So it seems that I am the first of us Travelettes who went to China. As in China, that is not Shanghai or Hong Kong. As the first, writing about it seems an honor and a responsibility and quite frankly I don’t really know where to start. China is huge and diverse so it was obvious from the beginning that a 6-day trip to two cities would never do it justice. But one has to start somewhere.

china_finnair_travelettes20160420_1862 My knowledge about China has always been quite limited but I have always been very curious and enticed by it somehow. As a toddler, I remember that I was utterly in awe of the owner of the Chinese restaurant in my little home town and would excitedly point at him from my stroller whenever we ran into him. While that may not have been very polite I do know that every time I was just truly happy to see him. When I was a bit older I devoured the books of Pearl S. Buck and dreamed of the ancient Chinese dynasties. Still, I had little knowledge of what the China of today was really about.

china_finnair_travelettes20160521_1880 china_finnair_travelettes20160521_1861 In hindsight, I realize this may have been a silly endeavor to begin with. How can a country as huge as China be grasped and comprehended and put in a neat little box?

china_finnair_travelettes20160521_1878 Today, there seems to be an air about China as it is portrayed in the media that isn’t so favorable. From communism to the cultural revolution, from Made in China to the stereotype of Chinese tourists, from MSG to chicken feet on the plates, the ancient splendor seems to be forgotten. The country now seems to represent the worst of capitalism and progress. While I knew it was unfair and ignorant to this huge, diverse country and its population, I couldn’t help it – I too, believed those prejudices and had really not much desire to go.

china_finnair_travelettes20160521_1864 china_finnair_travelettes20160521_1883 But when I got invited to eat my way through China with Finnair I still said yes in a second. Really, if someone tells you they want to take you anywhere in business class and fatten you up feed you the most amazing food for a week you’d be stupid to say no. Also an excellent opportunity for my very own reality check – what was China really like? A visit to the embassy and a very friendly Chinese official later and I was ready to go, and only apprehensive about the chicken feet (more or less).

Just before my trip started I was in Morocco where I met some other travel bloggers. Over dinner, I was telling them about my imminent travel to China and their reactions were anything but nice. “Agh, why would you want to go there? Chinese are so disgusting! The food is horrific, I would never want to go to China!”

china_finnair_travelettes20160521_1870 china_finnair_travelettes20160521_1873 Never mind the fact that telling someone who is about to travel how disgusting you find their destination is quite rude, I was absolutely shocked. These people were my kind, travel bloggers, presumingly worldly and open, supposed to be living after Mark Twain’s words:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

How could they belittle an entire nation, almost 1.4 billion people with a few words of generalization? They also weren’t speaking from personal experience – they had never been to China!

Now, I think it is absolutely fair to say that while we always have certain favorite countries we don’t have to want to go everywhere. That’s our choice and our prerogative. Heck, I don’t think I am going back to South America until I run out of Asian countries to explore and have not much interest in Eastern Europe either. I don’t have good reasons and I am sure these places are stunning, they are just not of interest to me right now and I think that is quite alright. However, you won’t see me going around badmouthing countries I have never been to.
But yes, I have had doubts on my mind about China. And in that moment, hearing some of those doubts said out loud by someone, I realized how horribly wrong my resentments had been. How influenced by cliches, the media, and stereotypes I was. It was then that I vowed to not only start to question my own thoughts and watch my words so I would never become such an ignorant sounding person but to also absolutely love China.

china_finnair_travelettes20160521_1872 china_finnair_travelettes20160521_1871 The whole thing got me thinking not only about my own prejudices but also the privilege that comes both with traveling and being a travel blogger. For those who are fortunate enough to travel the world and explore other cultures for a living, isn’t there also a responsibility? A responsibility to live up to Mark Twain’s words? Not only to us but also to our readers?

Just in time for this post two other incidences occurred in the travel blogging community. Adventurous Kate published this post where she writes about a press trip when she found herself with one very openly racist writer and a client who didn’t care. She describes how shocked she felt and how she called this person out, standing up against racism, alas on her own. It’s easy to say it didn’t concern her but then again isn’t that the same argument that men use when they say they can’t be feminists just because they are not female? Isn’t it just our duty as decent human beings to stand up against all forms of discrimination whether they concern us directly or not?! And especially as so-called travelers! Shouldn’t we have a broader view of the world, share it with those who stay home and also use it to educate and tell whether the grass is really greener, purple or striped and that all of those options are okay?

china_finnair_travelettes20160521_1881 china_finnair_travelettes20160521_1879 Alas, we are still human. That much was obvious when another issue caused an uproar on social media. Liz from Young Adventuress got called out and subsequently apologized for what cannot be described as anything other than a racial slur against Asians. While the context may have been well-intended as she was calling out tourists in New Zealand to stop behaving like complete douchebags and destroying nature, the racial implication was simply wrong. It could have easily been avoided and given the real issue of environmental conservation when traveling a lot more impact, but the words slipped out and readers were hurt. Rightfully so.

china_finnair_travelettes20160521_1867 china_finnair_travelettes20160521_1865 Whether her apologies were sincere or not and how she really feels about Asians, I do not know. However, I do know that if we write and share our thoughts and feelings with the world we do have to mind what we say. It is not enough to say Well if you don’t like what someone says, you don’t have to read it. Or She didn’t mean it!. I think that is an easy cop out. The privilege of travel comes with a responsibility and even more so when you are a writer. Mind your words, they are powerful, they matter.

One of my favorite writers, Maya Angelou, wasn’t quite as optimistic as Mark Twain on the notion of traveling. But she wrote:

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

With that said, I don’t think you have to love every country and like every person you meet. You are entitled to have favorites. But you should at least try to understand where other people are coming from, tolerate and let live. As a traveler, you should learn and be able to differentiate between stereotypes and reality, a cliche and what someone is really about, a government and its people. And as a decent human being, you need to speak up when facing racism, sexism or any other kind of bigotry and injustice. Even when it is uncomfortable and even when this may mean that you need to have a good hard look at yourself and your own privilege.

china_finnair_travelettes20160521_1882 While I wanted to love China just to spite this person in Morocco, I really did fall in love with it. The people I met were nothing short of amazing. Everybody smiled warmly, offered a helping hand when needed and returned my curious looks with open faces that mirrored my own curiosity. I didn’t dare get close to a chicken foot. But then again, there is so much more to China than the stereotypes. And, I’m happy to say, there will definitely be a next time.

Thank you to Finnair. For not only giving me the amazing opportunity to discover China but also to learn so much more about myself in the process!

This post was written by Annika Ziehen who was a Travelette until 2019. Originally from Germany, Annika has lived in New York and Cape Town and now travels the world full time. She considers herself a very hungry mermaid and writes about her adventures, scuba diving and food on her blog The Midnight Blue Elephant. You can also find her on Instagram here!