Her eyes were sparkling, chartreuse in color and distinct as she surveyed me. My backpack, my clothes. She glanced behind me, prompting me to do the same. Did she spot something amiss? About my person or an eminent disaster aimed towards me?

Then, she started to speak to me. Asked if I had been to Shanghai before, a befitting question as we both stood in line at Chinese immigration. I confirmed I had. She wanted to know where she should twiddle away five hours of stop over time, as she moved closer to me, leaving little room for me to step away.

I sensed a fascination or a forthcoming lesbian proposition. Within minutes, I finally understood the root of her obsession with me – I was a woman alone in China.

My sense of self left – moved outside my body – until I finally saw myself as she saw me.

My slouch and expression sang of someone practiced, a player who has endured immigration inspections in several countries – too many times.

I must have oozed with some level of confidence. Guess it also helped I reminded her of a good friend from England.

We began to walk together towards the metro; I volunteered to show her how to navigate getting to the Bund and onwards to Hongqiao airport. Her plan is to travel for a year and she vibrated with enthusiasm at this prospect, commenting how amazing it was that I just bounded into the middle of the street, barely looking for a scooter or car. As though caution was a forgotten vow.

Caution may have been the key word at that moment as she discussed her upcoming plans, fairly keen to be in China – considering all the negative accounts – those harsh warnings from friends, let alone concerns from family.

I felt a drawing from her, a need to glean some advice, yet part of me felt incapable of imparting any.

China swirled in my brain. Since the knowledge that I will be spending a few months here, what mostly filters through the networks would send any fresh-faced, passport holding backpacker straight home. How unclean the environment is. The sheer rudeness of citizens towards a pale face. Strange fruit, unforgivable cultural practices or the incomprehensible use of every animal part in a daily dinner.

In that case, I should tell her to run without fail, screaming into the nook of her mother’s bosom, for the world is cruel and disgusting – unlike anything we have experienced before. Even more so in China.

Or let’s examine Henry Rollins’ November 2011 interview with World Hum on the eve of his travel photography book release. This once angst-ridden, sullen punk rocker adores traveling. Been studying it and practicing since 1997. The sweet spot of the interview is his traveling style:

“I hit the streets every day with no real plan besides walking and seeing what happens or taking a taxi across town and finding my way back. Or I look out the top of the hotel and see an area and say, okay, I’m going there today—that slum, that village.”

This says one thing – discomfort. Henry places himself in an unseen, unknown place to let chips fall where they may. He accepts the uncomfortable along with the delightful surprises. The man is 50 years old, glued to the notion that he has more to learn from exploration than he’s gained in wisdom.

As this younger woman walked alongside me, a polished pearl who hasn’t tasted the bitter draught of hating this or that or spitting out uninformed opinions, I gazed at her curious, green eyes, seeing a blank page. I told her this…

I relish those moments of discomfort, however bizarre or painful. If I’m offended, I want to know why. If a scene sends my head spiraling, it challenges my worldview. When I long to look away, it means there’s an important lesson for me to gather and include in my humble archive.

She seemed satisfied with that answer as we descended the stairs towards the metro.

Moving through life as you encounter humans, animals and continents is a series of choices. As Rollins says, “I still have like eight miles to go before I can even get into the parking lot of humility.”

Otherwise, who would want to grow? Understand the nuances of our world? Why, that is a silly, silly idea.

Photo: Taylor Dawn Fortune