I wrote the original version of this poem so many years ago that I nearly forgot about it, but could never forget the context surrounding it. This was long before I ever imagined I’d be making money as a ghostwriter or writing fictional short stories for others to read.
I was spending a summer abroad in China back when the US and them were on friendlier terms. For several months, a small circle of friends and I bounced around from Beijing to Nanjing to Shanghai and everything in-between. When we weren’t in class, we ate, drank, and socialized our way around whatever city we happened to be in that night. On the weekends, we hopped on trains and buses to different regions and repeat.
I had travelled around the US a fair bit at this point, but never had I been outside the country—China was my first and…well…it was very wild.
I went clubbing for the first time and had my first alcoholic drink in Beijing….
I felt my first hangover in Nanjing….
I ate my first scorpion (and centipede and silkworm and seahorse) in Huangzou.
I even met my first prostitute in Shanghai (I really shouldn’t say my first here…I suppose that carries a slightly awkward and negative connotation…I met a prostitute in Shanghai and rapidly flustered my way through the ordeal by spitting rapid-fire No’s a thousand times like I had been instructed to).
China was a whole world of firsts. Tai chi in the mountains, wandering around tea fields, getting lost in small villages, seeing a literal sweat shop, and hopping into complete strangers’ cars who said they’d take me wherever I wanted for 50 yuan (bad idea).
In a country of deep state surveillance, human rights violations, a one child policy, and the oppressive hand of communism (evidence of all these things permeated our everyday lives there…questions about the Tiananmen Square massacre were met with confusion and silence, internet searches revealed blocked results)—in a country of all these restrictive laws, I found total freedom, wonder, and release as a first time globetrotter.
Geopolitics aside, China was what really opened up my mind to world travel and the benefits—the learning, understanding, and appreciation of the “other”—it brings you as a person. China assaulted my perception and worldview.
Part of what made the experience so important and impactful to me were three likeminded individuals with which I had the pleasure of sharing these few months. The four of us spent nearly every day together eating, drinking, and exploring. They were closer friends than I had ever had before and will likely ever have again (outside my wife: permanent roommate and designated “will you watch my bag while I pee at the airport terminal” person).
To keep the story short (I have literally dozens of stories and thousands, thousands, of pictures of us and our travels), I wrote the poem during my last week in the country. Our summer was ending and we were getting ready to go our separate ways—California, Utah, North Carolina, and New York. As much as we enjoyed each other’s company and lived out so many stories the past few months, we all silently knew that this was it. We weren’t naive enough to think we’d still be best friends after we departed. We met in China, we’d say goodbye in China.
All of us had the travel bug, so part of me wondered if we’d ever see each other again in another strange and different part of the world. Would it feel like we had never been been apart? Would we spend the whole time swapping tales of what’s happened in our lives since we last said goodbye at the airport? Or would we hardly remember those crazy stories of our first time living outside the country?
So, at a loss for describing the mix of adventure, appreciation for my friends, and the impending loneliness I felt, I bought a pocket notebook and remembered an English class where my professor had tried to sell us on the mental benefits of writing. That’s how the first draft of the poem came to be.
It was the first time I had ever written anything outside of school assignments. That notebook ended up in the bottom of a backpack as I flew back to the states.
The contents of the backpack were dumped into a box and then a trunk and then a box again over and over across three cross-country moves. It wasn’t until a few months ago that my wife and I were gathering our gear for a backpacking trip that my little Chinese notebook fell out onto the floor.
I made some changes to capture how my thoughts towards companionship and travel had changed over the years. The couplet about falling from the sky—which originally referred to my short stint as a skydiver—I felt now referred to my wife and my long overseas trips with the military. There was a line about forests in the original (a reference to a hike we did outside Nanjing) that I tweaked to speak to the time I met a manic pixie dream girl.
I did eventually meet up with just one of those three friends recently, after seven years. Sure enough, it was while on a trip, in a town that was foreign to the both of us. We met up for dinner and spent the night swapping stories that filled the space in between our last goodbye and now. After that, we reminisced while filling in our spouses (we had both gotten married since) on the shenanigans we were up to years ago and a world away. We had both seen countless places and had crazy experiences since, but we both remembered China fondly.
It was a wonderful night that I never thought would happen. In a way, The Traveller’s Prayer had been answered.
Drink pairing: green tea cut with cognac.
(I don’t know if there’s a name for the drink, but that’s what one club always seemed to serve us in these big pitchers.)