thoughts on travel

- 19 mins

I’ve been traveling on and off for the past few months since leaving my job and before starting my PhD in the fall! I have a few thoughts on travel.

Growing up, I really enjoyed traveling with my family. My parents showed me and my sister the world, and I look back on our trips with such fondness and love. However, I also saw it as somewhat stressful because my parents love packing a lot into our trips. As someone who likes taking things at my own pace and needs an abundance of alone time, it sometimes felt a bit overwhelming for me as a kid. During high school, I stopped traveling because I preferred studying and working on my hobbies. I was highly focused, finding satisfaction in seeing myself grow incrementally through structured routines and goals.

Mixed feelings around travel

I have always had mixed feelings about travel. On the one hand, it’s one of the best ways to connect with culture, people, and art. Having the time, energy, and money to travel is an immense privilege. Yet, non-essential traveling can sometimes be incredibly detrimental to the world. How much do I really love nature and want to help with climate change if I use so many resources while traveling? How can I value and respect culture if I am part of the problem of mass tourism? Why can I visit a country for pleasure while locals struggle to meet their basic needs? Those questions don’t sit well with me, and I still grapple with them. While there are ways to travel responsibly and ethically, the reality is that most people, including me, don’t prioritize that, and we don’t always know how.

In addition to the ethical quandaries surrounding travel, I personally have never aspired to travel full-time. I like having roots and community. I relish in my routines—eating nutritious food that make me feel good, exercising and stretching consistently, and now especially getting weekly sport massages/acupuncture/cupping. I love having a favorite coffee shop and going to the same small restaurant where the waiter greets you by name and knows your usual order. I have no problem going to the same place again and again; places change with seasons, years, and times of day. Just like how Monet would paint the same place over and over again, with each painting so different, I feel like you can never really be bored of a place. So, when someone asks me, “What is there to do in South Bay?” (implying that San Francisco or other big cities are much more exciting—which they admittedly are), sometimes, I feel like the answer is: anything, everything.

How and why I travel: embracing slow travel, travel as a spiritual practice, and everyday life as a luxury

Now, as I’m gaining more experience traveling on my own and with various people, I’m learning more about how I like to travel: slowly, with ease, and with the feeling that you have all the time in the world. Even if I’m at a place for only a few days or a week, not feeling like I have to do many things. I know it is a luxury and a privilege to have time and feel like you can always return to a location, but I feel like slow travel is ultimately a mindset. It’s not seeing places as a box to check through to say that you’ve been there or to snap a few photos. (On the other hand, I sometimes like to have intense days where I have a very packed schedule if there are really things I want to do. But part of the joy in traveling, especially alone, is choosing your pace at every moment.)

More importantly, I’m learning why I like to travel. Travel is not just a checklist of places to see and visit. It’s about how it changes you as a person. At its best, travel is a spiritual practice–a way to connect deeper with yourself and the world. At its worst, it’s a capitalist trap and a processed, saturated experience–a packaged dopamine hit to escape an unexamined daily existence. Even though my home and heart are in California, I feel like traveling is in my soul. I want to be a perpetual traveler, no matter where I go–and that means living with curiosity, leaning into fear, and seeing the world through new eyes. One of my friends was saying that travel should only be reserved for occasions as a reward so that it can be better appreciated. But I disagree–regardless of whether or not I am traveling, I want to live a life where every sunset is as beautiful as the last, where every new experience is awe-inspiring, and where every culture feels fascinating and exciting–including my own.

I know people who feel like their everyday life is already a luxury and find traveling more stressful. My dad is one of these people. He has literally the most fun in his day-to-day life than anyone else I know–I like to joke that if he made a day-in-the-life vlog, it would be more exciting than any YouTuber’s vlogs. He structures his life around fun, play, and community/relationships, which I really admire–he definitely taught me and my sister the importance of self-care and fostering authentic relationships, which I think is somewhat unusual for an immigrant parent. He finds traveling a bit stressful (probably because of the family vacations we went on as a kid, where he felt responsible for driving). On the other hand, I also know people who use travel as a means to escape their day-to-day life–those who work super hard and use their vacations as motivation to work harder. I get that, and I think both ways of living are totally valid. Most people are a mix of the two, but what I personally want out of my own life is to feel that it is a luxury every single day. Not necessarily in the material sense, but in the richness of life itself. And then, while I’m traveling, to not have it stray too far from my daily routines–still exercising, eating healthy, sleeping well, working on myself, doing the things I like to do, and making time for art and relaxation, even if it means missing out on seeing more places or doing more things.

