We had the opportunity to interview one of our first travel friends, Kuen, from South Africa. We met Kuen in the Hubei Province of China back in 2012, and had several fun adventures with him. Since then Kuen has seen much of Asia, in addition to other parts of the world. Read his story as he discusses trial by fire when entering China for the first time, getting deported and sent half-way across the world as well as some of his favorite places and traveling ideals.
RJ: Tell us a bit about yourself, your background, where you grew up:
I was born in Johannesburg where I lived until I was 6, as young as it may seem I still have some fond memories of those days. Skateboarding down the road that went past our house, going to work with my dad who ran a gardening service company at the time and constantly playing in the mud.
My dads business wasn’t doing well, however, and he and my mom decided to take up an opportunity to manage my uncles game farm. We lived on the farm for 9 years and I never truly appreciated it until it was gone. When you’re that young you think its normal life, which you realize actually isn’t the case once you move, live in the city and listen to how other people grew up. The farm was one wild adventure. Wild animals ranging from various types of antelope, to giraffe, zebra, many types of snakes including black mambas and pythons, to baboons and in the last couple of years crocodiles as well. Leopard had been spotted every now and then but were incredibly rare and nothing to worry about. I loved my sport growing up, still do, and so my time was basically divided between playing backyard sport with the wall, or my dad when he had time (as hard as I tried to convince my sisters that they would enjoy playing sport with me they weren’t having any of it), and adventuring and exploring the farm. Building forts, tree houses, scorpion hunting, rock climbing, river tubing, mountain climbing, snake catching, camping, bon fires… It was an incredible way to grow up and I am incredibly blessed to have had that sort of opportunity. Im also incredibly grateful that my parents gave me the freedom to do it all as well- I know I gave my mom a few grey hairs during that time on the farm, they wouldn’t be the last.
My older sister, though, grew up fast and was keen to enjoy a more social life- we were 45 min away from the nearest town and even then the social scene wasn’t exactly buzzing. And so we took the decision to move to Hillcrest, a suburb just outside of Durban. A decision Ill always respect my old man for- giving up his dream job on the farm was certainly not easy. I lived in Hillcrest until I was 23, my family is still there- both sisters happily married.
After high school I took a gap year where I worked for an irrigation company and managed a team of guys on site projects- that kind of environment taught me a lot. I then went on to study Sports Management during which I had this dying urge for an adventure abroad. My mate and I looked at and considered all options; fishing season in Alaska, planting trees in Canada, fruit picking in Israel (I think), we just wanted to get out and travel and experience something. Not long after that we heard about teaching English in Asia, we looked at Korea and then more seriously at Thailand and then China came up. Before we knew it we had a few job offers and one of them stuck because they were keen to hire my friend and I at the same company. The rest, as they say, is history…
RJ: What inspired you to start traveling?
I honestly cannot put my finger on what exactly inspired me to start traveling. Its not something that was inside of me from when I was young, but rather something that took seed after high school and during my studies. I knew there was more to do, see and experience than what I was at that stage, this feeling was perhaps deepened by the fact that I had several older friends who took a chance abroad and I saw how much fun they were having and decided to give it a shot.
RJ: What was your first overseas travel experience?
My first travel experience always makes me laugh, both at the experience and at how naïve I was back then. As mentioned earlier, my friend and I got offered the same job in China. He, though, had some traveling to do first and so it was agreed I would go earlier and start working before he arrived.
I was due to work in a small city called Xiangyang, in Hubei province. Being tight for cash at that stage I booked the cheapest ticket available which was to Beijing and decided I would make my own way from Beijing to Xiangyang- I did no prior research before departing, I figured I could sort it all out once I arrived. A few days before departing my mom said she had a cousin in Beijing who could pick me up and help me get on my way to my next destination, I politely declined and was intent on making my own way and having an experience. I was in for more than I bargained for.
I had landed in Beijing and had initially planned on staying the night in the airport as I arrived around 12am or so, however, after I arrived I was absolutely exhausted from the trip and decided to take up an offer from someone who was promoting their hotel. Before I knew it I was being whisked off in a dodgy van along a weary looking back ally, although it was the drivers erratic driving that had me most concerned- my first taste of the local driving culture. I arrived at the hotel, they assured me there would be breakfast the next morning and I went up to my room. After a night in a dirty, smoke stained room I went downstairs to get a good feed before setting out on my adventure to reach Xiangyang. I arrived downstairs and the receptionist promptly passed me a hard-boiled egg as my breakfast. The egg, now in my hand, looked rotten and so I went outside and tossed it (Id later on discover that they boil eggs in tea in China, which gives it that appearance). I was then taken back to the airport.
