My 20 years in Asia
This month I celebrate 20 years of living in Asia.
When I did my first journey to Asia, on September 1999, which was also my very first travel at all, I was a University student of Chinese Language and Eastern Philosophies in Venice, Italy, and the destination was Beijing Language University, to attend a 6 months language course.
In those years Italians had long forgotten the way of Marco Polo and were enjoying the ‘vacations on the beach’ kind of holiday, and this made me ‘a courageous adventurer’ in the small town I come from. International call cards had not been invented yet and at the time of my first trip I had just learned to use emails as way of communication with family. Very few of my friends used emails. Thus, I used to write long hand mails wrapped in an envelope full of colorful stamps. I still remember that in the University campus where I was living, they were collecting the mail only once a week, on Monday afternoon, so my lunch time every Monday was spent buying stamps from an old man selling on the street – he used to have such a big variety of rare stamps, that was really worth to miss the launch and gift my far-away friends with such minute beauty.
So there I was, in Beijing, in 1999. A city with lot of bicycles, lot of taxis and buses, a limited metro and very few cars. A city where mules where used to transport construction materials. A city where the air was polluted by the smoke of carbon, the main fuel used to produce electric energy.
That was the city where I first immersed myself in a different culture, and I found all this so inspiring. That was actually the reason I choose to study Chinese and Eastern philosophy: I was looking for a different way of living. I was willing to stretch myself out of “this-is-the-way-things-are-done” of my culture.
During all the years I spent in China I immersed myself in the local life – my favorites places to stroll around where the hutong, the typical popular neighborhoods where the medium-low strata of the population was living. On weekends and early mornings I used to visit the parks, where old people were going to exercise and to display their creativity, being it in form of dancing, singing, doing taijiquan, playing the erhu or exercising calligraphy.
China has been my first great teacher. I have lived there for a total of 5 years, six months each in 1999, 2001 and 2002, and then 3,5 years from 2009 to 2013. Last time I visited it was in 2014 for a few weeks business trip, during which a breathing crisis due to air pollution forced me to make the decision to never go back again. In all those years China has changed a lot, almost all the hutong has been destroyed to make space for big buildings, except for few limited hutong which has become a touristic attraction, showing the now lost traditional life – as it is happening now with rice-fields in Bali.
In China, since first time in 1999, I stretched myself to solo travel – because I wanted to know. I wanted to know China and – most of all – I wanted to know myself. I wanted to prove my courage, my adaptability, my resistance. I wanted to discover my strengths and my weakness.
I wanted to face my fears because, as I told to a friend, fear is a luxury you cannot afford when you are travelling alone.
I did amazing travels in the Chinese countryside, in remote provinces, traveling for weeks in dirt roads. I traveled with very tiny budget – because I wanted to test myself. I wanted to find out how strong I was. I wanted to find out what was true for me.
There I chose my Chinese name as An Wenlu which – while having phonetic similarity to my real name – translate something like “peaceful journey among cultures”.
In China, I also witnessed the ecological horrors that human greed is able to produce. China is a country without silence and without darkness – where the crazy pollution levels in the air make impossible to see the Sun, the stars and the moon – and not just in the big metropolis, also in the “small” city on the sea where I lived three years.
China has been such a great teacher. I remember sitting in Beijing airport in 2013, while I was waiting to my last flight out, writing a “thanks-giving letter” to China. I was resolute to leave forever the country, which had become too polluted while the culture got lost in the race to capitalism. Yet I was immensely grateful for that chapter of my life.
In between there has been other travels around Asia, few years back to Italy and a year as a teacher in Australia.
In 2011, during a two months’ vacation from the teacher job I was having in a University in China, I finally went for the first time in India.
India was a soul calling since I was a little girl. I started to speak to my mother about India even before starting school, even before I could have learned something about it. It was just inside me. I knew India, I knew one day I will live there. But it was only in my early thirties that I was actually able to go back to it.
I say “go back to India”, because if China has been the great teacher of this lifetime, with India it is a many-lives-time affair.
I remember my first trip from Delhi airport. It was not a trip of discovery as it has been for China. It was a trip of remembering. I was not going to prove myself or discover a new way of living, I was going back home.
And so, after few times in India, I made it my home for 2.5 years in a row, starting from 2015.
Bali is now a 2 years long story. It is still not really clear to me why I’m here, but for sure I enjoy coconut palms and the possibility to live all year around with one pair of flipflop .
Life will show me, as she always does, when is time to leave.
But what I learned in those 20 years of wandering and wondering is that having lot of questions is much more interesting than having a few answers.