I’m writing to you from Thailand today, on an annual holiday trip I’ve been doing with my family over last few winters. Dad spends most of the year in Shanghai and my mom and brother fly back and forth, so this is usually the only time all four of us are in one place for more than a week. A few days ago we were in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where Charlie and I rented electric scooters and followed around our parents’ tuk tuk (in Cambodia a rickshaw attached to a gas scooter) to various temples around town. Then it was a couple days in Bangkok (more temples, some damn good chicken and rice) and now we’re in Pattaya which, despite its reputation in the states for sex tourism, also attracts a lot of Chinese and Indian groups for family activities. Go figure.
A few weeks ago I was telling A., who hasn’t traveled much, about this trip, and he said that the thought of being in a foreign country without knowing the local language gives him anxiety an order of magnitude higher than anything else. It was something about the combination of being able to navigate and get basic needs met, and also the thought of being judged for not speaking the native tongue. It’s a familiar anxiety, one that I felt and still feel at times, especially places in Asia where the signs are written in an unfamiliar alphabet. The anxiety is partly rooted in some deep perfectionism, a fear of being laughably unskilled at something. But as for the food-shelter-transport thing, over time I’ve learned that the difficulties of travel when they present themselves are rarely as devastating as I had previously imagined, and even when they are challenging they are never life-threatening. It can be immensely fun to stumble through conversation with only nouns and hand signals, or to walk into a drug store and find that they stock a different but overlapping set of items than the ones back home. The worst parts of travel (and nearly everything else) are the anxieties we have about those things before they happen. It’s as though we have little faith in our future selves.
I’ve written to you a lot this year about embracing the unknown, and about confidence in uncertainty. And if I had a wish for A., for you, and for myself in the new year, it would be: Trust in your own intelligence. Trust that whatever challenges spring up, you will be able to summon the inner resources to meet them. You will be able to figure it out when the time comes. Let it come.