Ryan Lee played his cards a little differently. Instead of graduating university, getting a job, a wife, and struggling to afford an apartment he took off traveling. Making his money playing music in the streets, he’s traveled for more than 15,000 kilometers around China.
Ever since I was a kid, I played my cards different. I always relied on my quick wits. I had good marks at school, and I would play all day long. Naturally, I entered a good high-school and started to study technical sciences. At the same time, I started to write songs. Unfortunately, poor results in the college entrance examination made me loose interest in writing. But soon I discovered singing, although my major was in electrical automation technology. When I was about to graduate, I came up with this crazy idea that I will start wandering around, traveling and write a book. Funny thing was that before I turned 25 I did not move farther than 300 kilometers from my home in Shandong province, in the northeast of China. My parents and friends were against this, which slowly made me give up on this travel as being unrealistic. Still, each time I would feel lost in life or work, this traveling idea would suddenly come back and haunt me with only one question: Do you really know what you want to do? Worst that could happen to you in life is not being poor, but more this pain and constant wondering. I started to negotiate with my parents about this travel, and after three years of talks and reassuring, my idea finally became reality – I started to travel.
My parents are similar to any other parent in China. They think that their child should have a plan for a stable life. Where he will study and where he will work, and finally get married and have children. The Chinese education system on the other hand is designed to destroy personality and tries to raise collectivism. They try to make everybody think in the same way. Luckily, my family is a bit democratic. Whatever the problem is they are ready to discuss it. Still, I know that their support for my decision was a great concession and sacrifice for them. It is not really a big deal if a young person decides to go and see the world, the problem was that I am their only son and they have always protected me and I have never experienced any real troubles in life. So they were worried if I do not have a place to sleep or food to eat. When I started my travels, I had to promise that I will call them everyday, just to let them know that I am fine. I had to keep on calling them until they were assured I could live on my own.
In 2013, I stopped my travels after three months and came back home from Guangzhou to spend New Year’s holidays with my family. Each time some guest would ask my mother about my work, my mother would mutter something or say that I am working in another city. She found these travels of mine as some kind of family’s dirty laundry. In China, when you ask each other about your children this is not only out of courtesy of care, it is more about comparison and showing off. Whose salary is higher, whose kid became a public servant. Parents are very sensitive about this issue.
Anyway, after New Year I returned to Guangzhou and continued traveling. My mother came to Guangzhou to deliver some goods and she stayed with me for two days. She stayed at the hostel I was staying at. This made her slowly realize my life on the road.
Soon after I wrote ten thousand words of my travelogue and a few poems, which was a small progress. Eventually, my parents started to tell our friends and neighbors the truth about my travels. When I told this to my friends, even my best friends, they would laugh at me, thinking I was joking. When I was about to leave, a lot of people looked suspicious at me. Some of them were convinced that I would not make it. But as I went farther, I was slowly getting their approval. When a man does something out of the ordinary, he will encounter disapproval and suspicion. It seems that as soon as you do something which is not along the beaten tracks of this world you are necessarily making a mistake. Unless, you succeed. But then again, if you do not leave everything to start something new, how will you succeed?
Preparing for my trip was a tedious matter. You need to decide what to take, arrange the time schedule, itinerary, money, how to deal with people and so on. But in reality it takes just a general idea of what you want to do, and you really do not need to plan in detail. This is because you cannot predict everything that will happen on the road. In fact, when you stumble upon some problem you will quickly find a way to solve it. For example, I was thinking about working or volunteering in order to get my travel money, but in the end I realized this would only take my time. Finally, I decided to sing for money. My guitar skills are poor, so I can only play in the street. I started with a repertoire of two or three songs, and worked my way up to more than twenty. Singing for money gives you a lot more freedom in arranging your own time, and at the same time you are able to meet more people. Since I like to be free with my time, I did not get a chance to play in a bar, only in the streets. People like me are called wandering singers.
In China, not all of the places are suitable for wandering singers. In some places people lack appreciation and understanding, and they consider us to be some sort of beggar. In China, there are really beggars who sing in order to draw some attention. Among them, healthy ones have some sad story which makes people feel sorry for them. But around 90% of these stories are made up. The disabled among them cannot work, and for them singing for money cannot be criticized, although some of them are really bad at it and are only doing it to get compassion from others. There are also places where street singing is considered a street business which occupies public space, and wandering singers are often evicted by city inspectors. So, the most suitable place for wandering singers are in developed, tourist places or cities with more open minded and cultured people. I have been through China’s southeast and have met numerous wandering singers. Beggars aside, singers differ a lot from each other.
