“If you ever come to Beijing, you should call me.”
At the start of June, we were sitting in my classroom, the day after final exams ended. My student, C—, had stopped by one last time to drop off a gift: a beautiful little black wallet, adorned with azure flowers and a velvet tassel.
I’d been dreading this day for weeks—excited, of course, to be done with the school year, but saddened at the prospect of losing touch with some of the coolest young people I’d ever met. I held the little wallet in my hands, fiddling with its tassel and smiling brightly to keep my emotions at bay as I received her heartwarming invitation.
“S— will be there too,” she carried on. “And T—. Well, T— is not from China, originally, but he will be there.”
As she spoke, my thoughts wandered from our conversation. I’d known this about T—. He was originally from Cambodia, I believe. He, like many of my students, traveled here to Bradenton, Fl to study and to train as elite athletes. When he graduates, he will go live in China. It never ceases to amaze me how well-traveled the majority of my students are, how they’ve inspired me to be the same.
I have students from everywhere. The international boarding school I teach at hosts children and teens from over ninety countries. China. Taiwan. Japan. Spain. Italy. Germany. Denmark. Belgium. Mexico. Colombia. Nigeria…The list goes on. I knew when I took this job that I would fall in love with these countries through the students who represented them. That I would long to visit them.
I looked up because C— had stopped talking. She stared at me now, smiling with expectant eyes, awaiting my acceptance of her invitation.
I felt my eyes zero out the way they do when I’m contemplating something improbable—something I want very badly but cannot picture myself ever achieving. The gears shifted in the back of my mind. How would I get to Beijing?
I zeroed back in and nodded with enthusiasm. “Of course!” I exclaimed, as if there were no question about it at all.
Not only do my students come to our school from all over the world, but they also travel frequently. On weekends. On breaks. I don’t think all of them appreciate this privilege, but many of them do.
I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with one of them not to long ago. I asked her about her travels and what they meant to her.
This student is from the United Kingdom, but she was adopted from Indonesia and spent eight years of her childhood in China. Our school in Bradenton, Florida is the third boarding school that she’s attended. Since her freshman year in high school, she has traveled with different youth groups, providing services to underserved communities in different parts of the world.
She told me that travel has made her bolder. She’s more inclined to take risks, try new things, and push herself outside of her comfort zone. She also feels that she knows more about the world than most people her age and that she’s more compassionate as a result of it.
In short, my student feels that her travels have made her “a better person.”
This is the same result that I hope for when I travel.
Mary Suzanne Schriber writes about the history of women and travel, how we started out as “accidental tourists” and evolved into “self-motivated travelers.” The one tours the world at the mercy of men, while the other travels for her own interests. For the self-motivated female traveler, travel is a method of self-improvement, a chance to “better [herself] culturally and intellectually.”
I am a nascent “self-motivated traveler” with all the desires of one but without the means. In being traveled to by so many students from so many different places, I have learned a lot about the world; but in order to complete my education, I feel I must travel out into it.
It seems improbable, but not impossible.
In the “Introduction: Travel Writing Today,” Holland and Huggan write that “there is a greater degree of mobility in the world than ever before—a greater movement of ideas, goods, peoples.” I have already seen the evidence of this begin to play out in my own life. Two weeks ago, I visited my brother in Denver, Colorado (video). I remember a time when even a trip like this seemed impossible, when purchasing airline tickets was an unfathomable luxury. I’ve reached a point in life when I can go almost anywhere in the United States almost whenever I want. Who’s to say that one day, I won’t be able to say the same about the world?
Holland and Huggan go on to say that “an uncritical view of travel writing…needs to be adjusted to the modern realities of class, race, and gender privilege.” I came into this world poor, black, and female, and now I feel called to take every advantage of travel and to contribute to a different narrative about black women and, specifically, black women who travel and write. I feel called to join my voice with Chimamanda Adichie’s in fighting the single story.
Single stories make it possible to see people one way and one way only, but by traveling opens up minds. My students know this because they have traveled here and met me.
For now, they come to me and I teach. Soon, I will go to them and learn. I’m looking forward to the day when I dial up an old student and say: “Hey, I’m in Beijing. Let’s have lunch.”