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.

Just a plane ride away...
Just a plane ride away…

Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

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Read comments (27)

  1. February 23, 2013 at 8:46 am
    Feb. 23, '13

    Oh, you guys! I feel your hearts. Travel is about so much more than a traveler and a country; there is time, and place, and relationship, and connection, and circumstance. We can never know what makes one place work and another not. We, too, have left a place earlier than we had ever imagined only to see others thrive within. We have always said that we would stop, or leave, when it wasn’t fun any more. I’m all for hardship being good for the soul (and a great story), but there comes a time to call the hand. Good for you; I bet you’re better for it.
    Gillian @OneGiantStep recently posted..A Day At Huay Tueng Tao Lake, Chiang Mai

    • February 28, 2013 at 4:18 am
      Feb. 28, '13

      Thanks so much for your support, Gillian. I remember reading about the rough time you had in India, so I know that you know exactly what we were going through in China. I completely agree that it is only in facing challenges that we really have the opportunity to grow and learn, but at the end of the day, if you aren’t having fun, that’s an important thing to honor as well! Doing the same thing that just continues to make you miserable is no good, and there really is only so much merit in suffering. 😉

  2. February 23, 2013 at 12:50 pm
    Feb. 23, '13

    >>my high horse feels more like a Shetland pony.

    Hahahaha. Best line ever!

    As I’ve mentioned before, I’m mulling over a trip to India in 2014/2015, but I think as a ‘back up plan’ I’ll keep reminding myself that Air Asia makes SE Asia just a plane ride away if it’s all too overwhelming. Good for you guys facing up to the knowledge that China wasn’t working for you! Especially since your brain and its post purchase rationalisation bias is against you. 😉 (Totally just going to start throwing in random psych stuff to all my comments now, just so you can correct me! hehe)
    Eva recently posted..Library Loot: February 16th to 22nd

    • February 28, 2013 at 4:21 am
      Feb. 28, '13

      I think that is an excellent tactic for India, or really anywhere, honestly! I think that so long as we can say we went in and did our best to embrace the situation, even if we walk away saying it wasn’t for us, what more could we have done? I feel like Tony & I did the best we could in China, and I hope that when we get to India, if we struggle similarly, we’ll be able to cut our losses there too and move on!

      And yes, post-decisional biases are very difficult to overcome, especially as so many of us are very bad at effectively and logically dealing with the “sunk cost” fallacy. I’ll have to write about that one too one day! 😉

  3. February 23, 2013 at 6:27 pm
    Feb. 23, '13

    “China’s got all the eights and we’re just crazy.” LOVE your writing, guys. Really enjoyed the casino metaphor and psychology about intermittent reinforcement especially! I know we’ve spoken a lot about your hard time in China but I’m glad you can write about it so level-headedly and with such insight.
    Edna recently posted..A Sunday in the Marais

    • February 28, 2013 at 4:24 am
      Feb. 28, '13

      Thank you so much… even if I wrote it myself, I love that line too! 😉

      And I’m glad that this post didn’t wound you too much — we know how important China is to you, and hated that we left it with less than a 100% positive impression. But I stand by my statement that we do hope to revisit it one day, and when we do, I will be turning to you for all the advice and connections so that we can do it right!

  4. February 23, 2013 at 7:30 pm
    Feb. 23, '13

    Love your narration! It is so very well written! And happy travels for Philippines!
    Arti recently posted..The Temple of the Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, Japan

    • February 28, 2013 at 4:25 am
      Feb. 28, '13

      Thank you so much; I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Can’t wait to start sharing our Philippines stories with you!

  5. February 23, 2013 at 9:57 pm
    Feb. 23, '13

    Well, I knew that you guys really didn’t have the best of times in China, but like you’ve been saying, sometimes the cards aren’t dealt in your favour.

    Now you’ve a few more months under your belts do you think you’d be prepared to give China another shot?
    ANGLO/Dale recently posted..Hiking Where The Turtles Swim

    • February 28, 2013 at 4:26 am
      Feb. 28, '13

      Every month or so, I dally with the idea of heading back to China before we bid Asia farewell. And then we encounter a huge hoard of Chinese tourist and Tony and I feel all the old anxiety we felt there rear up again, and say we just aren’t ready yet! It’s like we have PTSD! 😉

  6. February 24, 2013 at 10:49 pm
    Feb. 24, '13

    Good on you guys. China is a head fuck! And if my boyfriend didn’t happen to have an almost pathological love of the place, I definitely wouldn’t have managed to have as good a time as I did. I had some of my lowest travel moments there, and also some of the highest, but if your not feelin’ it, no point forcing something that’s not right. Oooh Philipines, I’m excited!!!
    Sarah Somewhere recently posted..Yoga in Playa del Carmen: A Reunion

    • February 28, 2013 at 4:27 am
      Feb. 28, '13

      Yes, I remember reading through your posts in China and admired how honest you were in sharing the highs and lows (pooping in the bin! 😉 ). I think if we had been a bit more seasoned and perhaps if we had visited some of the provinces you did we would have had a better time of it!