Some of them are original and sing their own songs. They even play and recite music from their own CD. To them, this life of wondering singer is not only a source of inspiration but more a way of getting an opportunity for their music to be appreciated by other people. There are but a few who made it this way and became popular singers, and there are numerous who stayed buried under a multitude of other singers. Whether they are proud singers or just castaways, they are all true artists. In Guangzhou I met Along and Afei. I do not know where they are singing now. There are other singers for whom singing and wandering turned out to be just a part of their lives filled with days of freedom in which they have seen big cities and small villages, and their stories are full of love and hate. In the end some go back to ordinary lives. Some find steady jobs, get married, and raise children, some go back home and open music schools, teaching kids how to play guitar. Some work in bars as singers, and continue to play music for living. Some, like Lao Bei, became a boss at a hostel, while A Xiang now works as singer in a Bar at Xitang, and A Xia went back to university to graduate.
But the one who impressed me the most was Su Xing, who I met in Qingdao. He spent six years as a wandering singer. In the end he got married, had a kid, and found himself a steady job. He told me I remind him of how he was in the past. Before we said goodbye he gave me advice. He said that I should not care much about moving, as long as my heart does not stop moving my life will not stop. He also told me not to care much about money. Because if one day I get occupied with money, my soul and my voice will change. It is because of his advice that I allow people to listen for free when I sing, and I never care about how much money I earn. My only desire is to sing freely.
Though all of my travel money depends on singing I have never thought of myself as someone who is a professional singer. I see myself as someone who is doing a music tour around the whole country. There is a type of singer who every day show up at the same place and same time to sing. They look at their singing as some kind of work that needs to be done. There are even some of them who do not like to talk to people and their peers because that might affect their earnings. Naturally, these singers do not have a lot of good songs. This is not only because of their bad skills and lack of talent, but more because they are not singing for singing, but for money instead. Once you get like this there is no point of calling yourself a singer. You are now a professional singer.
Although I have some of my own songs, I still do not consider myself to be songwriter. At best, I am a traveling singer. But I will never let myself be a professional singer. Between songs, I will ask people if they have some wishes or I will tell them about my journey to please their curiosity about my travels. On my microblog I share my travel stories. This is because almost every person dreams of leaving everything behind and setting off on a journey. But very few dare do this in the end. So I hope that people who can not take this kind of journey can hear my stories, share this part of my life, and ponder about why do we live and how we face the life. In fact, many people from my audience do not give me money for my singing, but more because I am living their dream.
I have a notebook in which I put train tickets and postal stamps of each city I visit. When I meet an interesting person I ask them to write a few words on how they see life. In my previous life my friends around me had pretty much the same view of life – find a job and earn some money. So I hoped that I would find different answers than this. Because I think people in different corners of the world must have different ideas, different lives. After all, only then can we call this world rich and beautiful.
On my journey I met a lot of travelers and they have all been different. Some of them are in love with nature and look for beautiful scenery. Some of them are crazy about history and look for ancient sites. Some of them have a good income, and for them traveling is just a way to disappear for a while. Some of them are young and without money. They travel out of curiosity as poor travelers. Some of them are cycling and walking. Just like Buddhist travelers they just go where they want to go and test their endurance. And then there are some who are disappointed in life. To them, traveling is just a way of escape.
In Suzhou I met a woman from Taiwan. When she was bored she would find some corner to sit in and start reading books. When we started talking, I realized that she was a thirty something year old woman who never got married. In China, people who do not want get married or hesitate to marry are often frowned upon. Before she started to travel she always listened to her family’s advice. She went to a good school, found a good job, but she never realized what is was that she truly wanted out of life. Once she went on a trip and realized that the world is a big place, and that there are many things waiting to be discovered. She quit her job and has been traveling ever since. In Xiamen, I stayed on Gulang Island as a couch surfer in the house of a very cool couple, Maizi and Janet. Maizi is one of the owners of a bar on this island, and Janet came to Gulang to have fun. When she would get inspiration she would go to one of the caves and play a guitar, and that is how these two met. Later on, Janet went to Tibet and Maizi sold his share in the bar and went after her. On their journey they escaped death a couple of times but in the end they returned to Gulang with their motorcycle and started new jobs and a new life. Traveling sometimes can be full of mysterious coincidences which change your life forever.
Travelers are not at all different from others. They are ordinary people, which we meet every day. Although there are a lot of people who go along with the rules of everyday life – exams, looking for a job, buying an apartment, returning loans – there are more than a few who experience their own life on the road. While I am on the road some people envy me and approve of my life, but there are some who frown upon me and question the way I live.
I am also not yet certain of what life should be so I started to talk to people that I never would have talked to in my previous life. Beside travelers, I’ve talked to homosexuals, prostitutes, people who suffer from AIDS, beggars. China is still developing, and lot of people consider these people to be marginal, that they do not have any relation to our lives. Still, they are right here beside us. In fact, some of them are our friends.
Once I met a guy, who was working as a Beijing opera singer. After he quit his job and became a street cook. He suffers from AIDS, and after a while he could not perform anymore due to his condition. When we were eating together, he would envy me on my travels. He went with me for while, but due to a lack of money he gave up and went back on to being a street cook, waiting for his life to end.