Back at the airport I had no idea where to even begin. Bear in mind, this was my first time ever being abroad and I was in China with a massive language gap. I asked around for ways to get to the train station and eventually was pointed in the direction of a bus. The bus took me to the train station which was jam packed full of people and again, no signs in English. I was completely lost. A man then came over to offer his help, he could write but not speak English but still offered to help. We waited in line only to find out that the tickets were sold out. He then took them on a hunt for a ticket kiosk, however, after about an hour of walking around, lugging my bags everywhere, I had had enough. I went back to the bus which would take me back to the airport. The bus broke down along the way and I was sat on the side of the road wondering why I was so hard headed not to take up my moms offer to stay with her cousin.
I eventually made it back to the airport. I had still not been able to connect to the internet all day, I didn’t have a local SIM card and I had no way of contacting anyone. Not keen to spend another night in Beijing I decided to buy a flight ticket, with the last of my money, to go to Xiangyang. It was bought, relief- the day is over and Ill be there in a few hours. Not to be!
On the way to the terminal a Chinese man spotted my passport that I was, fortunately, holding in my hand. He came over and started to talk to me about South Africa and asked me where I was heading, I told him Xiangyang in Hubei province. He looked at my ticket and told me that my ticket was going to Shenyang (which has a similar pronunciation). I was shocked. And straight after he told me he had to leave as he was on a tour and had to go. There I was, stuck again. I had to head back to the terminal from where I came and my only option was to blame the staff that had sold me the ticket- it needed to be their fault as I used the last of my money to buy that ticket (even though it was clearly my fault). I was eventually, after a lot of map pointing, able to tell them where I needed to go. I needed to pay extra and although I knew I was flush out of cash I went to the ATM anyway, in the hope of a miracle. And cash came out. I knew how much I had in my account and I knew that I had spent the last of it on the first ticket- it was the second miracle of God that day, the first English speaking Chinese man who I had met all day who recognized my passport and advised me that I bought the wrong ticket was the first.
I bought the ticket with the last of my cash, however, the ticket was to Wuhan- the capital of Hubei, as Xiangyang didn’t have an airport at that stage. I had 1 hour until check it when I realized that no one in my company knew where I was and that I would be heading to Wuhan. Fresh out of money and with no internet connection, I had to go exchange some dollars that my aunt, who was visiting from America 10 years prior, had given me. I exchanged what must have been 10USD, just enough to get a SIM card to try and connect. By the time I had exchanged the cash, bought and connected the SIM I saw the cut off time for check in was 10min away. I literally sprinted the length of the airport and snuck in just in time, after which I sent my schools manager an email that I could only hope went through to tell him I was flying into Wuhan and had no money to reach Xinagyang or even book a hotel that night.
The next morning, after waking up on the airport floor- the best sleep I had had in ages, a lady from the school came to fetch me.
That was my first traveling experience… Which basically set the tone for most future trips- no planning and flying by the seat of my pants.
RJ: What are some lessons you learned early-on about relocating overseas?
To be accepting of other cultures. Its easier said than done sometimes but it goes a long way to making your time overseas more enjoyable. And how important it is to make an effort to be communicable in the local language.
RJ: Where is your favourite place that you have visited?
Wow, that’s a tough one! I have yet to reach Europe or the Americas, so take that into account when I give my answer. Id have to say Sri Lanka, so far. I thought it was such an authentic place, so unique. The food was amazing, the people were great, the country was beautiful and perhaps best of all is that it is still relatively uncommercialized.
Special shout out to Cambodia, I loved it and thought that Cambodian people are some of the nicest people Ive come across. Maldives just in terms of pure peaceful beauty. And Boracay, because it has it all!
RJ: What has your overall experience in China been like?
Simply put, rewarding. I have been lucky enough to meet some super cool people here. Friends that will remain friends for life, and I truly count myself lucky on that account because I have met many people in China who have struggled to find solid friendship. Its also opened up me up somewhat and given me unique experiences which have shaped me in a more positive way. I loved my experience in China.
RJ: How have you found your way around language barriers in new countries?
Immersion. Honestly, the best way to learn is just to get involved and make mistakes. Yes, lessons in the beginning will help with basics but basics will remain basics if you don’t put yourself in unique and uncomfortable environments which will push you.
RJ: What are some unmissable places to visit (in your opinion)?
In China? ZhangJiaJie, amazingly unique! HuangShan (Yellow Mountain), HuaShan (just outside of Xi’An), both incredible mountains. Shanghai, because the city itself is incredible. I don’t want to step on any political toes here, but Hong Kong is also a must! I know Im missing a few but those are the ones that come to mind first.
