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Wade Shepard Returns to China with Vagabonding Family

TAIZHOU, China- I once thought that spending a large portion of each year in China would be part of my annual travel pilgrimage. For a few years between 2004 and 2007 I traveled in a big circuit encompassing China, Mongolia, Japan, Southeast Asia, and India. In the center of this great Asian circumabulation was the [...]

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TAIZHOU, China- I once thought that spending a large portion of each year in China would be part of my annual travel pilgrimage. For a few years between 2004 and 2007 I traveled in a big circuit encompassing China, Mongolia, Japan, Southeast Asia, and India. In the center of this great Asian circumabulation was the Middle Kingdom, China, and I crossed through this land four times. I figured that this would be my traveler’s beat.

Upon my first visit to China it became clear that I would need a hearty supply of Mandarin to continue traveling here off the tourist trail and to be able to communicate with people. I then did two semesters at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou in ’06 and ’07, which were interspersed with good jaunts of travel around the country and region. My Mandarin became functional, and I found myself with the ability to speak, read, and write enough Chinese to travel well. My plan was growing to fruition.

But I then found myself sidetracted, lured by my curiosity for other parts of the world. I found myself back in Latin America, traveling through the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and north Africa. My intention to continuously cycle through Asia returned to my former intention to continuously cycle through the entire planet — Wade Shepard and VagabondJourney.com were again global.

But I have to admit that I rose with a start when I realized that it had been five years since I was last in Asia.

A lot had happened since the last time I was in China. I graduated from university, got married, had a child, and molded my work on VagabondJourney.com into a legitimate profession. During this time I wanted to stay within a quick and easy flight away from the United States as I tested the waters of family travel. I began traveling with my baby daughter and spent the past two years in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and Colombia. Now Petra is two and a half years old and is pretty hardy, the wife has acclimated to the parameters of lifestyle travel: it was time to return to China.

My wife, Chaya, took a teaching job in Jiangsu province. Going through Angelina’s — a reputable recruiter of foreign English teachers in China — she was offered various jobs around the country, such as in Jiamusi — on the Russian border in Siberia — and in Anhui province. She was also offered a job in a small city called Taizhou in Jiangsu province, which is roughly three hours north of Shanghai near the confluence of the Yangzhe river and the Grand Canal. Her job would be teaching at an international kindergarten, which is exactly what her previous work experience and education is geared towards. She jumped on this job, and a couple of months later I would be going back to China.

Flying to China

The fifteen hour flight from New York City to Shanghai went smoothly. I was worried that the long flight would be bothersome to Petra, but she took it well — sleeping, eating, watching cartoons on her DVD player, hanging out. The kid travels well. The flight was on time, and we soon found ourselves explaining to a rather friendly immigration inspector what our purpose was for standing in front of her.

“We have work visas.”

“Are you going to be working?” she asked me.

“No, I’m with her,” I replied, pointing to my wife.

I’m accompanying my wife as a family member, but there is a normal work visa placed in my passport as there is not a distinct family visa for China. My two and a half year old daughter has a work visa too, but I think she is still a little young to begin earning her keep — even in Shenzen.

This indestinction did not phase the immigration inspector: our case was normal.

“You are working?” she asked my wife.

“Yes, in Taizhou,” she responded.

“How did you get that job?”

“Through a recruiter called Angelina’s.”

“Angelina Ballerina!” Petra burst out.

Laughs. The immigration officer knew what she was talking about. She then turned to Petra and asked her what her name was. My daughter did not respond to this with words. Instead she stuck her tongue out at the official and rolled it into a perfect hot dot bun — a feat she had been working on for many months.

My daughter has the long terms traveler’s border crossing couth already.

