It is my honor to present as my first world traveler, a dear friend, past lover, and great inspiration, Luisa. Over the past week, I have been so fortunate to host her here in Seoul after her long backpacking adventure through Southeast Asia. It had been over seven months since we had last met, and I was shocked to see the ways in which she has already transformed herself. Having explored five countries already in 2015, Luisa embodies the adventurous and wanton spirit of those to whom this blog is devoted. Through a fortunate turn of events, her life has led her halfway around the world into experiences and relationships that have laid the foundation upon which she is set to build the rest of her flourishing life.
In the summer of 2006, Luisa and I met in person for the first time on a blind date. Although I was certainly attracted to her as an adorable little gymnast, I immediately found myself bound to her strutting confidence. At only fourteen, Luisa showed the world that she knew where she was headed and that nothing would stand in her path. However, on the inside, it was much more complicated. Raised as part of a trio of girls by a single mother, Luisa faced struggles and responsibilities years before many of her peers. Often charged with preparing meals and paying bills, she had to work as a contributing member of the household while she was only in the earliest stages of trying to figure out who she was. Balancing school, athletics, and her duties at home, she had to make time for the social activity imperative for an adolescent girl’s life. Her pride made her show invincibility, but on the inside, she was full of confusion and doubt.
Throughout high school, Luisa talked of her big plans to leave the state to start a new life away from all the difficulties at home. Driven by a curious fascination with mental disorders (particularly violent ones), she planned to study psychology at Penn State and start a career studying the criminally insane. Where many would balk in fear at the danger of working with murderers, Luisa embraced the opportunity to make a legitimate effort to understand these ostracized members of society. Perhaps her infatuation came from her state of being misunderstood. It took me many years to start to understand this blossoming young woman. When it came time for college, though, Luisa did not head east, but stayed right where she was, attending Colorado State University in our hometown. She resented this fact for much of her time there. Changing majors twice, Luisa eventually settled into the liberal arts and started to warm up to being a CSU ram.
Being a year younger than I am, Luisa still had a year of school when I graduated from the Naval Academy. After almost marrying me, she followed me to Maryland for a summer and then to Pensacola, Florida, where we tried to start the life we thought the world expected of us. As I waited to start training, Luisa got motivated and started her career. The Confucius Institute is a Chinese language and culture program involved in hundreds of colleges and universities around the world. Luisa became part of the founding pair for the branch at the University of West Florida. Though her days were long and the work demanded much from her, Luisa showed her professional prowess, going above and beyond on a daily basis, working alongside the director to build a successful program from the ground.
Rewarding as the work may have been, it took a toll. Underpaid and overworked, Luisa had to move mountains to get tasks accomplished in that atmosphere. Lost in the bureaucratic tangle of convoluted hierarchies, she pulled strings and made overreaching requests just to do her job. Though she had excuses abound, Luisa took the challenges by the horns and stood firm with the responsibility. That stress, though, came home with her. She fought it at work, but it brought her down when she needed to relax. Ill-equipped to give her the support she needed, I fed off the stress, and it mired the happiness of our relationship.
By the time that I began seriously doubting my place with the military, Luisa had already started to look seriously at returning to Colorado. With the constant stressors at work and the distance from her family, Luisa began to recognize that she needed to get away. With this desire to escape came the blossoming of the desire to explore the world. The feeling of being trapped had followed her for years, and she needed to break free.
That liberation, though, also meant our disunion. Fortunately, we both had come to the same realization that in order to truly experience the events that we believed were necessary in our young adult lives, we must be fully independent. Luisa put in her notice to leave the Confucius Institute, and I filed my drop-on-request from the flight training program. Together we started looking for ways to get out of the country for a little while. We considered WWOOFing, finding homestays, and nomadically backpacking around the world. Though the impending separation was bitter, the excitement of our new lives made the last couple weeks some of the sweetest of our eight years together. Luisa remained in Florida until after the wedding of our close friends, but by that time, her life was already starting.
A couple days after she officially resigned her position, Luisa went to lunch with a couple coworkers who had been positive influences on her time at UWF. Of course, the topic of what she was going to do next came to pass, and she mentioned that she would like to do something overseas. In response, Luisa received information of a job opening at her coworkers’ home institute in China. They believed Luisa was perfectly qualified for the job, and she received full support from the director of UWF’s Confucius Institute. Within a week, she had the job. She was bound for the opposite side of the world.
On July 12th, Luisa set off from Florida with a packed car and a cozy pup riding shotgun. Wholly unable to wait to return home, she made the 23-hour drive in two days, split only by a sleepless night in motel outside Tulsa. With her last few weeks in the States, she hiked the mountain trails, soaked up the late summer sun, and reconnected with old friends. The time was short, but good. After only six weeks, Luisa was packing her bags to hop on a plane that would take her to the other side of the globe.
After a brief layover with a friend in San Francisco and a transfer in Seattle, Luisa found herself in the heart of the Chinese capital. With an overnight stopover in Beijing, she needed to find lodging. Given that it is the capital city and home to twelve million people, she had hoped that her lack of Mandarin would be only a modest impediment. Greatly disappointed, she quickly found that fluency in English is far less prominent than expected. Fortunately, she was able to mime and sign her way to safe boarding for the night and caught her flight to Chongqing in the morning.
Although her excitement carried her through the process of getting settled, it was far from a simple process. Only through the kindness of her former coworkers and connections at the university was Luisa able to get all the necessaries set up when she arrived. Bilingual arguments with the landlord, adventures in cooking without a stove, and coming to accept the company of rats were all part of the challenges of daily life.
