I always wanted to learn how to fight.
When I was twenty-five, I heard about a place in China where you could go and learn martial arts for as long as you could afford to. It offered a range of practices from Shaolin Kung Fu to Tai Chi to Wing Chun. It was a boarding school for the Bruce Lee-minded.
I had just started learning Wing Chun, taking classes a few times a week in Sydney, when a familiar train of thought embedded itself in my mind: “this is taking too long, how can I speed up the process?” With that seed now planted, I decided to jump head first into an entirely new experience and try my hand at the school in Shandong, China!
I had been spinning my wheels in retail for two years, and felt like I had somehow put my life and myself on hold. I was keeping busy enough to never stop and figure out what I wanted to do next. But a trip like this seemed just crazy enough, extreme enough and movie-like enough to be something special. Or at least something to keep me distracted while I avoided trying to figure myself out.
I was going to spend one month in the lush forest lands of Shandong, honing my Kung Fu skills, waking at the crack of dawn, swinging nunchucks for fun, persevering when it got tough, eating local cuisine and having an all-round amazing adventure.
Most people were impressed when I told them about the trip; it was unlike anything they had heard before! My family, knowing me well, remained hands off and amused. As for me? I was off in fantasyland; my mind always focused on greener pastures, on this next exciting idea I had set my heart on pursuing. I kept envisioning how amazing, fun and life-changing the experience would be, giving no thought to the practicalities and reality of this brazen decision.
I was right about one thing because the trip did change my life – just not in the way you might be thinking.
I arrived in Beijing in a haze. The airport was extravagant compared to the gate for rural transfers to Shandong, which felt like a madhouse. With no free seats and barely any room to stand, I found myself a patch of wall to lean against. I reminded myself that this was what I had wanted – a great travel adventure –but as I stood there waiting for my connecting flight, I felt doubt start to creep into my mind. I felt pangs of regret and worry wondering if I was going to be okay, but I pushed the feelings down and distracted myself by focusing on the hectic scene before me.
The man who picked me up from Shandong to take me to the Kung Fu school sped down the slippery roads like he had a death wish. He would stop in the most suspicious places, leaving me in the car alone with my foolish thoughts about living the movie Taken in reality.
The training hall at the school resembled a shoddy gym back home and the bathrooms housed one tiny shower for everyone to share – with a terrible stench I’m yet to forget. The room I stayed in felt sad and empty. Peeling walls, a thin mat in place of a mattress, one small window and stink bugs for roommates! I was advised not to crush them, unless I wanted a room that smelt as foul as the toilets.
As I sat on my uncomfortable wooden bed, barely two days into my trip, I watched the sky turn from smoggy grey to black outside my window. In the stillness, the weight of my decision started to catch up to me.
I was flooded with thoughts of doubt, panic and worry. I pushed myself too far out of my comfort zone and wanted a way back to what felt safe and familiar. These pastures didn’t seem so green anymore and suddenly I didn’t care about having an unusual adventure or learning to fight like a pro. All I wanted was to be at home, with my family, in my wonderful bug-free room.
So in a matter of hours, I booked my flight out of there.
I always considered myself an impulsive person, someone with ‘commitment issues,’ unable to see my ideas through but never ceasing to challenge myself time and time again. Yet each time I tried, I always found myself quickly retreating back into what felt familiar to me. I never understood why I behaved like this, but I constantly judged myself for it.
When I returned home, I felt so ashamed of my short trip to China that I didn’t tell my friends or co-workers that I had come back early. I didn’t want to go anywhere I would usually go, even out for a walk in the daytime, in case someone I knew saw me. I spent three weeks stuck inside my house – inside my room.
At first, the stillness and lack of distractions was uncomfortable. I never in my young life had no place to be, nothing to do or no one to see. I wondered if this was what life was like when I was a child before I started school, although I did remember that playing, making messes and watching TV ate up a lot of the spare time afforded to me as a four-year-old.
With that in mind, I decided I didn’t want to lose the momentum of my attempt at using travel to create change in my life, so I opted to stay off my phone and disconnect from social media as much as I could. Instead, I sat with myself and my feelings. I wondered about my childhood and reflected deeper on my habitual thoughts –the ones that convinced me to book a flight to China.
Soon I was observing what I was feeling and where I felt that sensation in my body. I noticed when certain thoughts made my chest feel tight, or my stomach pulse, and if such feelings were small, big, uncomfortable or joyful. I started listening to my thoughts and analysing the narratives I told myself, which both shocked and intrigued me.
I had slowed down enough that I felt like I had finally caught up with myself. I finally created space for the answers to my questions about impulsivity, comfort zones and commitment issues to show up.
I gradually became aware of where my tendencies towards escapism, dissociation and the need to be busy had stemmed from. I had experienced a moment of great fear in my childhood, a moment I thought was going to end my young life, but didn’t. I had been living with that fear inside of me for twenty-five years, that uncertainty about death and the need to protect myself and survive.
Because I felt so uncomfortable just being in my body in this world, I would escape into my own imagination or into movies, yearning for adventure and travel instead of my real life. I would use this habit of escapism to comfort myself whenever I felt unsafe or uncomfortable– it was a form of protection for me. I would then make grand attempts to break free of this habit, only to find myself crawling back to what was comfortable and familiar.
I realised I’d been trying to outrun this scary moment in my life, trying to deny the anxiety it produced within me and just avoid myself in general.
Suddenly there I was, acknowledging it for the first time, feeling it and facing it all. I never felt happier.
I went half way around the world thinking that an adventure would change me and my life, but the truth is, you take yourself everywhere you go. You can’t outrun or escape the issues you may be shoving down and ignoring. I became thankful for this experience, because it held a mirror up to my life and to what I was avoiding within, all of which impacted my external choices and wellbeing.
Those few weeks at home changed my life.
What I thought travel would help me discover, I could actually explore right in my bedroom, seated on the floor, still and silent within myself. I no longer wanted to dissociate or escape, I wanted to be present and explore what was right in front of me.
Something I was once ashamed of ended up bringing me such clarity, peace and joy. It made me want to make time for myself. To not let issues build up, or to bend further away from myself.
I now know that if I’m going to bed and my mind is bothered with issues, ideas or worries, or if I’m trying to get work done and I’m still thinking about that conversation I had with my friend, it’s because I’ve let issues or stresses pile up and get too big. That tells me I need more me time, to chat about what’s interesting or bothering me, to admit to anything I may feel ashamed or worried about, and to just get curious about my own life experience!
These days, I prioritise setting aside time each day to check in with myself, to journal, reflect on my experiences, to really feel and let life move through me, so that I can wipe my mental state clean and find clarity and peace.
What you could call my “failed” trip to China was a spark that fuelled a fire for greater change in my life, and I didn’t need to be in another country to do it! I didn’t even need to leave my bedroom.
I carry that within me now, wherever I go.