story | Cheong Zi Gi, Joseph Han, Ng Yi Ming, Yeo Rui Qi, Guest Writers

photo | Ng Yi Ming, Guest Photographer

Over the summer, 4 rising sophomores set off on a month-long odyssey around Western China to unearth insights on how to live their lives better. Under the auspices of the Travel Fellowship Program by the Centre for International & Professional Experience (CIPE), Cheong Zi Gi ’21, Joseph Han ’21, Ng Yi Ming ’21, and Yeo Rui Qi ’21 set off to experience first-hand the universally fabled allure of spiritual institutions and travelling.

Aided by insights from philosophy, sociology and literature gained through the Yale-NUS Common Curriculum, the quartet witnessed a kaleidoscope of worlds and possibilities out there, from industrious Chongqing to historic Xi’an to otherworldly Tibet and laid-back Chengdu. Through much introspection and travel writing, four timeless facets of life were distilled from the chorus to offer insights into a life well lived.

An Open Heart for the Everyday

On the Qinghai-Tibet Railway

At birth, we arrive with a clean slate, an empty shell, so first we learn from the external world to expand our inner possibilities. As we traversed through China, each city, each temple, each lake, were all transformed into something peculiar, something with character, something enshrining ideals and purpose that transcends its physical existence. Travelling became a medium to absorb new philosophical ideals, moral values, emotions and tools through seeing inspiring natural landscapes and witnessing how other societies live. From multi-day hikes to the high speed railway, travelling also became avenue for introspection and an opportunity for the co-creation of ideas and experiences with fellow travellers.

The eyes of a traveller are vastly different from the seasoned eyes of a local or a resident. The locals recognize their surroundings as an everyday routine – so much so that where they are, the sights they see, and the conversations they overhear barely register. Their minds are dulled by the repetitive hassles of everyday life. Travellers, on the other hand, find themselves in an unfamiliar setting and outside of their daily routine. Their minds are more alert and their heart untroubled – in this new environment they are more in tune with themselves, the surroundings, and the people around them. In doing so they also let go of the tediousness and drab of the everyday.

Incorporating this spirit of open appreciation in everyday life will go a long way towards discovering new possibilities and meaning for ourselves.

Interrogating the World

Yamdrok Lake (4441m), outside Lhasa, Tibet

With these newfound possibilities, we sought to deconstruct the things we like, to find what is it we truly value, beyond the superficial and apparent. Ascending the cable car up the fabled Mount Hua of Chinese martial arts (wuxia) novels, we wondered why we were doing so in the first place. After all, mountains are ultimately products of random amalgamations of dirt. What was it that we saw within the mere physical? A fundamental desire for vast beauty? As Socrates famously proclaimed: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It is only through constant, self-reflection and sensitive engagement with the world that the meaning of our lives becomes apparent.

That said, thinking will likely never yield definite answers to the questions that really matter. Perhaps it is right that this be so, for the particularities and contingencies of life bid us approach it grounded in a sense of humility. The danger is precisely that so-called “definite” answers will render further thinking unnecessary, allowing our opinions to freeze into dogma and our souls to stagnate.

In Tibet, we saw a monastery where devotees had to purchase and empty plastic bottles of alcohol as a show of deference, generating immense amounts of waste – an example of how existing practices can lose touch with their original purpose and create real problems for the community.

We must be relentless in our search for ultimate meaning whilst also recognizing that life is not an exam question, but a continual process of recalibrating ourselves in alignment with new knowledge, new circumstances, and new challenges. Life is a skill, but more than that, it is an art: the art of joyful interrogation.

For the Benefit of All

Barkhor Street, with Tibetan & Chinese food outlets

In tandem with looking inwards to deconstruct our inner world, it is also important that this then be put to use towards shaping a better external world. The Travel Fellowship sought to apply this in action through mindful travelling with awareness for the local communities.

In Tibet, we saw firsthand the need for ethical travelling. When we asked the guide for places to have our meal at, many options were imported businesses from China-at-large, not local Tibetan restaurants. The sight of Sichuanese noodle stalls and the Chinese fast-food chain Dicos adjacent to local Tibetan restaurants along the main thoroughfare Barkhor Street was jarring to say the least. In the Potala Palace, local Tibetans on their pilgrimage jostled for space to conduct their religious rites along the same narrow corridors as the horde of tourists. It felt wrong to travel in a manner that imposes the needs of the tourist over those of the locals for this could adversely impact the local way of life.

Similarly, in our daily lives, we should be conscious of the impacts of our actions on humanity. Actions such as choosing to support local businesses or choosing options that are less convenient but better aligned with our values matter, since the smallest actions can add up over time. Mindful living goes a long way to construct the ideal world of our dreams, of freedom, equality, and opportunities for all.

In The Present Moment

Giant Buddha scene, Legend of the Camel Bells Theatre Production

Finally, we live mindfully in the present. In his book At Home in the World, one of the books we brought along for the journey, Thich Nhat Hanh, a prominent Vietnamese Buddhist monk, reminded us that “the real miracle is not to walk either on water or thin air, but to walk on the Earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle we don’t even recognize: the blue sky, the white clouds, the green leaves, and the curious eyes of a child. All is a miracle.”

Buddhism teaches us to be detached from needless negative states of mind and serenely perceive all with the tranquil eye. Likewise, Thich said that it is not a statue of a Buddha in the car that will protect us, but the presence of a passenger breathing mindfully, calmly enjoying the view, content in the present moment.

In Xi’an, we took a spontaneous detour to catch a spectacular theatrical masterpiece titled “Legend of the Camel Bells”. A most astonishing production, it exalted the glory and fervour of human endeavours and emotions through staggering props like live camels, wolves, giant-turbine-generated snowstorms and towering waterfalls, an orchestra that successfully recreated the immensity of the ancient Silk Road in its heyday. Yet, it concluded with the Emperor and his court jiggling to a silly children’s beat about being happy, healthy, and laughing out loud. Likewise, we should celebrate fellow humans – fellow dreamers bestowing meaning upon dust, whilst ultimately dancing along to the absurdity of it all.

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Life is quite the dream – your dream. The daydreams of your childhood, sharpen them through introspection and interrogation, shape the world to them for the benefit for all, and above all else, rejoice in your dream.

The Lives Well Lived Travel Fellowship will host their full travel showcase on Sep. 11, 7.30pm at the Saga Lecture Theatre. The blogs of each Travel Fellowship group can be found here. Information on the Travel Fellowship program can be found here.

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