“If you read 10,000 books it is good. If you walk 10,000 kilometers it is better. If you meet 10,000 people and sing about them it is best.” ~ Ancient Chinese saying
I used to think I knew a lot because I read a lot. Many bookish people are this way, trotting out obscure facts at dinner parties and kicking ass at Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit. We find comfort in knowledge, and with the Internet and books we can have it almost instantly and with very little effort.
We are so good at learning in a theoretical sense that we sometimes forget to actually take it for a spin, get our hands dirty, and put it into practice.
The ego-centric me of 2010 thought I would add to my vast stores of knowledge from reading on our travels around the world, but something else entirely has happened:
I discovered early on I really didn’t know shit.
At least when it came to putting it into practice, that is.
- What good is it to learn something but not discuss it, test it, and make it better?
- How helpful is it to read history without tying it to current events to see how the flow of time impacts our world?
- Why work to make myself a better person without bothering to get to know people who think differently than me?
As much as this idea would have frightened me 10 years ago, it invigorates and excites me now. Every single person can reveal something new, and every single destination adds to my knowledge of the world and myself. Every bit of knowledge can be tested, discussed, and broadened by releasing it into the world through action and conversation.
Knowledge is dynamic, not static; progressive, not stationary.
In the week since we left our temporary home in Thailand to travel to China this lesson has been at the forefront of my mind, and there are three distinct reasons why.
As we were eating a spicy papaya salad and enjoying a cold beer on a warm night in Luang Namtha, Laos, an older woman with flaming red hair and silver bangles on both arms stopped by our table and asked to join us. Her name was Julie and she was from London.
As the conversation progressed, we learned a lot about Julie and her long life of travel and adventure. Our jaws dropped when she finally revealed she was 79 years old, especially after hearing the story of her month-long bicycle journey around Laos with a friend 4 years before. She was traveling alone now after the death of her husband, and still with a long list of places to see.
I was reminded of my grandmother who died in her early 70s, lonely and in very poor health, who used her sharp tongue and isolated lifestyle to keep people at a distance all her life. And here was this vibrant, interesting woman with friends all over the world who still read voraciously. Not only that, she had to say goodnight at 10 pm because she wanted to get up early to do some yoga before catching her 10-hour bus to Luang Prabang the next morning.
I can read books every day about the importance of living well every single day and agree with the sentiment, but taking it to heart, actively using it in my life, and seeing the difference in people who do and do not heed this advice make the lesson come to life.
I sing the story of Julie because it is the story I hope for us and for all of you:
- A life of never-ending curiosity
- Supportive family and friends
- Strength to move forward after significant loss
The Handwriting on the Wall
We met Wall as we were checking out of the guesthouse in northern Laos. Wall was near the end of several months of backpacking around Southeast Asia during his one-year sabbatical from his work in the finance industry in Shanghai. We hopped in the back of the truck with him for our ride to the bus that would take us to China.
Wall told us about China during our day-long trip to get there, and he easily bonded with the other travelers of various ages from different countries on the bus. One man, a 60-year-old Thai, related his time in Beijing 20 years before and the songs he learned. It took almost no prompting for Wall to join and sing along with him.
As we got to know Wall, we were impressed by his ability to interact with just about everyone, his deep respect for others, and his continuing quest for knowledge and self-improvement. He is a student of people and willing to talk to anyone to find out their story and add to his knowledge of the world.
He is quite accomplished for a 24-year-old man. Actually he’s accomplished for someone of any age, having traveled all over China and the outside world, climbing to base camp on Mt. Everest, and even walking 700 km between provinces in a quest on both self-reliance and reaching out to strangers. This is in addition to his “conventional” accomplishments of getting a degree and landing a great job.
He was born into an ambitious, financially stable family in a bustling city instead of a rural farm, and he appreciates this fact. He also knows he can do even better, and he doesn’t rest on his laurels as he could so easily do.
I thought of the early-20s people I know from around the world and imagined all of them pursuing a life of knowledge and self-improvement like Wall and what our world would be like if they did. And then I realized it is never too late to start.
I sing the song of Wall because it is what I wish for every young person in the world:
- An appreciation for the benefits given through the circumstances of your birth
- A desire to move beyond the constraints of your station in life
- A preference for learning and experience over wealth and material things
We got off the bus in Jinghong, China, a bustling small city of about half a million people (small by China standards, that is) in the Yunnan Province. There are not a lot of Western travelers here, and everywhere we went there were stares.
After a morning of sightseeing we decided to stop for dumplings and found a shop near our hostel. Our friend Wall ordered for us and began chatting with the owner. He discovered she had just opened a few days before and was very excited to have Westerners in her shop. She took it as an omen of good fortune for her first business, and when we told her how much we loved dumplings she invited us back for a special dinner that night with her son.
We arrived to find a special table set outside the restaurant for us. She brought out specialties from her home province in the Northeast of China, thousands of kilometers away. Not only were we eating local, we had gone off menu!
We brought a bottle of rice wine as a gift, and we were gently told it was rubbish. They brought out the “good stuff” made by a local farmer (Chinese moonshine), and it was remarkably better than what we brought. We learned how to toast the Northeast Chinese way (one by one and looking at each other, similar to the French), and we drank to the shop owner’s good fortune in business and the happy chance of getting to know each other.
Her son is learning to be a chef at school, and we talked about food and cultural similarities and differences between our two countries and even between their home province and Yunnan. After a couple of hours of eating and drinking, Wall shared with us the name of the restaurant: Northeast Fat Mother Dumpling Shop. We nicknamed her our Little Dumpling, which made her laugh hysterically. Imagine, calling a grown woman a dumpling!
She wanted to know more about us, how to attract travelers to her shop, and even how to talk to any Westerners she might see in the street. Her curiosity and enthusiasm kept us at her table well into the night, through a thunderstorm, and to the bottom of the bottle of rice wine.
She told us of her hopes for her son to enjoy his new career, to find a wife, and to experience more of life. She told us of her desire for a bustling business and to meet more international travelers.
She said that night was one of her happiest in recent memory, and we would have to agree.
I sing the song of Fat Mother because it is what I hope for my mother and all mothers in the world:
- Children who love and respect you
- A talent to share with the world separate from your role as a mother
- Courage to start new ventures in middle age and beyond
Singing the Stories You Know
Maybe you are stuck in the same way of learning as I used to be, counting on books and internal processing to gain knowledge. Perhaps you have taken the next step of voicing and testing your knowledge out in the world, taking it for a spin and refining it based on your personal observations.
But if you haven’t yet learned to actively extract stories, lessons, and clarifications on your own life from the people you meet – possibly even the ones you don’t like! – you are missing a key component of life learning. Everyone has something to teach you, whether it is specific knowledge, the pros and cons of an attitude or lifestyle, or even how to communicate in different or better ways. When you share what these people have taught you, you advance our whole society.
Wall told us he thinks about what he has learned every single day before he goes to bed, and the lessons from other people figure highly in his list. We have now adopted this strategy as a way to cement our learning and remind us to share those stories with other people.
Street smarts come from living out loud every day, walking and talking to the people along the way.
Read as many books as you like, but don’t forget where those stories originate: out in the real world.