I’ve been wanting to write this post for months. But to be honest, I’ve been afraid to get this personal. Sure I’ve talked about my struggles and loneliness living in China, my embarrassment when a student called me fat, and how I sometimes judge people for not being as “adventurous” as me. I even went on a giant feminist rant a few months back.
So why have I steered clear of my personal life? By “personal life”, I think we all mean my dating life. Well, in case any of you were wondering, I’m super single and I have been for a while. It’s pretty hard to have a relationship with someone when you’re not sure what country you’re going to live in next year!
But a few years ago I did have a boyfriend. I actually had a very serious boyfriend.
So…. what happened?
I chose travel over my boyfriend, and it is the best decision I have ever made.
Let’s start from the beginning
My freshman year of college, I decided that I would lean Chinese with the plan of studying abroad in China. I was an International Affairs major, and we had to learn three years of a language.
I started studying Chinese in my sophomore year, and let me tell you, it was hard. Chinese is one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, and I was one of two people in my entire class that came in with no prior knowledge. I had quizzes multiple times a week, I spent hours on my homework, and I cried to my mom more than once.
By the time I reached Chinese three, I had a quiz every single day, and my professor told us we shouldn’t date because “Chinese is your lover now“. She also told us she was going to beat us to death almost every class period. So, you know, pretty much your average Chinese class.
So how is any of this relevant?
In order for this story to make sense, you have to know how much time and effort I put into learning Chinese. I worked my A** OFF and I hated every minute of it. I’ve never been particularly skilled at learning languages, so I basically just spent hours every night studying, and I still failed all my daily dictations. One time I got a B and I literally had a celebration.
So then I met this boy…
The first weekend of my sophomore year of college, I met a boy. Not just any boy, an Australian boy. Unlike all of the immature American guys at my school, this Australian boy actually asked me out on a date. It was a big deal.
What I thought would be a fun Australian fling, turned into a serious relationship very quickly. The only problem? He was studying abroad in America on exchange for a semester. The semester flew by, and before I knew it, he was spending Christmas with me and my family in Seattle.
We continued dating through the next semester and into the summer, when I flew to Australia and lived with him and his family for a month. Yeah, like I said, it was serious. I basically blew all of my savings that summer, but it was worth it.
The distance was hard, but the hardest part was not knowing when we would ever be able to live together in the same country. It was easy to stay together when we knew we’d see each other in June, but not knowing when the distance would end was really difficult for us. I still had two years left of school! The worst part was that our summer vacations didn’t even match up because Australia has a completely different school calendar than America!
The Study Abroad Dilemma
The easiest way for us to be together was for me to study abroad in Australia. I could go on exchange at his university, and we would see each other every day. For many people, it would be a no-brainer solution, right?
But let’s think back a little bit. What about all of those nights I stayed up until 3am trying to memorize lists of Chinese vocabulary words? What about all of the hours I sat on my bed with earphones, quietly mouthing Chinese to myself so that I would be prepared for the class dialogues? What about all of the days I arrived to class 20 minutes early, and sat in the hallway, writing characters over and over from memory, only to get a C on my dictation?
I could study Chinese in Australia, but the reason I was learning Chinese was so that I could go to China. Obviously.
But what if I made a compromise? I could study abroad in Australia during the spring, and go to China over the summer!
Everyone thought it was a great idea. Best of both worlds! I could study abroad in Australia with my boyfriend, and then explore China on my own. Perfect plan right??!
I’ve always been very firm on the fact that I would never change my plans for a guy. Your twenties are a time for exploration, chasing your dreams, and general selfishness. But I kept thinking “What if he’s the one.” Is it right to change your dreams then?
No. No it’s not. Especially when you’re only twenty years old.
My Wake-up Call
I had everyone convinced. I even had myself convinced that studying abroad in Australia was a good idea.
That was, until I told my sorority “big sister”.
My big sister, or “big” as we say in the sorority world, is a very blunt person. She’s the type of person who will tell you what you need to hear, even if you don’t want to hear it. I love her for it, but I also hate her sometimes.
When I revealed to her my amazing plan to study abroad in both Australia and China, her reaction was a little less than supportive. Instead of trying to convince me not to go to Australia, she straight-up told me I should break up with my boyfriend. Yeah, definitely not what I was hoping to hear.
She told me that if he really loved me, he would know that China was where my heart was. If he really loved me, he’d encourage me to go. If he really loved me, he’d refuse to let me come to Australia.
I didn’t want to hear it.
Then she told me a story about her study abroad experience. She had been dating her boyfriend for years, but was planning to study abroad in Prague. In the months before her trip, she grew nervous and thought about staying home. It would be hard to be away from her boyfriend for so long. Besides, she had so many things to do back in America!
