This is an update in our Eurasian Adventure 2012, the 18,000-km overland trip from Thailand to Portugal and a grand experiment in reducing worry with “just-in-time” decision making. Read the first entry here.
What happens when something you’ve been looking forward to for a long time – your whole life, even – finally arrives and doesn’t live up to your expectations? You feel disappointed when things don’t work out as planned, possibly guilty for not appreciating it, or even anger for the time and effort you think you wasted getting to a lackluster result.
Letting this disappointment, guilt, and anger fester can impact your relationships, self-esteem, and career for months and years to come. You can’t always change the situation, but you have complete control over your reaction to the situation.
Today we’re going to address how to move through those feelings of disappointment and get your mojo back, and we’re going to start by telling you about our much-anticipated trip to China.
Expectations are formed in unlikely places
As a kid, I always thought I could dig a hole to China if I kept at it long enough. I pushed my brothers to help me on the vacant lot next to our house. We usually only dug for an hour or so before they got bored and started building tunnels and hills for their army men or trucks, but until then we were all about getting to China before mom called us in for dinner.
What would we discover when we popped out on the other side? I always imagined people in matching Mao suits bicycling all over the rural countryside and lots of tea drinking and calligraphy. The people would be wise, spouting Confucian proverbs to each other as they worked together to grow their food and build their country.
When they weren’t slowly stroking their long skinny beards or kicking ass with a little kung fu, that is.
(I watched a lot of Bruce Lee and David Carradine as a kid.)
My impressions of China have changed as I’ve grown, and I do realize now that you can’t dig a hole to China because of Earth’s pesky molten core (even if you are smart enough to start in Argentina), but I still held on to some unrealistic expectations:
- Chinese people are wiser and healthier than other people
- China will be dripping with history and lore
- Chinese people work together and cooperate better than other people
Expectations, let me introduce you to Realities.
When reality intrudes on dreams
Our trip started out well, meeting our new Chinese friend Wall on the bus from Laos. Having someone to translate both literally and culturally was a big perk, and we had a gentler entry into China the first week because of it. The southern part of China is also more laid back, with breathtaking scenery, and not too vastly different from our time in the beautiful mountains of Thailand.
Some things were already not adding up, though. This healthy environment of people practicing tai chi in the mornings did exist, but so did smoking, spitting, and even shitting in the most public of places. While you’d think the shitting was the thing that would be the most disturbing, it’s actually not. You cannot imagine the symphony of bodily sounds necessary to expel a giant lugee or the frequency with which you will be serenaded by this music in China.
The level of smoking reminds me of my early childhood in the 1970s, before nonsmoking restaurants and public places were the norm. People in China smoke in restaurants, while they are cooking or serving you in restaurants, in stores, in public bathrooms, in elevators, on buses and taxis and trains, in the street, and right next to no smoking signs. The only place we haven’t seen them smoke is the subway, and that’s probably because there isn’t enough room.
Then there was the staring and picture-taking. We are not the only Western tourists in China, but non-Asian tourists are still a very small percentage of overall tourism, especially in places outside Beijing. In the south we were stared at with open mouths and even furtively touched at times to make sure we were real. At first it was funny, but after a while it became unnerving to be gawked at in the subway, at the grocery store, on the bus, while eating, and every other daily activity you can imagine. We began to feel like freaks of nature, and a quick look around confirmed we were.
Interpersonal engagement in China is vastly different than what we’ve experienced in other countries. Conversations are all loud (we joke that Mandarin has four tones but only one volume), but smiles are less common, laughter is less frequent, and there is less courtesy toward even each other than we’ve ever seen in other countries. We expected the communist history to create more of a teamwork mentality, but we’ve seen just the opposite.
To illustrate: We’ve witnessed more slow-motion accidents on bicycles, motorbikes, paddle boats and even shopping carts than anywhere else in the world – people just simply won’t move out of the way and would rather bump into each other than be the one to move aside. People cut in line and shove through even when doing so gives them absolutely no advantage over everyone else. We’ve wondered and debated whether this attitude is a result of a generation of the one-child policy or just a cultural difference that has always been there.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for us was what we like to call the “new old.” Everything in China is being modernized and expanded, and you can’t even imagine the scale of the mega cities and public works projects like the Three Gorges Dam. Growth is explosive here, and the burgeoning middle class is demanding a more Western style of living. Malls, subways, highways, bullet trains – everything you have back in your country times ten is what is going on here. You can’t blame people for wanting more luxury and convenience or for spending their growing disposable income on travel and material goods, and we don’t. What we found surprising about this move toward capitalism, however, was the condition of historical and natural assets.
We imagined being enveloped in thousands of years of history and having all those books and movies we’ve consumed become poor substitutions for the real thing. It has happened in other countries, so we had no reason to expect it wouldn’t happen here. But it didn’t.