China is the pinnacle of the travel experience

China is perhaps the pinnacle of the travel experience. In point, off the tourist trail in this country is as challenging as travel gets. This is not to say that traveling in this country is especially difficult, as just about anywhere on this globe can be traveled with virtual ease once you know and understand how to apply the basic moves of this game. But, I must admit, due to the writing system not being phonic and the big language difference, China can sometimes be a little challenging for the traveler. Not even in the Shanghai bus terminal is the Pinyin Romanization of Chinese words on signs — not to mention any English — and this is one of the most foreigner friendly places in the country.  Add to the linguistic/ reading challenge the fact that being a foreigner in China attracts a lot of attention (i.e. people staring, pointing, yelling, tugging, trying to talk to you) and this country seems to overwhelm many independent travelers rather quickly.

There is just something about China that I love

But I love this place. There is something about China that I just love. I have no idea what it is — this country runs so incongruous to what I usually say I like about places — but when I’m in China I’m energized, smiling, and, it sounds odd, comfortable.

Perhaps Chaya put it best: “Everything is just so different here.”

Why would I want to travel anywhere that was the same?

Returning to China feels like some strange sort of homecoming. I intended to refresh my Mandarin before returning but this didn’t happen. I probably remember 1/10th of what I use to know and understand, but the words and phrases are coming back to me fast. I find myself spewing out sounds that I’m not completely sure anymore what their meanings are, but I’m finding that 80% of the time I’m correct and understood. But I have to admit that I’ve been saying some things that make absolutely no sense — the trials and errors of trying to remember a language that I’ve not used in five years.

Orders of business in China

1. Get and provision a place to live — done.
2. Get internet — done.
3. Catch up on Vagabond Journey work — in progress.
4. Get medical examination — done.
5. Get temporary residency permit — in progress.
6. Find food my wife likes to eat — potentially impossible.
7. Plan routes of travel and projects — in progress.
8. Catch up on current events in the country — in progress.
9. Find a Mandarin tutor — to begin soon.

Filed under: China

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3619 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

8 comments… add one

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  • cloudio April 13, 2012, 10:10 am

    LOL @ angelina ballerina and your daughter stuck her tongue out at the official

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    • Wade Shepard April 13, 2012, 10:31 am

      Man, that could have really backfired haha. I suppose I’m proud of her though, that was the very first time she ever nailed the hot dog bun tongue maneuver. Slightly incongruous timing though.

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  • mike crosby April 13, 2012, 11:29 am

    Wade, I guess it says more about me than anything, but I much admire you.

    I don’t know much to say, I just wish you the best and I look forward to reading about your experiences in China.

    Many years ago I hitch hiked around the USA and decided to live in CA. I flew from my home in MD, landed in LAX and took a bus to Disneyland. It was around midnight when I arrived at Disneyland and I’m standing there all by myself, after a whirlwind of hitch hiking around the country, and I finally pause, asking myself, “What do I do now?” It was rather unsettling and frightful.

    How you have the desire to experience new worlds continually I find courageous. Thank you for your writing. I wish you, Chaya and Petra the best.

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    • Wade Shepard April 13, 2012, 8:35 pm

      Good to hear from you again! It seems as if you’ve done pretty well for yourself in CA. Man, it takes way more courage to stay in one place and build a life than it does traveling. I just leave when something doesn’t go my way haha. Can’t say this is very courageous. Thanks for the compliment though.

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  • Félixxx May 13, 2012, 8:48 pm

    Taizhou, uh? Been there with my bike about a month ago, you guys seem to have a pretty badass stadium being built right now!

    Greetings from Jiangyin (about an hour south of you)!

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    • Wade Shepard May 13, 2012, 9:08 pm

      Thanks for getting in touch. Are you working in Jiangyin? Give us a shout next time you come through. I’ll probably be here Wed – Sunday until September, and then I’ll be taking longer trips out after that.

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      • Félixxx May 13, 2012, 10:23 pm

        Yes, I am currently working in JY. Likewise, should you be passing through my city, let me know, and I can show you around 🙂

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        • Wade Shepard May 13, 2012, 11:36 pm

          Definitely will, thanks.

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