RJ: Who would be (or is) your ideal travel companion? Why?
Ha, Now I have to be careful who I share this article with. I have had some amazing travel companions over the years, and also some who I wouldn’t choose to travel with again. My ideal travel companion is someone who is easy going but also enjoys getting out there experiencing things. Someone who doesn’t mind wasting a day just chilling by the pool but is also keen to wake up early and be busy the whole day going around experiencing what the area has to offer. Why? Because I enjoy traveling with like-minded people.
Let me finish off by saying that some of my most amazing travel experiences have come when traveling alone, so never discount going solo dolo!
RJ: What are three things you would never travel without?
Im sure many people have their list of essentials but I honestly don’t, besides a passport and bank card which are pretty standard. Earphones aren’t even crucial to me, I just got back from traveling in Vietnam for a week and I didn’t even touch my earphones. I generally like to take my own toothbrush, though.
RJ: Where has been the most pleasant city to live in during your time in China?
Without a doubt, Suzhou. Its got a lot of western restaurants and shops for when you need it. Its got a great transportation system. Its possible to live here easily without speaking Chinese, which I know from experience is not easy in a lot of other cities. Theres a lot of green around the city and also a lot of water in the form of lakes and canals. Theres also a decent bar scene for the weekends.
I highly recommend, though, experiencing life in a 3rd tier city. Its truly unique and something that is now impossible to experience in the bigger 2nd tier cities and 1st tier cities.
RJ: What has your journey while living there been, and what do you do now?
The journey has been amazing and challenging. I came here as an English teacher where I taught in Xiangyang for 10 months, I really enjoyed my experience there but was keen to move on and live in other places even though I had made some really good friends. I then taught in Jinan for 6 months which I absolutely hated, I didn’t like the city- I thought it was so average and my job was a joke.
While working in Jinan, though, I had a chance encounter with a lady who was then a principal of a big international school and she mentioned that if I ever needed a job I should just email her. Which I did immediately, and she stuck true to her word and offered me a job in Yiwu. I was in Yiwu for 2 months before my visa ran out and I had to go home and start the whole process again because my school in Jinan decided not to give the documents which I was legally entitled to in order to change and extend my visa within China. After returning China the principal asked me to go work at the Wuxi branch of the international school, something I was all too happy to do because Wuxi was a bigger city and my friend who I originally came to China with was currently teaching there as well. I then went and taught at Wuxi for 4 months before the executive principal of China for all the branches of this international school asked me to and work in Suzhou, again I was more than happy to. I loved moving to new places, meeting new people and exploring new cities- plus Suzhou was a bigger city and one I had heard a lot about. After my first year in Suzhou branch the school asked me to head up the Physical Education Department, something I was delighted about. I was tired of teaching English and Sport was right up my ally. I PE there for another 3 years and thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of them. The kids were great, there was a lot of freedom with what we could teach and I was always active.
As much as I enjoyed it, though, I still had something in the back of my mind telling me to search for a new challenge. Especially toward the end of my second year as the head of the PE department. I started one business with a friend in South Africa, which didn’t work out the way we had hoped. I also chatted briefly with another South African friend about another opportunity we saw between China and South Africa. That is currently on the back burners for now.
And towards the end of my third year I got introduced to a very successful Chinese businessman who was looking for someone to come onboard and run the International Sales Department for his factory. I jumped at the opportunity as the need for a new challenge and a desire to learn the business ropes was really strong by then. I finished my third year as head of PE at the school (fourth year in total), handed in my resignation and went to work for the factory full time in July this year.
It goes without saying that it has been a massive challenge, learning a whole new industry in a second language is incredibly tough- but Im loving it and its exactly what I wanted. In addition to that myself, my former colleague and my girlfriend had come up with an exciting business plan, one we felt had excellent potential. Upon hearing the idea my current boss asked if he could invest in it. Since then my former colleague and my girlfriend have both resigned from their current jobs and will start working full time on the new business come the new year. Its really exciting times at the moment. Wish us luck…
RJ: What advice would you give to someone wanting to visit China?
There is so much advice to be given and it also depends if youre just visiting or wanting to work. But if I was only able to give one piece of advice it would be this; Be open minded. Doesn’t matter if youre just traveling or planning on working here. Be open minded, youll enjoy your time so much more!
RJ: Where is next on your travel list?
I think the time for Europe is drawing near. Ill be going there next year for business but that doesn’t count, does it?
Ive done a lot of Asia, especially South East Asia, and so I think the next travel destination for me is Europe. Which means I better try make a few more sales and stop talking so much…