Life beyond checkboxes: experiencing life through intuition and feeling

Travel has taught me that life is meant to be experienced. I felt this intensely while waiting to cross the street the other day. Life could just be spent doing nothing and waiting, and it would still be valid. There is no such thing as wasting time–we are always in a state of being. People are in such a rush in their daily lives. I feel like so many people at Harvard and the Bay Area live a checkbox life, and they want to optimize everything–school, degree, marriage, kids, career, retirement. I’ve changed so much since graduating college–while protecting my energy from the subliminal messages, I’ve realized I have no feeling of needing to check any boxes or even to use my time in the most “productive” way. I realized I could do nothing and achieve nothing and still be okay. Knowing that has freed me. My striving is just extra, something to add flavor to my life. That doesn’t mean I’m any less ambitious or don’t want to help people and make a positive impact on the world–if anything, it’s made me more excited to live in the present moment and do meaningful work. I’m just fundamentally okay with anything happening in the present moment. I’m okay with stillness. I’m okay with nothing going as planned and everything going wrong (as long as safety isn’t compromised), even though I’ll always try my best in the things I commit to. My happiness depends on the quality of my connections–which, to me, is more than relationships. It’s how deeply you connect with your inner world. How much genuine love and care you hold for others and yourself within your heart and your ability to communicate it and turn it into action. How you connect to nature and art and beauty, and how you lean into the twists and turns of life.

This shift in not seeing life as a series of checkboxes has also taught me how I like to learn new things–particularly STEM subjects. Reflecting on my science and engineering education and experience, I realize that I learn best with intuition and feeling. Even though I have a vivid imagination, it is less visual and language-based (my brain lacks a mind’s eye and an inner monologue) and more feelings, ideas, and logic-based. Feeling and intuition are in no way a replacement of rigorous analysis and empirical evidence; rather, it’s a complement–like the first step in an inductive proof. The way I learn and see the world is a lot like how someone paints–making a rough sketch, blocking out the colors, and going into the details–rather than going in to paint one piece at a time. I have to have intuition about what I’m learning or trying to do before the details. And I have to make myself feel positive emotions and genuinely like what I’m doing during the process–I’m terrible at doing things when I’m unfulfilled. Learning, doing great work, having strong intuition, and emotional regulation all go hand-in-hand for me. My overarching goal in life is to gain intuition and a deep understanding of how different subjects work and interact, as well as understand the interplay of my emotions with how I learn and work.

The transformative power of solo travel

Traveling, often alone, I’ve learned so much about myself—like how I’d love to someday be a wedding or engagement photographer because I love taking photos of people in love. How I want to practice pole dancing, after meeting someone who really inspired me to see it as a beautiful art form, and going to my first class and loving it. How I feel most alive in nature, either on a hike or in the countryside, how enamored I am by mountains, waterfalls, and flowers, and how active I need to be on a daily basis—which I’ve always known, but being able to go on daily long hikes while experiencing so much beauty and the fresh mountain air is incredibly addicting, and I don’t know how I’ll be able to go back to only exercising in the gym for an hour each day. I’ve learned how calm I really am at my core, and the power of positive self-talk in difficult situations. How I yearn to be in committed and tight-knit communities to grow in my various passions and progress to the next level. How to ask for and receive help. And much, much more. I’d like to go on an extended solo trip every few years for the rest of my life, if possible. I love traveling with other people, so I’ll continue to do that for the most part, but something about traveling alone makes experiences a different kind of intense, reflective, and vivid. I notice more things, and I feel more open to interacting with the world.

Cultivating deep interpersonal connections and learning to let go

In April, I went to a “Friendship Retreat” in San Francisco, which was a weekend full of exercises designed to stretch your boundaries and teach us how to better relate and show up in relationships. We did an exercise where we started by slowly walking around, eyes on the floor. Then, they instructed us to find someone near you and stand in front of them, holding eye contact for a few minutes while you feel how different you are. Then you walk around some more, and in a few minutes, find a new person to stand in front of. You then feel, in your bones, how much the same you are. And then walk around some more, find another person, and then feel how much you like them. I feel like this exercise, although not one of the main exercises in the retreat, somehow made a profound impact on me—to feel our sameness and our differentness, and to have positive feelings towards others, even despite not knowing every detail about them, or much about them at all. I carry that in my heart wherever I go now, in my travels and my day-to-day life. We are so different yet so similar to everyone we meet, and I want to continue meditating on that, and sending people positive and loving energy. Rather than differences creating fear, it should inspire curiosity, grace, and compassion; our sameness should not cultivate complacency, it should inspire deep connection and an almost spiritual feeling of oneness.

By nature of traveling alone, I’ve met a lot of new people spontaneously—at restaurants, on the street, in shops, on hikes, in hostels, and more—and it has, conversely, taught me to let people go. I have always hated leaving people and seeing people leave. I crave permanency and stability in my relationships. If I like someone, I want them to be in my life forever. Meeting people, especially through solo travel, is such a beautiful and fleeing experience. Most of the time, the interactions are surface-level (yet still nice), but once in a while, you have experiences with new people that change your perspective of the world. Their life touched you, and you touched theirs. You’ll probably never see them again, and you don’t even really know them, but you’ll always remember the experience you had together. I think that’s so incredibly beautiful. I feel like maybe in my daily life I can learn to be okay with people coming and going, to not hold so tightly to the idea of forever, and just appreciate every moment. And I realized that we’re always letting people go, as we’re always evolving. Even for the people in my daily life, I’m learning to let them go—to not hold so tightly onto my perception of them, to always allow them to change and grow in their own ways.

