Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Fri 7/21/2006 2:56 AM
Random Thought: Being A Tourist In China

Any early good morning to you. Just came in from a tropical, pre-dawn walk. Doggone, it feels good once again to be rejuvenated just by walking, to be excited by the stars before they disappear, to be thrilled by the sound of an awakening warbling bird, and to be awed by a flower lit dimly by the dawn's early light. Been off the air for a while, haven't I. I know. It's been more than two months. To tell you the truth, I've not been in the mood. The spirit just didn't move me to dance on the keyboard. And despite a number of messages from well-wishers, I've resisted writing just for the sake of writing. It wasn't the fact that I've been out of the classroom since the beginning of May. My edge was dull. I just needed this time to recharge my depleted batteries until my edge was sharpened. I just had to take the time to breathe deeply each day and be refreshed by life itself. But, I have been off-balance.

Over the past thirteen years, I've formed the habit of writing during an occasional very early in the morning before I have to tend to all my other stuff. You know, when I think about it, it's a strange and isolated experience sitting alone in the wee, pre-dawn hours of the morning, while my angelic Susan lies comfortably in Morpheus' arms, usually having come in from a meditative walk of a few miles after I have had a conversation with myself, to share reflections, experiences, visions, and philosophies as the spirit grabs me with so many people whom I don't know and have never met. Yet, I've shared so much of myself, my deepest reflections, my highest aspirations, my greatest struggles, and my most heart-rendering achievements that I think of it as writing both a personal open diary to myself and intimate letters to unmet friends. Maybe its foolishness, maybe its pretentiousness, but I feel a real and intimate bond with those of you who read my stuff. At the young age of 65, I often wonder how long I can go on. And, I often am dazzled by the mysterious origin of these words. Yet, despite occasional fear I am repeating myself, over 600 Random Thoughts later, it's hard for me to imagine giving up something I've come to love doing so much and, more importantly, which is so meaningful to me and for my well-being. I'm a teacher. I am thankful for the internet. I am enormously grateful for connecting with the people it has afforded me the opportunity of meeting. I am amazed and thrilled to have a way to share me with so many of you simultaneously between those occasional conference presentations and campus seminars, for not having to communicate in my southpaw cuneiform, and for your willingness to allow me to share with you. The messages I get from people--current students, past students, colleagues both on and off my campus, as well as non-academics--who tell me something I said made a difference in their lives energizes, encourages, and inspires me. I am also thankful for those who disagree with me or those to take me to task, for their criticisms are cause for me to pause and go into a deeper examination of my visions, philosophies, outlooks, and positions. Both ask of me to look continuously at my stopping place in life, to ask whether it is a good place to remain, and to consider if it is a good place from which to go on.

. It wasn't until Susan and I were traveling through China with a pair of newly made friends that I felt the spirit once again moving me. Slowly, I began to see my experiences as a metaphor for teaching. So, here goes.

First, you have to understand that I'm not a tour person. Just going on a tour for me was a challenge. I don't like "now you've seen it, let's go" specific itineraries. I'm not comfortable with "you've got to be here" set schedules. I don't like merely to cover the surface; I like to peer intently into the depths. I'm not wild about lugging around lots of baggage. I hate to cling to a guide book as if I was Lineaus with my blanket. I don't like to hurry things at if I was driving on a super highway with every passing thing converted into a blur or didn't really care about something and just wanted to get on to other things--that were equally blurry. I don't like to settle in, hold on to certainties and fixed habits. I don't abdicate choice very easily. I don't like just seeing things or people. I like to see into them. I listen intently and see sharply for that passing experience, that piece of landscape, that passing comment, that person which provides meaning which otherwise would be barren of meaning. I love the ambiguous; I celebrate the question; I welcome serendipity; I'm always open to anything that crosses my path. I escape the protection of habits and go out and just allow things to happen. I accept emotional challenges as well as physical ones. I have a daily pent up "wanderlust" to live my vision in whatever I do each day. I have a genuine love for living an inner life on the road. I like to create my own adventures. I like to walk the path wherever it may take me. Being on a tour for me, then, proved to be a paradox.

