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A Minnesotan in China: Ferdig reflects on year in China

Brandon Ferdig stands in Senado Square in Macau, China. Submitted Photo

The trek was over.I got back to Zhuhai, my home in China for the past 11 months. But though I was done trekking, I wasn't through with traveling.

See, these were my last 48 hours to prepare for my final departure back to Minnesota. This preparation included the boring stuff like getting all my money out of the bank, squeezing all my things into two suitcases, a carry-on and a personal bag, and selling some things I accumulated over the year.

As well, there were lots of goodbyes and reflection, the latter being triggered as I spent my final afternoon walking the docks of Zhuhai, because it so happens that my first afternoon in Zhuhai, I also wandered the docks. Almost to the day, 11 months prior, the day after I arrived to China - fresh, not knowing what to expect. I simply exited the plane alone with my preconceived notions of hectic traffic, lots of Chinese people and smog.

Thankfully, these stereotypes weren't too common.

I anticipated a year of boundless travel and exploratory possibilities.

You know how it is when you make loose plans to do things "in the next six months." It's exciting because you really can do anything, but you've got to realize sooner or later that you can't do everything. Then as "these next six months" are upon you; you've got to start actually doing these things.

You learn to play that delicate game of planning while being open to the possibilities.

I was awkward those first weeks, as well as anxious, excited and clueless. I don't usually mind this when I travel, actually, but something about the "temporary permanence" of 11 months shook me a bit. I was irritable and bothered by others staring at me and grew tired of struggling through the simplest transactions at the market.

Most of the time, though, I chilled and went with the flow -- open to the possibilities, as I said -- and I honestly can't recall an instance where this rhythm ever brought me to a place where I didn't leave a better person. (Gosh. Think about that! If we could always just move through life, each day, to this beat.)

My first week in China, my clueless, go-with-the-flow self was up on stage dancing for a community festival.

The following months, I'd be in the spotlight several more times, in the Zhuhai Daily's English section, as master of ceremonies at our school's Chinese New Year's celebration, in a TV studio audience, cooking at my school's food festival, and modeling for my school's literature and outdoor advertising.

I didn't create these scenarios -- at least not in the sense that I went to China trying to be a master of ceremonies or a show cook! Life brought them my way. But I did come to China, and I took advantage of the opportunities that surfaced. I guess that's the delicate game I spoke of.

It's about finding that balance of self and "other," doing the work assigned to you when you and life collide. As you make your way, sometimes it's seeing only enough in front of you to take the next step with certainty --- or sometimes even walking off the edge and trusting a foundation to be there.

If you've read my blog, you've seen that this year wasn't spent in one city. I traveled around quite a bit, from the regional sights of Yangshuo, Doumen, Hong Kong and Macau, to the faraway locales of Beijing, Henan and Hubei provinces.

Finally, I also visited the international destinations, Vietnam and Cambodia.

In each place, near and far, the surface images parted to reveal deeper meanings behind the environments and people I encountered. This was more than an education about these particular people and places. It was an education about humanity in general -- about you and I.

The treatment of animals in Zhuhai had me asking about all of humanity's treatment of animals. Indeed, how can/should we seek to prevent the deaths of animals? I also discovered a window of animal edibility -- ones too distant (spiders and snakes), we look at with questionable appetites; too familiar (horses, dogs), and most of us find it inhumane. But just right are those in the middle -- cattle, deer, chicken. Funny how that works.

The people

In many places it was the locals who were on display. I always felt a bit funny realizing the double standard: How would we react if an Asian tourist came and took pictures of how we lived?

Yet there I was in Guangxi province with cattle herders, and in Macau at a Buddhist funeral service.

Getting more personal, I arrived to China admittedly jaded from the politicization of education in America. In my ideological division, I realized the common phenomena of taking a side of an issue and then disregarding anything that resembles the opposition. Faced with my bias while undergoing my teacher training, I quickly saw my veil and worked to remove it.

In China, I freshly realized the importance of education and the immense importance it plays in the continued progress for humanity. I'm grateful for this as my open mind and heart allowed for the infusion of youthful energy.

I wondered how much of the childlike enjoyment I saw in my students can be recaptured, after the initial shock of adulthood has been realized, by getting back to finding pleasure and contentment in the little things. Of course, I did have to say that children have something going for them that we adults don't -- that magical blurred sense of reality and fantasy.

Then, referring to a deeper self in all of us, my time outside the cities and towns and into the untouched-by-human arena of nature, I could sense that mental division we have between our appreciations for both realms. Part of us likes the technological; part of us the natural.

I learned that humans are called by nature. Part of us "is" nature, and that sense that you get when hiking or fishing or camping seems to be a resonating of a deep part of our identity, harkening to a past time when human all lived with nature, perhaps an homage to this part of the mind that still exists today.

And a nugget of wisdom -- actually quite a gem -- I came upon one random day was the lesson that if armlessness can't stop the painter I saw painting with his feet, what's to ever stop all of us from expressing ourselves?

And indeed, our efforts, as he exemplifies, with the opportunities life presents along the way, as my experiences exemplified, reveals that we all have a lot going for us.

Brandon Ferdig, who grew up in Blackduck, recently returned to the United States after a yearlong experience teaching and traveling in China. His blog is at, where he has a slide show illustrating the faces of some of the people he met and