With a PhD in Psychology, I’ve accrued tons of information over the years that our switch to a full-time travel lifestyle has largely made irrelevant. Ok, not entirely, since Psychology is all about the scientific study of the human mind, and as it turns out, the world is populated with people… so while, I may not be putting my degree to its obvious purpose by pursuing a degree in academia, I still get to observe psychological tenets in action every day and feel smugly superior to those around me who are oblivious to the principles that they are unknowingly guided by.
Of course, that smug superiority quickly vanishes when I am brought up short by my own pesky adherence to these trappings of the human mind. And believe you me, it happens often enough that my high horse feels more like a Shetland pony.
For instance, I can tell you that when it comes to shaping behavior—or, as it is known in the Psychological Sciences, operant conditioning—the most effective way of bringing this about is through intermittent reinforcement. What I mean by this is that the best way to train your dog to sit on command is to give him a treat for sitting some of the time. If you reward him every time, when you stop giving treats, he will stop doing the trick sooner than if you had just rewarded him some of the time.
For what it’s worth, this principle can also be applied to humans, whether we’re talking child-rearing or spouse wrangling or even the waves of gamblers who keep Las Vegas in business. Why do you think slot machines are so addictive? Ka Ching! They offer payoffs on an unpredictable schedule, which is why people sit there for hours on end, certain that their next quarter will be the one that gets them the jackpot. Casinos know this and capitalize on it.
Maybe China does too. Because for us, China was a casino with particularly bad odds. Each city we fled to and every day we faced was like another desperate roll of the die as we put down a little more money and prayed to the travel gods that this next hand would be a winning one. A stream of mediocre and downright abysmal days would deplete our reserves of confidence so badly we’d be on the brink of folding. And then just like that, something good would happen and we were back in the game doubling down once more, certain our luck was on the rise and a winning streak was on the horizon. Such is the power of intermittent reinforcement.
But the thing with casinos (read: China) is that the odds are stacked against the gamblers (read: us) and the house always wins. Whenever we thought we were getting a handle on China, it found a way to wallop us good. Whenever we had a full house, it had four of a kind. We pull a 20, it’s got a blackjack. Hell, even if the game was Crazy Eights, China had all the eights, and we were just crazy.
There wasn’t really any one thing that happened that made us decide that China was an increasingly losing proposition for us and it was time to quit the place, but I can still vividly remember the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. After laying low in Shanghai’s French Concession area for a couple of days, we decided we were sufficiently revitalized to tackle the big C once again. Wanting to do more than squander our week catching up on episodes of The Amazing Race, we headed to the Shanghai South Railway station to see about getting train tickets from Guilin to Kunming for the second leg of our tour of China that we planned to kick off post-Golden Week. Throughout China, we had encountered fickle dates regarding how far in advance you could buy your tickets in advance, but it seemed like everywhere you could get them at least 5 days before, and sometimes as much as 10 days early.
Not so in Shanghai. Only after standing in line for 30 minutes do we discover that here you can only buy tickets 3 days in advance. And just for kicks, all the tickets for EVERY possible water town we had wanted to see on a day trip from Shanghai were all sold out too.
When we left the train station yet again without any kind of tickets, I was this close to losing it. When we entered the tourist information booth and asked the guy working there if he spoke English and could help us and were greeted with a shrug? I was done.
I don’t pretend that failing to get train tickets was a huge catastrophe or some kind of travel nightmare. We had other options, but after tripping on that one miniscule hurdle AGAIN, my optimism for the country hit rock bottom and I realized I no longer had the will to get up again. I felt defeated and emotionally bankrupt.
I realized that five days hiding from China hadn’t been enough to prepare to me to deal with the same bullshit again. Over in the French Concession, we could pretend we were stockpiling enough cash and enough cards to trump China on our second go round, but here we were once more, back in the deep end.
A place where people push and shove and laugh at you when you try to speak the language.
A place where you cannot walk down the streets without echoes of “Hello! Hello!” bombarding you from all sides, not because the people wish to talk to you, but because they want to sell you something, because it is never just “Hello!”, it is always “Hello! Wristwatch?” or “Hello! Designer handbag?” or the “Hello! Taxi?” If we never hear that last one again, it will still be too soon.
A place where you have to double and triple check everything you are told because people will lie to your face or tell you something that may or may not be true but won’t bother to check (even if it’s their job) because that’s on you.
A place where just buying a train ticket has become seemingly impossible and so slowly fears begin to mount within you that you are somehow trapped in this place and will never escape. And the truth was, that was all we desperately wanted: to escape.
When we returned to our apartment that afternoon, we sat in silence for a while, in part just to enjoy the quiet, but also so we could brace ourselves for the difficult conversation to come. If China gave us anything, it was the sense that all our struggles and failures we faced together as a team, and as bummed as we both were with our surroundings and circumstances, we had never been so in synch with each other. When we turned to one another, trying to resolve the conflict we felt in our hearts, as we looked miserably at each other, we knew: it was time to leave China.
I don’t know which of us spoke first—maybe it was like it is in the movies where we both blurted out this revelation at the same time—but despite some feelings of failure and frustration, we both agreed the smartest thing we could do would be to start looking at spending the next month somewhere else. It felt like such a hideous defeat, to acknowledge that traveling in China had been tough, perhaps too tough for us. Hardest of all, however, was knowing that we would leave the country feeling disappointed in what we had seen and accomplished while there. Both of us are stubborn to our very cores, and I am especially bad at leaving things unresolved or unfinished to my satisfaction, but when we looked back at the month we had spent, we had to admit that China had been a letdown in nearly every arena: it was hard to simply travel from place to place, nearly everything was more expensive than our estimates had prepared us for, the food had been largely mediocre, some sights were breathtaking, others were soul-crushing, and the people were sometimes nice but mostly not. For every good day or moment we had had in China, we would have two disappointing ones. That kind of return just wasn’t worth it to us anymore.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this whole situation is that, at the time, as bad as China had been, I was even more terrified of the idea of just veering off track, throwing our itinerary out the window, and diving headfirst into a new place. I started having these moments of dèja vu, as I remembered how hard it was for us to leave our life in Nashville and set out on this trip in the first place. As bad as things can be, it is always easier to stay than it is to leave, and I suppose there’s some credence to the whole “better the devil you know” philosophy.
But then I remembered that we had purposely chosen against buying RTW plane tickets or pre-booking well in advance precisely so we would have the flexibility to deal with this kind of situation if it ever arose. We wanted to the freedom to be able to go with our guts and cut our losses if that’s what they were telling us, and after a month of fighting to enjoy China and salvage the place in our eyes, I am glad we had the courage to do exactly that. We had turned our backs on the comfort of certainty before and we could do it again. I hesitantly said that wherever we went next, we’d probably love it, and wind up wondering why the heck we had put ourselves through so much needless suffering here.
As Kenny Rogers wisely sang in “The Gambler”:
You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
After 25 days of card games in China, we were plum out of aces, and it was time to fold. Maybe not for forever, but certainly for now. We canceled our return flight to Guilin, scrapped our plans to extend our visas, and walked away from the table.
And then we promptly sat down at another one and went all-in on another gamble: the Philippines.