Susan and I went to China on a three week tour as a gift to each other in celebration of our 40th wedding anniversary. So, there I was, on a tour being challenged to realign myself, to create for myself an adventurer's environment, to influence me to be a wanderer, and to find ways to go deep as we skimmed the surface and performed the restricting expectant acts of being a tourist. I had to consciously realize that the trip wasn't something we bought; it was something we give to ourselves. I had to cultivate a fascination with new and different people and places. I had to loosen myself deliberately of limits while being limited; I had to be slippery while being firm. I had to alter my cadence as the tour group walked. I had to be spontaneous within a fixed schedule. At times, on the ship cruising up the Yangtze and on the ship's tours, I had to be monastic among the crowd. I had to realize that the tour was not so much a group undertaking as a private one. I mean the challenge was to be a student of the moment, to convert touring from a time and place into an attitude, so that I could soar to wonderful new places. I mindfully had to consciously see the simple act of walking to the tourist bus as something uncommon, as in itself an act holding untold possibilities. I had to possess an independence, flexibility, spontaneity, boldness, and improvisation. I had to face up to uneasiness. I had to absorb what was around me while adding what was specifically me. So, I ate the "Chinese breakfast" and tasted the strange tastes instead of the safe and known "western style," although I refrained from consuming the raw vegetables and fruits. I didn't wait around making excuses not to do something or to complain just because it rained while we were at the Three Gorges Dam. I walked up the Great Wall of China to the third tower, drifted off from the group to take the photo of that "hello" person, lagged behind to peer at someone or something when the group being ushered ahead, sipped China's version to bio-jet fuel. The Chinese call it snake wine. Don't ask. What I loved most about our China trip was that it was almost a self-help experience that suggested how to mindfully examine how best to live my life and mission. With each passing day, I saw the trip as a metaphor for my approach to students, classes, and teaching in general. I was waking up each morning with a "yes" and straining at the bit to see what the day would bring, what invisible boundaries would I cross. I was excited by possibilities. Every day was a gift. Every day was a "new now," a new time and a new place--and emotionally affecting. Eating dim sum in Hong Kong, or taking the escalators up to Hong Kong's Soho district, or licking a McDonald's ice cream cone in Yangshuo, or having freshly made freshly made turtle soup on the Lijiang River or sipping high tea in Kowloon, or having a hotpot dinner in Shanghai held interest, significance, entertainment, and learning. Each day was a process of being born, learning, growing, changing. Each day was like living almost being lost and then found.

Unless you want prejudices, stereotypes, preconceptions, pros-and-con, or do and don't lists jading your experience, unless you want to dehumanize people and flatten sights into postcard images, you have to have the courage to strike out, venture out on the road, leave habits behind, wander, explore, accept the challenge, embrace the unknown, seek unexpected experiences, discover, and change the way you see yourself, others, and the world. And though I didn't understand the language, slowly I became more engaged, more empathetic of and accessible to the Chinese, more ready to listen and see and learn. The truth is that I could read and watch all I wanted about China--and I did--but there's no substitute for plunging into, smelling, hearing, seeing, and tasting it. It certainly saves its people and their culture from having the life sucked out from them by distorting ideological self-righteousness, technological arrogance, and religious self-righteousness. I found myself thrilled and giddy, exhausted, and exhilarated. It all seemed so extraordinary, so awesome, so magical, and so enchanting. It was.

And, you know what. I didn't find what I had expected. But, the unexpected found me. I didn't take a trip; the trip took me. I didn't so much look for interesting people and surroundings as I was constantly interested in whatever and whoever was surrounding me. I also discovered the secret of fending off routine and boredom, of staying curious and excited. I learned what it took to keep my eyes open however dog tired I felt. I learned that it's attitude that makes or breaks the entire trip. That attitude is simply this: no limits; no closed doors; acute awareness, alert senses, constant openness to all possibilities. Learn to do that and you'll notice the subtle realities. Then, you'll discover rich pleasures beyond your wildest dreams.

What does this have to do with education and teaching? Everything. These attitudes and behaviors aren't something I picked up at the Air China counter with my boarding pass. It was a process that started long ago in my personal and professional lives. Start with substituting "China" with "classroom." Think about it. Enough for now. More later.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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