Once I met this lunatic. He wore weird and ragged clothes. He had a pony tail. I saw him lying on a small bench in the middle of a square. Suddenly, I realized that he was painting all kinds of beasts and animals from the Classics of Mountains and Seas, an ancient Chinese book of various legends which describe mountain animals. I started to talk to him, and he painted for me a phoenix. He lived with his relatives, and would go every day for a walk and then paint. His thoughts were a bit off, but it was difficult to tell if he was a lunatic or a genius.
Once I met a girl whose family did not have enough money to keep her going to school, so she dropped out. She did various odd jobs. She even went to prison because of some misunderstanding. When she was young she went through a lot. In the end, she got married and got pregnant. When she was about to give birth her husband brought a mistress to their house. She aborted the child, and her husband and his mistress had a baby. She left him. She could have asked for one of those cheap state apartments thanks to her ex-husband, but she never did. Now she is taking care of her parents and brothers and sisters. When she is low on money she works as a receptionist. She told me that there is no right or wrong way of living, every man has his own life to take care of, and that is it.
Life needs to have basic terms. First, you need to be independent and not count on others for your living. Second, Chinese pay a lot of attention to family, they need to be responsible for their children, spouse, parents. When you have fulfilled these two basic terms, and have not broken the law, you can start to choose freely your own way of life. People are used to judging people who are different from them. They are also used to judging others whose material and social status is lower than theirs. But, as my friend said, there is no right or wrong. It is exactly because of personal status, capabilities and choices, that we need to be more understanding and tolerant of people who are different from us. At least that is what I found out.
I have been to a lot of places, so people often asked me which place I liked the most. Actually, this is a hard one to answer. Each place has its own culture and people, who through time form similar characters, which gives cities their own characters. I stayed a while in each place to see how people live, what they eat, how they have fun. I find this very interesting. Each place had something that I liked or things I will never forget. Yet each of these places also had some things that made me sad or things I did not like.
The place which impressed me the most was Hong Kong. There, for the first time I have truly realized what a society with freedom of speech is like. Hong Kong has a mature democracy. People there can question and ask for things from the government. If Hong Kong people have something to say, they will say it. So, there are a lot of protests there. Of course, liberal-democratic systems and centralized power systems each have their own advantages and disadvantages. Still, a great country which is looking for long-term development should let its own people have a say about the future. A country is a collective made up of people who should have the right to decide what kind of system they want to love.
When we talk about continental China, I was most impressed by Hangzhou. I used to live there in an old building, which had folding chairs installed on the second, third, and fourth floor. They were made for old people to rest when they climb the stairs. This small courtesy made my heart warm. In the streets of Hangzhou there are no traffic lights, only pedestrian crossings. When drivers see people, who want to cross the street, they stop. In the beginning strict regulations were needed for drivers to stop, but slowly they accepted this as part of their habits.
At the same time cities are getting ever more progressive. In the recent years China’s materialistic view of life is getting stronger than ever, and relations between people are as not warm as they used to be. Everywhere you can see abnormal development, irrational policies, uncultured law enforcement. But still I can see China looking for its own direction of cultural development.
Recently, the Chinese media is filled with two very hyped up words: dream and travel. There are so popular because our lives miss these two things. In a materialistic society many people choose to give up on their dreams, faced with stress in life many people say that they do not have time to travel. Actually, dreams and travel are not some distant things buried far away in some ideal country. They are, in fact, just a small part of every man’s life. When people come to me and admire my courage I usually reply to these so-called cowardly people that they are not confused enough by life. If they were life would make them confused up to the point where they would break down, they would for sure jump out of it and look for answers. In fact, many people until their dying day still do not realize what is their purpose in living. Is it because of the money? Is it to buy an apartment? Even if that is the case, it really does not matter, because, from what I learned, as long as you understand what is the reason for you to live you should go and fight for it. Only then life is perfect.
After one year of traveling I took a look at everything I have been through, and thought about what these travels changed. We are still what we are, and the world is still what the world is. Traveling does not change us, neither does it change the world. But it changes the way we look and confront the world. The world is a book. Those who do not travel, they just read one page. Travel makes people touch a much wider world. It makes us establish our own views on our plant and our own values. It makes us face the good and bad in a more calm way. It makes us more understanding of people who are different from us. It pushes us to understand other people. Travel gives us new inspiration and passion. Even if I go back to a normal and stable life I will regularly take some time to go traveling. To me, traveling is a wonderful experience where we talk to ourselves. It is a piece of beautiful memory. It is nothing but just another way of ordinary life.
Written in Wuhan, Yushang Kezhan Hostel
Read our story about Ryan at What message does this traveling musician have for China?
Ryan Lee interviewed by Wade Shepard
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