Mountains have kilometers of paved paths and stairs up, down, and around them. You pay entrance fees to simply walk onto any mountain, and most have gondolas or chair lifts up to the top for an additional fee. You could conceivably head out for a day of hiking and never touch dirt to your shoes. These places are now set up to accommodate tour groups of all sizes to enjoy in their everyday shoes and clothes. It is rare to find a quiet place to enjoy nature.
Ancient temples have been rebuilt to look “new old,” and quaint villages and towns have been almost completely razed and rebuilt to a conforming “new old” look filled with shops selling touristy souvenirs. The warren of alleys that make up the hutong neighborhoods in large cities like Beijing are being torn down and rebuilt to look old with bars and restaurants to attract more tourists while residents are being shuffled into high-rise apartments. While not everyone is against this, there is no argument it changes the way of life of these people completely, going from a small community courtyard style of co-living to individual apartments.
What we’ve seen is not restoration but instead completely rethinking and recreating history, which ends up looking and feeling more like Disney World than anything resembling historical accuracy.
We came to China looking for ancient history, and we were smacked in the face with modern history.
Even though we had some really amazing individual experiences, these overall trends were so different from our expectations that we began focusing more on what we didn’t like than what we did, complaining to each other and fighting like children. Unlike any other time in our trip we couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the country.
We felt guilty as hell for not appreciating such a fascinating place.
A forced stay in an unappealing situation has a way of making or breaking someone. In our case, we had turned our passports over to the Russian embassy in Beijing for two weeks in order to get visas and we wanted to be in Mongolia for the Nadaam festival in early July. That meant staying in Beijing for a month to make sure everything timed out properly.
A MONTH. It was make or break time.
We knew choosing to focus only on our initial expectations and how we’ve been disappointed would be a long wait, so we took a cue from Dream Save Do and did the same thing we did at the very start of our lifestyle design process:
If you can’t get (or don’t know) what you want, start focusing on how to get rid of what you don’t want.
- Renting an apartment in a residential neighborhood to escape the hectic pace of the center of Beijing: We now have a more local experience of China to come home to after sightseeing.
- Spending more time in parks and natural settings, the places hordes of tourists normally don’t go.
- Taking advantage of the extra few weeks here to focus on a writing project: Having a desk and a couch makes a huge difference to two people who normally work in a small hostel bedroom.
- Appreciating China from a modern context instead of the historical one we expected. News reports take on a whole new level of understanding now.
- Reaching out more to other travelers to socialize and sightsee, which is something we usually make less of a priority than interacting with local people. We’ve started some really great friendships as a result.
it’s okay not to like something you (or other people) think you should.
How to adjust when things don’t work out as planned
When your expectations are totally out of whack with reality, you have two choices:
- Bitch and moan about it and let it affect your happiness until it ends or everyone around you runs away to escape your bad mood
- Focus on how you can adapt your expectations to the current reality and make the best of it as you move your way through it
If you are the type to consciously pick #1, I don’t think you would have read this far. But perhaps due to inattention or overwhelm, you chose the first one without thinking. Hey, we’ve all done it.
- Give yourself a little ‘wallow in the mud‘ time if you need it. Take a full 24 hours if you need it, but nothing more.
- If you can’t get what you want, how can you alleviate some of the pain points?
- List the things you like about the experience, expected or not, and how you can play those up.
- Can you use your time or this experience in another way to help you down the road?
- Is there a quick exit strategy and can you use it?
Sometimes there is nothing to be done. You’re disappointed, the moment passes, and you move on. But being stuck in a disappointing situation at work, in a relationship, or in a personal endeavor even for just a few weeks can significantly alter your mood, and it is situations like that where a recalibration can save your sanity and relationships.
The Positive Spin
We don’t want you to think China is all bad or that you shouldn’t come here. We have had many great experiences and met some truly warm and wonderful people. And we’re still looking forward to our last couple of weeks here, where we will visit the Great Wall, Olympic Stadium, and even check out the art scene.
If we had it to do all over again, we would take intensive Mandarin lessons that included cultural exchanges for our first month in the country. We would have also focused more of our research efforts on the history of the last 50 years instead of the last 5000, paying attention to the important story of China’s place in the modern world and how it is evolving. History is being made right in front of us.
Then we would have taken off on China’s fantastic rail system to see this vast and complex country, enjoying the mega cities, the rural rice paddies, the towering mountains, the adorable pandas, and the vast desert.
In fact, now that I think about it, maybe we will come back – a little more prepared, and a lot more realistic.
Like anything, knowing what you are in for, both the good and bad, will help you set up reasonable expectations and avoid crushing disappointment, though even that isn’t the end of the world. Do your research, plan as best you can, and expect the best. But if it doesn’t work out that way, you’ll still be okay.
It isn’t what happens to you, but how you handle what happens to you, that determines your overall happiness.
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