. WOWO (sorry, I really have to WOWO)! In MoMa students could get discounts. At the ticket desk, I told the ticket seller that I was a student but did not bring my student ID. He said: ‘You have to show me something, even just an email from your university on your phone.’ That I had and showed to him. That worked! Yeah!
I know, I was a cheap bastard. 😉
My host was a sedentary middle-aged New Yorker owning a few apartments just a few meters from the Central Park, in the center of the center. You would imagine him as a rich dude having an extravagant life. Nope, he was dressed as plain as one could imagine. He put one of his apartments on Airbnb. This apartment was where me and later other couchsurfers were staying, or to be exact we were staying in the living room. The living room was believably messy.
I met two girls from Slovakia through Nomads group on FB. They were wonderful people. Ivana was enthusiastic and adventurous while Lenka rather introvert but sweet. I did not know that there was a Slovakian restaurant in New York until I met them. We met a few times and talked about traveling, the world, dreams and art. After staying with my academic friends, this was a big relief. They would come to meet me in the central park and we stayed until 10 PM. Then they would walk for two hours to get back home. Such enthusiastic young people!
They were doing some summer jobs in New York. In summer NYC could really be hot. A couple of year ago, the temperature reached a record high. You know, US had such ‘wonderful’ public transport system. 😉 None of those metros in NYC I tried had air conditioning. Essentially (I know I am essentially abusing this word recently but I promise to cut down on it. I am serious……) the metro became a hot spa, especially when it was crowded during rush hours. Many activists dressed up like in a spa and walked in the metro with their towels, to protest against the ‘great’ public transport and surely a way to make the most out of the horrid weather (the photo below is from internet).
I personally saw one girl fainting in the metro because of the heat. I solemnly swear that I lost about two kilo weight simply by standing in the metro for a few days. If anyone has the intention of losing his weight, let him ride the NYC metro in summer!
The glory that was Greece
The grandeur that was Rome
The madness that was New York
Not just without air conditioning, the metro system looked so old that I thought it was built in the 80s. When it ran, the noise could be so deafening that people sitting next to each other could not hear each other.
When I first came to US in March 2017, I had to transfer from Fort Lauderdale Airport in Florida to Miami International Airport, which were 30 miles (48 km) away and according to Google Maps took half an hour by car. Guess what? It took the WHOLE DAY with the local bus! I had heard that the public transport in US was bad but I did not expect it to be so bad. I had been to developing countries. Many of them had more convenient public transport than US. Even if we rank the public transport system of US with all the developing countries in the world, US would be below average. Like I always felt and told my friends, US is a first world country with a lot of third world characteristics. The shitty public transport was one of them. 30 miles only! I started at 10 AM and arrived in my destination at 8 PM. The bus stops were so disorganized that it was even worse than in Italy, a country that many often laughed at for their failure in organization. In Bangladesh, when a bus reached a stop, it would stop and the ticket seller would jump out and shouting their destinations. However, here if you did not wave, the bus would just drive by like having no destination. The destination and stops of the bus lines could not be found on any boards in the bus stop. You either had to do your homework beforehand, or you had to ask people around, like in Africa. The green bus stops were hidden among the palm trees. It seemed that the municipal administration specially designed it in green as a camouflage so you could not find them easily, thus discouraging you from using the bus.
I know you are going to tell me US is essentially a car country, with a strong car culture, but please! Not only US residents come to US and not all of those visitors know how to drive or would like to drive. In a country where they proclaim that enforcing universal healthcare would be infringing on people’s freedom of ‘not wanting to be ensured’, don’t you think provide a malfunctioning public transport would infringe on people’s freedom of ‘not wanting to drive’?
Luckily there were metros in NYC, otherwise getting around would be impossible. In all the other metro systems I had experienced, including those in Europe, Iran and China, one did not need to slip the card to get out the station just to change sides in case one came to the wrong direction. Well, NYC metro was a wonder in this aspect. I walked in the station where I needed to take the metro. I did not mind which direction it was as I could always change sides inside the station. Nope! That was not the case. I had to slip my card to get out, walk to another side and slip my card again to get in. I saw stations of different lines only a couple hundreds meter from each other, but they remained two stations. So when you needed to transfer, you had to slip your card, get out of one line, get on the surface, walk across the streets with all the traffic and slip your card again to enter another line.
I had always complained how tortuous and long the underground corridor connecting different lines of Beijing metro was. After visiting NYC, I stopped complaining.
I booked a cheap flight ticket in a very unknown airfield a bit outside of New York. I did not bother to find out the route to get there by public transport beforehand, since come on, every airport had a public transport to get there, even the smallest ones. Nope! This one was different. There was no public transport available and it was two hours by car from NYC center. I asked one taxi driver how much it would cost to get there. He looked it up and said it would cost about more than 200 USD and with the traffic there was no guarantee I would get there on time. That was much more than what I paid for the ticket. I gave up.
Days later I bought another ticket, which would take me to Bordeaux via Ireland. I learned my lesson and arrived 4 hours beforehand in the airport. I do not know about other things, but I seriously think someone needs to make the American public transport ‘great again’.
To be fair, there were also things about US that I liked a lot. I grew up in East Asia and lived a substantial amount of time in Europe. In East Asia, people admire US, associating it with everything advanced and futuristic while in Europe Americans can be deemed as ‘fat, loud, ignorant, aggressive, superficial, narrow-minded and lacking tastes in fine clothes and food’ (sorry for the Dutch directness). I myself have a more balanced view of this country. Although a bit superficial, the people were indeed nicer and easier to talk with than Europeans, especially northern Europeans. There are many kind people in US. People were really sensitive about races. Those racist comments one would encounter in Europe did not happen in US, although in the US it was dividing the population sharply. Races were everything for many. I was in one FB group named something like ‘unpopular points of view’ for a while. I thought it was somewhere one uttered unpopular yet insightful opinions. Nope, there were mainly Americans there and the only thing they uttered was race issue. It seemed to them that there were nothing else than races in the whoooole world, no reflection about the system, no concern about the future of human beings but simply races. I heard from my friends who lived in Baltimore that their kids in kindergarten were afraid of mentioning colors, in the fear of trespassing the racial correctness.
— White, black, yellow……
— WOWO hold on! Why does that sound a bit racist to me?
To be continued