When she told her boyfriend about her plan to stay home, he threatened to break up with her if she didn’t go. He didn’t want to be responsible for ruining her dreams, and he didn’t want her to resent him later on.
That got me thinking: What happens if I go to Australia and we break up? What happens if I don’t enjoy my experience and end up resenting him later? What happens if I can’t get into the right Chinese class, fall behind, and can’t graduate on time?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn’t going to work.
The Tough News
My boyfriend really thought I was going to change my mind. He really thought I’d give up a semester in China to be with him. Never mind the fact that I told him I was going to study abroad in China the day we met.
He didn’t understand. He thought study abroad was study abroad. It didn’t matter where I went. He thought I’d have an amazing time in Australia on a really great study abroad program.
I’m sure it is a really great study abroad program. Australia is an amazing country and I’d love to live there someday. I really enjoyed my month in Australia. BUT Australia was not the experience that I had been dreaming about.
I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to experience culture shock. I wanted to push myself to think and communicate in another language. I wanted to try new and strange foods. I wanted to meet people who were completely different from me culturally. I wanted to show up in a country knowing no one, and be forced to make new friends. I wanted to see who I was without my boyfriend.
I wanted to study abroad in China.
After talking and thinking things through, we realized that we wouldn’t be able to spend any significant amount of time together for the next two years. We decided that there was no point staying together, when we had no idea how or when we would ever be able to live in the same country again. I was devastated. He was my best friend.
To be honest, I think he blamed me. He couldn’t understand why China was so important to me. How could he? He chose to study abroad in America from Australia. It was hard for him to understand why I wanted something different.
We decided to try to stay best friends, but (of course) it didn’t go very well. In my mind, I imagined that we had no problems, and were only breaking up because of circumstances. I thought that someday we might get back together.
I think he felt betrayed, like he loved me more than I loved him. I think at one point he told me I “chose China over him“.
To be honest, I did.
I chose China over my boyfriend and it was the best decision I have ever made in my life.
Heading to China
Heading to China, things were pretty toxic, and I honestly couldn’t handle it anymore.
While I was sitting in the Seoul airport waiting for my flight to China, I sent him a Facebook message telling him I didn’t want to hear from him anymore. I told him that maybe someday we could be friends, but I didn’t want him to contact me for the seven months I was in China. I needed to move on.
It’s amazing how easy it is to forget your past and your pain when you’re living in a new country surrounded by new friends, having incredible experiences. It was almost too easy to move on. While I didn’t date anyone for over a year after my boyfriend and I broke up, I had a great time being single in China.
No, I didn’t have a whirlwind romance with a local, or drink myself sick in bars (except for my twenty-first birthday, but we don’t talk about that). When I say I had a great time being single, I mean I had a great time on my own. I learned to love myself. I became confident, independent and strong. I pushed myself to become conversationally fluent in Chinese. I planned a trip through rural Sichuan with a friend. I became a better person.
I Realized He Wasn’t for Me
My time in China helped me realize that he wasn’t the right person for me. It’s not that he’s a jerk, far from it, we’re actually friends now and chat every once in a while. He’s just not the right person for me.
He would never backpack Southeast Asia with me, or go bungee jumping, zip lining or skydiving. He would never sleep in cheap hostels, trek through Tibet or try fried scorpions or stinky tofu. And you know what? That’s fine.
But, I know that I do need a person who will stay in crappy hostels and backpack through Southeast Asia. I want someone who will go skydiving or bungee jumping with me. I need someone who pushes me to be more adventurous. I want someone who encourages me to take risks, travel the world, and pushes me to be a stronger person.
Looking back on the last few years, I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I went to Australia. I probably wouldn’t be getting my master’s in China right now! It’s crazy how one small decision can change the course of your entire life. I’m a completely different person now than I was back then. I’ve changed so much in the last three years, mainly due to my amazing study abroad experience.
For those of you considering leaving behind a significant other to travel the world, please keep my story in mind. I was twenty years old when I was thinking about putting my passions aside for a boy. TWENTY! No twenty-year-old should ever put a relationship ahead of goals and dreams. You change so much in your twenties, who knows if you’ll still love that person a few years from now.
Your twenties are a time to be young, have fun, explore the world and find yourself. I know it may seem like all of your friends are getting engaged (it’s happening to me!!), but there’s no need to find the love of your life at twenty-three.
If your boyfriend (or girlfriend) really loves you, they’ll encourage you to go. If you’re really meant for each other, you’ll have a whole lifetime to be together. If not, at least you’ll know sooner rather than later!
So yes, I chose travel over love, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. But to be honest, I don’t want to have to choose. I’ll just wait until I find that special someone who wants to come with me.
Have you ever lost a relationship because of travel? Tell me I’m not alone! Share your story below.