In 1999, I was 16. I had henna-dyed red hair, some baby fat left, a taste for grunge music and hippie clothing, a 20-year-old boyfriend, limited sex experience, a comprehensive knowledge of Nantes’ cheapest coffee, a rebellious side, a disregard for authority and an experience in student protests.
That summer, I went to Beijing to take summer classes at university, as part of my high-school program. “It’s the chance of a lifetime! Sometime to put on your resume!” everyone said.
My parents agreed and allowed me to go alone.
I was curious about China. Before the trip, I tried to gather information from Nantes tiny Chinese community. A few of my classmates, second-generation Chinese, had travelled to China for the Spring Festival, to meet relatives.
“Beijing is very hot during the summer and there is a lot of people everywhere.” That was it. No one was particularly enthusiastic about China. It was just… China, to them. A place where extended family lives, nothing special.
I had no idea what I would find over there, on the other side of the world.
I landed in Beijing alone, completely lost. Little by little, I found my way around Beijing. Mostly, I met people. For the first time in my life, I met Americans, Koreans and Japanese, also taking summer classes. My roommate was Indonesian. There were a few guys from South Africa.
I met Feng, a Chinese-Canadian who kept on talking about his trip to Australia, three years earlier.
One night, I suddenly realized that the world was a very big place and I was free to explore it, like all these travellers I was meeting.
Obviously, no one was 16.
At the end of my trip, I cried all the way back home. I didn’t want to leave.
“Why did you even bother going to China?” my boyfriend asked when I came home and tried to describe the adventure. “You could have had Chinese food in Nantes, you know.”
He was serious and this was the dumbest thing I had ever heard. His comment sealed the fate of the relationship. He wanted a simple life. I did not.
It took longer to go back to my natural hair colour—seriously, henna is messy!—than to break up with him.
The trip to China would not be my one and only adventure, I promised myself. I wanted to travel again. I was realistic enough to know that I needed money, that I needed to finish high school and maybe get a university degree. But eventually, I’ll go free and wild in the world. Paris wasn’t far enough, neither was Europe. Why should I stay close to where I was born?
Two years later, I graduated from high school. I left to Hong Kong, where I had found a job. Then I met up with Feng again in Mexico—we had kept in touch, exchanging emails over the years.
Then we travelled, and travelled again. I got a new citizenship, more stamps in my passport and I try to live the life I had dreamed of when I was 16.
I travel because the world is a beautiful, surprising place. Travelling is a gamble. You aren’t guaranteed anything. You have to take a chance, accept risks and go with it.
Today was a lucky day. Perfect beach, perfect weather.
The world is amazing.