Fueling my artistic passions alongside my career in tech

In another life, I would love to pursue art as a photographer, painter, and/or writer who finds inspiration in traveling. Even though I’m very happy currently in my career and I love it a lot, I know that art is what gives me the most meaning and joy. I could not live without art. Although I’ve contemplated the idea of pursuing art full-time, it isn’t very practical at the moment because 1. I’d have to be very good (which I am not yet), and I don’t know what that would take or what that really means, 2. getting financially rewarded for art would take the fun and joy out of it and give me too much pressure to produce, 3. I find a lot of meaning and fulfillment from working in tech, and I have lots of dreams and ambitions there, and 4. I have very little desire to be famous or rich from my art—I would much prefer to be a relatively unknown yet immensely talented artist. Realistically, art is what I want to pursue in parallel with my career in tech for the rest of my life, ideally with the same vigor and intensity.

I’m still trying to figure out what that looks like day-to-day, but I know that everything I do is interconnected and feeds off each other. Occasionally when I’m feeling insecure, I feel like I’m not doing enough to progress in my career or that I have too many hobbies/passions outside of work, especially as I’m now taking many months “off” to relax and travel. I am very aware that these feelings are from internalized capitalism and feed my lower self, yet it’s hard to break free from them completely. While reflecting on the concept of balance, initially my focus for this year, I realized that balance wasn’t precisely what I sought. Writing this piece served as a reminder to myself that everything I do contributes to the broader tapestry of my life, especially when it comes to nurturing my artistic interests and taking the time to travel:

Living is about blooming like a flower in every direction possible. Emotions, spirituality, hobbies, interests, personality, and relationships. It goes beyond just balance, which feels rigid and static to me. The flower metaphor suggests that things build on each other simultaneously. The more you get in touch with your emotions, the better you are at work. The more you nurture one hobby, the more another flourishes too, and your personality stretches and deepens. The more you tend to your health, the more the rest of your life grows. Life isn’t about balance. It’s about blooming in all directions. You have to feed and water every side–not necessarily at the same time, but keeping them alive.

The day before going on my latest trip, I went to a talk on the intersection of art, science, and outreach from a mentor in high school, one of the people I admire most in this world. This person made such a large impact on my life. Not only did I spend a summer doing research with him in high school, where I was struck by the patience he had in explaining complex subjects to a young and inexperienced student, but I was also moved to rewrite my college essay just a week before it was due after attending a talk he gave nearly five years ago. In his talk, he shared that he saw mentorship and helping students reach their potentials just as Michelangelo had a vision of David in a block of marble and said, “I saw the angel in the stone and I carved until I set it free.” As I listened to his talk, I realized that, just like my mentor, I aspired to be an engineering leader who sees the angel in others and empowers them to achieve their individual potentials. Additionally, I realized the importance of seeing the angel in myself to grow in my personal journey of growth and self-discovery.

Beyond being a great professor, he is an immensely talented artist and a supportive husband and father. He has extraordinary kindness, patience, and empathy, and is an inspiration for the type of person I want to become—particularly in the way that his life seems to flow harmoniously from his personality, and all of his passions and interests build upon and connect. It is remarkable to witness, really. Listening to his most recent talk, I was incredibly inspired to live a life that flowed from my inner-most being, which includes connecting my various quirks and passions—not as a series of checkboxes to fulfill and string together, but sourcing from natural instinct, intuition, and feeling. That is what I want most in my life, and what I believe self-actualization looks like.

Embracing language learning

I am now very inspired to improve my Chinese and to learn a new language. Growing up, I felt like it was a better use of my time to learn other things—art, music, coding, or math—anything other than rote memorization of language. I went to Chinese school every Saturday and had to do homework for it every week, and it wasn’t the most fun thing I felt like I could do (although now I really appreciate that I learned how to read and write Chinese!). I learned some Spanish in middle school, which was really fun (especially listening to Spanish music!), but in my high school days, I gave up. In the next few years, I want to learn another language—most likely either French, Italian, German, or Russian. I feel now like my life is long, and I want to experience living in a few different countries for an extended period of time. I have some friends who spent a year abroad as a kid, and even though it seems like it could be extremely disruptive and difficult in some ways (as my friends would attest!), I would love to someday move to a new country with my own children and have them live in a different country for a while, and be exposed to different cultures, languages, and people at an early age. I have no idea if that’s practical or wise or if I’ll ever do it, but I think that would be an interesting experience!

I still look forward to going home after every trip, regardless of how much fun I have. I love my routines and my daily practices. But it’s been awesome to see myself grow these past few months while traveling—being less scared, meeting and talking with so many people, learning more about my travel style and preferences, following my intuition on what to do at every minute, and being immersed in other cultures. I have so many adventures yet to go on—I want to do some solo thru-hiking (which really terrifies me), and there are still so many places I want to see and explore—Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Portugal, Peru, and many many more. I want to be healthy and strong for as long as I can, so that I can continue exploring and traveling the world.

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