  7. February 25, 2013 at 2:13 am
    Feb. 25, '13

    Your post basically lays out all of my hesitations for traveling in China. I think it’s a place that’s better to visit if you have a friend or local you know living there. It seems tough to crack although I do know people who have enjoyed it. It’s no where near the top of my “To Go” list but I’m sure I’ll make it there one day. Maybe after my children are grown and fluent in Mandarin, the language of the future. 😉

    Like Edna, I also loved your “They’re holding the eights and we’re just crazy line.” Well-written, like always.

    Glad you ditched China for the Philippines, that’s a place high on my list.
    Jill recently posted..Yep, Adelaide.

    • February 28, 2013 at 4:29 am
      Feb. 28, '13

      We have definitely realized that it’s harder for us traveling in places where we feel we are not connecting with the people, and with the language barrier, that was definitely harder for us to do in China. The few interactions we did have were generally very rewarding and positive, but they were really limited and just couldn’t make up for all the other headaches.

      But the Philippines… it’s bliss. Can’t wait to share our tales with you!

  8. Carmel
    February 25, 2013 at 9:24 am
    Feb. 25, '13

    I am quite stubborn too, but I can completely understand your decision to leave. In fact, I probably would have left long before you did given what I’ve read. You gave it a really good go and tried, but ultimately, like Gillian said, what’s the point if you’re miserable? I can’t wait to hear about your experience in the Philippines since that will hopefully be destination #3 for us!

    • February 28, 2013 at 4:32 am
      Feb. 28, '13

      I feel like given that we could only stay in the country 30 days (we were only issued a double-entry 1 month visa), we had to leave anyway and sticking it out for 25 days was pretty valiant! I left knowing that we had honestly tried our very best to like the country and done as much as we reasonably could to give it a fair shot. If we had just left after a week, I would have had a lot of regrets, but as it is, I left knowing that I learned a lot but that it just wasn’t the right place for us at the time. Maybe next time will be better!

  9. February 25, 2013 at 10:06 am
    Feb. 25, '13

    I think part of what made us love our time in China this past fall was knowing that it was finite. We were only there a few weeks, but we knew that there was absolutely no chance of staying longer. And we had local friends on the front end (Beijing) and back end (Shanghai) of our trip, and that helped too. I’d spent months studying the language before we left, so that and some good luck (i.e., getting to China a week after Golden Week) were enough to carry us through the stops in between. Good for you for cutting your losses. So excited to read about the Phillippines.
    Carina recently posted..FMM: Q&A

    • February 28, 2013 at 4:34 am
      Feb. 28, '13

      Yup, I think that all the things you mention would have helped us out immensely. Each of those things seems so small and unimportant, but together, they really can either boost you up or drag you down immensely. In our case, we foundered on all fronts in China and I’m glad we did not prolong the misery! 😉

  10. February 25, 2013 at 10:23 am
    Feb. 25, '13

    I’ve heard China can be a tough place if you don’t have everything planned out for you. We had sort of a similar experience trying to get to Machu PIcchu, and we spoke the language, so China must have been even tougher. I’ll be excited to see more of your pictures, though. I went to a lot of those same places all the way back in 1995 when I was just out of high school, and I am about to scan my slides from the trip and see them for the first time in almost 20 years. It’ll be cool to see a direct comparison of how far China has come in that time.

    I hope the Philippines treats you better! Get back on that horse and go to the beach for a week if you have to. 🙂
    Kevin recently posted..On the Death of the Dream (and Why I’m Totally Okay With It)

    • February 28, 2013 at 4:36 am
      Feb. 28, '13

      Our first order of business when we hit the Philippines was the beach, so you are right in line with us on that one!

      I would love to be able to see how far China has come in the past 20 years… I feel like the changes it has undergone in that time will probably be doubled in the next 5!

  11. February 25, 2013 at 6:41 pm
    Feb. 25, '13

    What a beautifully-written post. I’m sorry you had such an challenging experience in China, but it’s not that you didn’t put in the effort–you gave it a month! Some places are just impossible to connect with. You’re lucky you were both on the same page about when to throw in the towel.
    Cassie recently posted..The First (And Last) Time I Get To Plan a Dinner Party at Rocio’s House

    • February 28, 2013 at 4:37 am
      Feb. 28, '13

      Thanks so much, Cassie. I’m glad the post resonated with you and that you can appreciate that we gave it a fair shot but ultimately it just wasn’t meant to be!

  12. March 26, 2013 at 3:13 pm
    Mar. 26, '13

    Steph, I hope the Dr. is in. This is my third try to enter a comment. Rather than lose another try into cyber-space, I’ll keep it short, send it and see if it works. An error message came up from commentluv the second time.

  13. March 26, 2013 at 3:26 pm
    Mar. 26, '13

    I’ve never been “moderated” before. Does it hurt? another error message appeared again. cURL error 6

    Is it your end or mine?

    Gremlins?

    • March 27, 2013 at 4:27 am
      Mar. 27, '13

      Looks like your comments are coming through now and should appear automatically on the site from now on—the moderation step is just for first time commenters.

      I think possibly the error you are seeing through CommentLuv may have to do with the fact that you don’t actually have a website, so CommentLuv has no posts to pull from it. Just leave that field blank and it should be fine (I hope!).

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