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On Traveling: To Learn to Live

April 19, 2024

It’s so beautiful here. From one of the peaks in Jizzakh, I look out over Uzbekistan's rural mountains, alongside my friends from college, a few donkeys, a portable speaker blasting Future, and some of the locals.

This last year, I’ve flown over eighty thousand miles to explore other states, countries, and continents. I confess to you now that throughout most of these trips, I didn’t really know what it was all for.

They say traveling is important, and that my hometown Saratoga is dreary to stay in. I even begin echoing that to others, preaching the importance of seeing the world while not really being able to articulate any profound lessons. I guess I’m just sort of skeptical of it all.

But when I look out now, seeing the clouds cast shadows over endless green-gray terrain and hearing my friends’ voices drowned out by the wind, I just feel so small. I wonder if this is it—if this is the point of traveling.

I think hard to find a comparable memory or place but can’t come up with anything close. And as I’m hit with the realization that this is likely the last time I’ll ever stand on this mountain, I wonder when I could ever experience something like this again.

I turn to Justin and ask, “You think we’d be able to experience this in VR in the future?”

“No—it’s just not the same.” He thinks for a bit, and continues, “You won’t be able to feel the wind against your face. You won’t be able to feel the grass. You can’t see the kid push the donkey with the stick”—he gestures to Skrullo, our local tour guide—“You can’t laugh at the kid and he can’t laugh back at you.”

At the end of the trip, when we reflect back on the grand mosques or amazing lamb or the laughs with the boys, I tell him, “These are the moments to live for.”

Is that it? These grand memories, the once-in-a-lifetime moments? Maybe to live is to experience as many of these as you can:

  • In Shenzhen: a “hall-of-fame-worthy” date with my girlfriend, sitting right by the water and the fountain show, googling what abalone is and taking cute film photos. A small honey-yellow table lamp lights up her face and I find it all very pretty.
  • In Rome: Biking through the city on our way towards the Colosseum, next to lifelong friends that I had just met a week ago. We felt the cobblestone under our wheels and the wind in our face.
  • In Costa Rica: after counting up turtle eggs as the mom laid them, my best friends from high school sat down on the beach with me in the night, grabbing handfuls of wet sand as we talked. It’s dark but we can see our shadows in the moonlight. Barely hearing the chatter of other volunteers off in the distance, it was just us three, our moon shadows, and the waves crashing down in front of us.

justin and mejustin and me


And yet I’m not satisfied with that answer.

In those grand moments I feel all fuzzy and sentimental, but I look back on the highlights of my travels, and more often than not, they just sound boring.

My most recent trip was four days in Korea with a stranger I met through a hostel group chat: Lisa from Germany. After clicking, we decided to explore Seoul together: we wandered through neon-lit markets, vibrant malls, historic palaces, and quaint traditional restaurants. Throughout it all, we’d talk about everything: about her exes, my girlfriend, our families, our dreams. About her fear of not being able to find “the one” and Saratoga and Berlin and Naval Ravikant and how to pick jewelry for girls and even about Erewhon grocery stores.

On my last full day in Korea, I met Lisa for tea. We had a full agenda ahead of us of palaces and markets to visit, but we sat at the same café table and talked for an hour or two about our favorite authors and which stories we loved and why.

That conversation is not only a highlight but what I remember my time in Korea by.

what? By all objective means, this was one of the most mundane moments of the four packed days. It struck me that traveling is most definitely not about the prettiest views or the once-in-a-lifetime memories; it is also (if not more so) the small moments of everyday life.

Because as breathtaking as that view was from the Jizzakh mountain peak, a more meaningful moment came that night. My friends and I were waiting for our drivers to pick us up from the village, and four of the local kids waited with us to say goodbye. To kill time, I did my daily pushups and the kids got down next to me to do them too. They laughed and one of them asked me to feel his arm as he flexed, and I gave him a fist bump. Justin raced Skrullo up a hill.

Right before our cars arrived, as we huddled around our luggage on the dark roadside, Justin and I distributed our AirPods among the four kids, using the pairing feature so that music could flow from my phone into each of the earbuds. I showed them one of my favorite songs, “Cigarette Daydreams.” Under the night sky, we stood together, bobbing our heads and smiling.

I suppose there’s not much to that—just kids enjoying music—but, all the same, it’s one of my favorite moments of my life.

And so Shenzhen wasn’t just that top-tier date, it was also the walk to and from that restaurant, laughing and holding hands. It was whining to her about how hot it was, it was my arm around her on the subway.

In Rome, we never made it to the Colosseum on our bikes, nor did we care. Rome was about the late-night walks, the man at the gelato store who would give us extra large scoops. It was all of us being huddled up in a hotel room sharing stupid life stories on the last night of the trip.

