My sophomore year at university, I got this itch to go on a study abroad trip for May term (one month either spent traveling or in class) to Asia, though I’m not sure what possessed me seeing as my family had never traveled outside of the country. After having convinced my parents that China was where I wanted to go, I spent a month with my fellow classmates traveling the country. Within 24-hours of being in Beijing, I knew that I was going to live in China someday. And at the end of my years in college, I applied to a school in Shanghai but ultimately decided it wasn’t the right time for me.
Instead of a big move to China, I decided to take a job offer to teach at a rural school in Illinois about an hour away from my hometown. After having failed to leave college with a single friend thanks to a drowned relationship, I was excited at the prospect of meeting new people. My school was an absolute gem and my coworkers were friendly and fun, yet I was still having troubles making friends with my same interests. The teachers were all married, and many of them had kids in that small town sorta way. I went to yoga a few times a month, spent Saturday nights grocery shopping or at my parents’ house, and diligently set my VCR any time I had a school function after hours. While I loved reading and drinking tea, preferably at the same time, I cringed at the thought of going to the book store or coffee shop alone. I wouldn’t have dared to go to a restaurant by myself, and a solo trip to the movie theater was out of the question. Sad and lonely, I clung to the job I loved, spending hours planning lessons and decorating my classroom.
Throughout those three years in the small town, the idea to teach in Asia kept niggling at me, so after careful planning, I applied to a few schools and within two weeks I had a job offer in Hong Kong at an American school. I was going to do it. I was going to leave everything to which I had grown accustomed: Wal-Mart on the weekends, cutting out lamination on Sundays, and VHS tapes full of Roswell episodes. In 2012, I made the move from rural Illinois to Hong Kong holding desperately onto my insecurities of loneliness, but certain I was going to make it on my own in a city of seven million people.
I won’t sugarcoat it, life was hard, like really hard. I was still lonely. I got lost…a lot. But as soon as I had one friend – just one – my life changed. Someone to go to the movies with. Someone to eat dessert before dinner with. Someone to apartment hunt with. Someone to let me cry on his shoulder when I needed it. Someone to make me laugh.
This first friend was Orlando. He and I met at new teacher orientation where we sat next to each other on our first day. He was so funny and we had an instant connection. It might’ve been the first time I’d truly laughed since moving to Hong Kong. Even though he’d been in HK a few years already, he empathized with me. Though instead of feeling sorry for me, we hung out, explored Hong Kong, and became friends.
And when my sad tears turned happy through this friendship, I started to feel comfortable also doing things alone: coffee shops, movies, dinner, etc. I persevered. In fact, I stayed for two wonderful years, making the most wonderful friends. I did more than persevere. I thrived, traveling to 10 countries in two years, including a solo trip to the Philippines.
The person I was when I moved to that small town is not really the same person I am today. Sure, I still get extra butterflies when I travel alone and I have to convince myself to talk to strangers in hostels, but, that one friend made all the difference in the world. I wish I could say that this is a guide for people wanting to travel solo overseas, but it isn’t. At least, not really. Instead, though, this is an urgent push in the right direction. You can kick ass! In whatever you want to do, you can be awesome. Persevere. It’ll be scary and lonely and hard. But in the end, it’ll all be worth it. I know from experience because here I sit on a beautiful day in Chicago at a coffee shop all by myself, loving my life.