This I Believe: Travel And Learning Cultures Bring Us Closer

Feb 23, 2015

Tess Peterson - Springfield High School
Credit Rachel Lattimore / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

I love to travel.  At 17, I have visited more than 40 states. I have been to Canada and Mexico, and this past summer I visited China.  One of the most exciting days of my life was the day I received my passport.

The process of getting a passport is fairly routine.  First, get your picture taken, then go to the county office to fill out forms, pay what seems like a lot of money and wait.  On the day you pick up that little blue book and see your coveted, very own passport number and all those blank pages to fill with stamps, it is truly exciting.  Well, if you love to travel, it is exciting.  I’m still thinking of places to explore to fill my passport!

My favorite thing about travel is seeing how other people live their lives.  I believe that seeing and trying to understand different cultures brings me closer to these different people.  Traveling within the United States, you see how people live their lives differently in different places.  My family took a driving trip from Springfield to New Orleans.  To say I was culture shocked is a bit of an overstatement, but I could not believe some of the differences.  From convenience stores selling “boiled peanuts” as a snack in Mississippi to the above-ground graves in the cemeteries of New Orleans, there are vast differences in traditions and culture within the United States.  We vacation each summer in northern Minnesota at Boot Lake.  I very much enjoy the laid back nature and the genuine friendliness of the people in northern Minnesota.  They are much more self-sufficient than many of us city dwellers.

Traveling is not the only way to learn about different cultures.  I have learned about Spanish culture, by taking Spanish class at Springfield High School. While learning the language, we learn about the culture by reading their stories.  Speaking the language helps understand the culture.  In Springfield, I have met people from different places in the world and have learned about their culture. One example is my friend, Tanja, who is from Germany.  I first met Tanja at Springfield High School, when she joined the speech team.  She was spending a year in Springfield as an exchange student.  Tanja and I became quick friends as we competed in the same events.  I found out school in Germany is in many ways very similar to the United States, but in other ways it is so different.  One big difference is that some kids will take an extra year in high school and design their own schedule for that year.  I have learned so much by being friends with foreign exchange students. While their traditions and languages are different, it seems by learning more about them, I also see how similar we are and how easy it is to become friends.

My greatest travel experience was this past summer when I had an awesome opportunity to go to China with my Mom. China is the farthest place I have ever traveled to, and the time we spent there was my longest time away from home.  We were guests for over a month at Heilongjiang University in Harbin, China.  Harbin is not a part of China that a lot of tourists visit.  It is located in the far northeast corner of the country, almost at the Russian border.  The city has a population of over 10 million people.  This is larger than any city in the United States, but it is a mid-sized city in China.  One of the coolest things that I was able to do while in Harbin was to walk with the athletes in the huge stadium during the annual Sports Day.   Harbin has a lot of Russian influence in its culture and architecture.  Our host family treated us like their family and helped us learn all we could about Chinese culture.   We went to many places, including temples, museums and even a tiger park. We spent a weekend at a ski resort, picked strawberries on a farm, learned how to grow fungus, play badminton and joined in their exercise in the park ritual.  I spent a lot of time with kids my own age and some college students.  I learned that Chinese kids begin to learn English at an early age.  Their passion to learn, and eagerness to try a new language was heartwarming.  While communication was sometimes a problem, it never stopped us from becoming friends.

After spending six weeks in Harbin, we met up with my Dad, and traveled to Xian, Beijing and Shanghai for two weeks.  The culture and people of China were amazing.  The vast differences between their rich history and the current modern culture are blending together, making this an interesting time to travel in China.  Learning how Chinese people live, and how family is very important was fascinating.  I learned how the government policy of one child per family is now affecting families as the older generation is aging.  Many families have multiple generations living together in the same household, which allows the younger children to develop close relationships with and learn from their grandparents.

We could have stayed another several weeks and still not seen all that we wanted in China.  On the way home I asked my Mom what her favorite part of the trip was.  She said learning about our host family and becoming life-long friends with them.  I agree we did make life-long friends.  Still, my favorite part was all of the authentic Chinese food I tasted. There are so many kinds of Chinese dishes, all of which were delicious! 

China is not that far away to me anymore, and its people and culture are not strange to me. One way I stay in touch with the many friends I made in China is through WeChat, which is the Chinese version of our Facebook.  New technologies like this will bring the world closer together.

The African American poet and Civil Rights Leader, Maya Angelou,  said, "Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

Seeing and learning different cultures, makes us more understanding, aware, and capable of friendship despite our differences, this I believe.