Costa Rica was as much about seeing the baby turtles hatch and crawl in the morning as it was about the bus rides where we slept on each other's shoulders and took pictures of one another asleep (with mouths wide open).

And so on.

Why, then, do I cherish these small moments from traveling if they weren’t unique to the destination, if I could’ve felt them anywhere else?

Here’s my guess: when I’m traveling, there’s so much going on that I’m hyper aware of everything, both big and small. I notice the big, special things like the pandas of Chengdu: I observe how they clumsily fall down a tree and wonder how they survived natural selection for this long. I try to take it all in and really experience the moment, because I can’t see pandas anywhere else.

Yet I also notice the smallest things like the stop sign outside my aunt’s Chengdu apartment. I look at it, amused by how it’s different from the one back home, and even snap a photo of it. Just like I noticed how much I enjoyed that simple conversation with Lisa about our favorite authors.

I think the familiarity of home and the monotony of routine disguise the meaning behind these fleeting moments of interconnection. Traveling strips that away and makes me stare right at them and say, “Hey, this is really nice.”


Surprisingly, these realizations only came after my Korea trip, especially after noticing that my highlights consisted of things my mom would consider “wastes of precious travel time.”

Objectively, she’s not wrong; come to think of it, in my three weeks in Rome, I don’t think I ever saw a sunset and only ended up seeing the Colosseum for 5 minutes. I’m not a good tourist. And up until now, I honestly feared I wasn’t getting anything out of traveling.

But I recently read How You Know by Paul Graham, and this line stuck with me:

“Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists.”

I really believe I was learning this entire time, even when—no, especially when—the moments were unremarkable. It’s easier now to look back and connect some dots in these small moments:

  • I people-watched in a noodle shop in Korea as I waited for my order. Six thousand miles away from home, I couldn’t understand a word they spoke. Everything was different, and yet everything was the same because their facial expressions and the emotion in their voices were human all the same. Again I am reminded that the world I am familiar with is just one tiny sphere in this world.
  • My nai nai ran up to me, almost tripping, to hug me and hold my cheeks, smiling uncontrollably. A few weeks before that, one of my friends explained to me, “By 18, you’ve already lived through most of the time you’ll ever get to spend with your family.” At that moment, this hit me hard. Lunch with my wai po and wai gong back in Saratoga mean something more now. Conversations and interactions with my sister, brother, and parents, too.
  • Visiting another country with my girlfriend felt so surreal at times, and yet I noticed there was so much “old” in all the “new.” We’d still laugh about the stupidest things, she’d still point out aesthetic shops and packaging, and I’d still point out our moon shadows whenever I saw them.
  • In a brief conversation with one of the volunteer leaders in Costa Rica, he told me about how he quit his investment banking job to come out here to do conservation work. It was a passing conversation then, but it was interactions like these that made me realize I didn’t find my own work meaningful.
  • At a basketball court in China, I talked for an hour to a college grad about NBA teams and players. I can only speak limited Chinese and he didn’t know any English, so it was a charade-like game of clues like jersey color, playstyle, and famous moments to try to communicate. It was all very funny, and even more pointless, but I made a friend through it.

These experiences, as unremarkable as they first seemed, could not feel more powerful.

nai nai and ye yenai nai and ye ye


I worry a lot that I’m over-romanticizing these “small things in life” and that it’s really not that deep.

And I’m guessing I’m right that it isn’t that deep, but, you know, I also think that’s the whole point. These dead-simple moments that make up my life—having lunch with my grandparents, feeding my dogs, checking my phone for texts from friends, whatever it is—are exactly that: they’re my life. So to feel them (and hopefully sometimes, to also appreciate them) is to live.

Now that I think about it, it’s kind of funny that I fly so far just to enjoy these everyday moments in a different setting. It’s like none of this was that far to begin with.

I landed today after 3 weeks all throughout Asia, and I feel so undeniably aware of these small moments. My mom squeezing me and saying, “I missed you when you were gone.” Me showing my sister the clothes I bought in Korea and asking her if my shorts are too big. Her making fun of the shade of green I chose.

Even right now, as I’m outside feeding my dogs a couple of bones from my dinner. Following my command, they sit and shake my paws. They nudge me and lick their lips and take the bones eagerly, as dogs do.

It’s a very bright night, so I can see our moon shadows clearly. It’s really just another Monday night and I’m back in the boring suburbs of Saratoga. I’ve been here a hundred times before, but I swear to you the moon shadows were never here before and it’s all a bit different this time. I look up and it’s not exactly a full moon, but, you know what, it might as well be.

Because sitting here with my dogs, this little moment and all the little ones that came before it—this feels as close to living as I’ll ever get.

moon shadows <3moon shadows <3

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