On top of actually living, she had a job to do. Most Americans teaching in Asia are simply teaching English (like I am), but Luisa found herself in a much more prestigious position. At an international university outside Chongqing, she is teaching journalism for a few hours a week, and she is teaching English to middle schoolers on the other days. She may be making a pittance for all her work, but she won’t trade the experience in higher education for even a doubling of her stipend.
It may be university like in the West, but the students are different in more than just native language. They have gotten to a level of English proficiency such that Luisa has little problem communicating the information, but they lag behind their western counterparts in a key area: critical thinking. I often bash the American education system on my other blog, but this is one thing I think most American schools do right. Students have the freedom and the ability to think for themselves. In China, this is not the case. As I am learning is also the situation in Korea, the education system demands so much rote memorization and drilling that original and creative thought is almost nonexistent. Luisa’s constant struggle is getting the students to present original arguments and points of view. She seems to be making headway though.
Outside of class, Luisa has taken up a hobby that has gotten her noticed across the country: rugby. At four-feet-eleven-and-three-quarter inches and just over 100 pounds, Luisa may not look like your quintessential rugby bruiser, but she makes a mighty shifty back. Playing for the Chongqing University team, she has had the opportunity to travel all around southwest China playing in tournaments. At one of these, she received the honor of Most Valuable Player for the entire tournament, and she received a smattering of awards at the end of the season. The team has been quite successful, and it is much thanks to Luisa’s speed and presence on the pitch. In fact, she is getting recruited by other teams to come play in far off tournaments. A team from Shanghai (on the opposite side of the country) has recently asked her to join them for a tournament later this month. Unfortunately, her schedule will preclude her from accepting, but it has been an honor to have such national recognition.
At the conclusion of the last semester, Luisa headed off on her first extended backpacking adventure. Catching a flight to Bangkok, Thailand, she started 6 weeks of fun and sun all over Indochina. With her came her fellow teacher, Samantha and fellow rugby footballer, Kristin, and they aimed to hit some of the better sights throughout southeast Asia. They started with a couple weeks enjoying their time in Bangkok. With the prevalent Western influence and extremely inexpensive services, it was exactly the kind of respite Luisa needed. On one occasion, when the day was particularly perfect, she called me on Facetime from the pool of her hostel, for which she was paying a nightly rate of about $10. Settling into her chaise lounge on the quiet pool deck, Luisa appeared to me the happiest and most relaxed I have ever seen her.
There was only so much time to relax though; they had bigger things to accomplish. Catching a train to the border and cab through Cambodia, Luisa and Kristin made their way to one of the man-made wonders, Angkor Wat. As a massive tourist attraction, the excursion drained much of their funds, but personally seeing the ruins was an experience she certainly does not regret. After spending a couple days snapping pictures and hanging out with the local monkeys, the Luisa returned to Bangkok to prep for her longest excursion. A twenty-four-hour train ride away, Malaysia presented both beautiful mountain views and dingy city streets. Luisa sent pictures from a tea farm in the Malaysian mountains, which looked like the lined, rolling hills straight off a postcard. The day of hiking through the tea leaves was fantastic, but the exhausted pair found their way into the city for a few nights. Luisa didn’t share much about this time with me, but there were a few rather depressing messages, particularly ones after she walked home alone from a night out that got a bit too crazy for her. All turned out well, though, and the two returned to Bangkok safely, despite the freezing half-day train ride in the excessively air conditioned car.
By the time they returned though, Luisa had had just about enough adventuring for the year. Tired and feeling constantly misplaced, she bid her time awaiting the flight to Seoul. As a form of escape, she found cafes and local hangouts that provided good music, good food, and a necessary libation. Although she enjoyed having Sam’s company during her travels, the constant presence of her companion started to drain her patience. We introverts need time to recharge, and that is hard to find when traveling with a partner.
After a few days of impatient waiting (and some frantic scurrying on my part), Luisa boarded a red-eye on her way to Seoul. After spending a whole day at the airport and getting no rest on the plane, she caught up on sleep back at my apartment. We refrained from wandering too far during her stay, but I made sure she got to see some of the city and taste the food, with which I am falling in love. It may have been a full five days, but her stay felt short because I was so busy with orientation. Even so, it was wonderful to have a week with my dear friend.
Luisa has recently cast off for China yet again. With work about to start, she is still working to figure out exactly what her duties will be this semester. Although the life is tough and anxiety still grips her after nearly a week back in her apartment, she knows that this experience has given her an opportunity to learn and grow as a person. As evinced by her shiny long nails, she has already broken one bad habit. She is also working on her patience in dealing with others, a test she faces every day in a culture of passive-aggressive colleagues.
More than anything, though, she has learned to rely on herself. Between her life in China and her adventures around Asia, Luisa has learned much about her own abilities, which are far beyond what she ever trusted they would be. She may have traveled Indochina with partners, but she set off on her own much of the time. In strange countries, the language of which she does not understand, she has remained healthy (generally) and continues to find ways to be happy. The fourteen-year-old girl I first met may have shown me she could take on the world, but until recently, she was unsure of that fact. After half a year abroad, that doubt has withered and fallen away. The woman I met at Incheon International truly carried the confidence and determination of a leader on her way to great accomplishments.
Though her backpacking days may be over (for now), her journey has only just begun. Luisa has infinite experiences awaiting her in Chongqing, and she has great plans for when she returns to the United States. Advanced degrees in higher education are on her horizon, and for a girl who once despised school, it may be the ultimate irony when she one day takes over as a university president. For now, she will continue her tight-rope act of teaching journalism in China, and she will continue to build herself as a continual learner of the world and of herself. In her act of casting off the lines that held her to her shores in America, Luisa has set sail toward a broad and regal horizon.