The journey began in Busan, South Korea – my intended travel destination for the Chinese New Year. What I discovered was a delicious collection of cute coffee shops, art galleries, ancient temples on coasts, and scenic terrain throughout the country.

Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan

But my glacial wandering was soon accompanied by whispers of a coronavirus. As news surfaced, I was increasingly surrounded by skepticism, curiosity and caution against a backdrop of emerging face masks. Skepticism on how serious this virus is, curiosity on what it entailed, and caution on knowing how to act. Nevertheless, my travels in Korea were unhindered and I left with a commitment to return and experience Korea’s beauty in the summer. Thailand was my next destination. The frequency of virus-related news alerts was now doubling, and I was more aware of how frequently I would check for news about a virus. The truth is, I live and work in Guangzhou as a teacher and the gravity of the situation was becoming a lot more real.

Beautiful patterns at the Temple of Dawn, Bangkok

Doubt Creeps in
Will I be able to return, will I be quarantined in the region, am I safe? Seeds of uncertainty began to sprout, and the tension between my thirst to explore my surrounds and staying safe at a distance began coloring my decisions. Cursory judging looks to assess others’ health, and casual inquiries into one’s travel history marked the start of most conversations. The usual 20 questions upon meeting other travelers had evolved to acknowledge this virus as a safeguarding mechanism. However, my internalized thought bubbles of doubt weren’t a solitary experience for long. I was constantly meeting fellow travelers on the road in similar situations, a lot of us teachers living in China- you are never alone I thought. Uniting us, was the thrill of finding each other in such random circumstances, the safety of being in a third space, and collective brainstorms about our futures.

Our shared experience and the uniqueness of our plight prompted immediate connection, accelerating the strength of our bond in half the time it normally takes friendships to blossom. It was nourishing how connection and community can ease the burden of doubt and uncertainty simply through the act of sharing and active listening- behaviors I would replicate with much vigor as I kept moving.

Should I stay or should I go now…
Membership of our ‘tribe in exile’ evolved, some of us stayed together for a while, but for many the thirst to keep exploring prevailed despite it all. I was one of them. My next destination was Laos, a sleepy place with warm hospitality and lush forests.

Emerald Waterfalls in Luang Prabang

At this stage, China was truly in lock down mode, and any hopes this virus was a fleeting moment were crushed.

‘Should I stay or should I go?’, was the question we all pondered. Our mobility was being questioned, something us travelers did not accept easily. At this juncture, theories surrounding this virus were multiplying. To be frozen in place held with inaction or continue to keep pivoting considering the facts. The blanket of safety covering our tribe kept shifting.  My choice was movement and discovery, and I decided to move onward to Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. I spent my time reconnecting with old friends in the region, seeing new sights, and learning more about places in the region; time I wouldn’t have exchanged for anything else. The rewards of my movement outweighing the act of staying frozen, I was proud of my ability to keep pivoting whilst still being cautious.

Exploring Jakarta with friends and Ondel-ondel (Indonesian folk caricature) in the backdrop

Lessons Learnt
I am writing this now from my favorite coffee shop in Guangzhou, yes I choose to return. I’ve been back for almost 2 weeks and life is returning to the city. Shops are waking up, malls have more activity, people can be seen running and my craft has now moved to teaching online. The sentiment is cautiously optimistic here, spirits are high and people are hopeful that the worst is behind them. I believe it too, 加油 (go!go!go!) Guangzhou!

As I look back, my learning throughout this period has been to advocate surrounding oneself with community, form a tribe of allies, especially in moments of uncertainty; if not for the warming reassurance that comes from empathetic listening, but for the rational sound-boarding others are able to provide you in moments of doubt where rational decision-making may seem illusive.

Reunions with old friends in Malaysia

Persevere in the constant pivot- planning can be exhausting especially when you’re filtering through new data to make your next decision, but hang in there, give yourself time, preparedness to the best of your ability is a precondition to your success.

To be frozen in place would have precluded me from enjoying the embrace of reunion in Malaysia, the intensity of flavor in Jakarta, the serenity of Laos, the energy of Bangkok and the contrasts of South Korea. So my stance has been to act, to actively choose and make decisions for myself rather than freeze and have them be made for me. As a result, I have seen a lot of the region, made new friends and discovered potential new homes.

I draw analogy to my recent ‘travels in uncertainty’ to the journey we all walk in life- nothing is guaranteed and uncertainty has always been a feature in the backdrop. In these unique times, my choice to act has given me a sense of closure, agency and ownership against a backdrop of masks and unpredictability. The outcome for me has been learning, an incredible adventure and story I carry with me for life!

About the Author:

Edward Buultjens
Edward's passion is in adult learning, training and education with experiences both in corporate and the ESL industry. In his free time, he enjoys exploring his region, connecting with new ideas, discovering new music and staying active by running or hiking. He currently lives in Guangzhou, China and is a huge advocate for dim sum, Cantonese cuisine and learning the Chinese language.
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