What Travel Has Taught Me About 'Reality'

04/04/2013 03:04 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2013

"I'm moving to China next week," I explained to bank teller, when she asked me how I was doing. "So I'm feeling a bit nervous at the moment. And you?"

Rather than answering my question, the woman signaled to her colleague to come over her as she processed my deposit. "It's that vagrant who was walkin' down the access road," she whispered, apparently with the assumption that I couldn't hear her. "And he claims he's movin' to China next week."

As her co-worker giggled and walked away, the original teller -- who still never told me how exactly she was doing -- handed me my receipt. "Good luck gettin' to China, hon."

It's not that I didn't feel hurt, not to mention disrespected, as I walked briskly out of the Bank of America branch near my family home. I did.

But in a way, I also understood where the desperate housewives were coming from. I mean, if I'd seen someone walk four miles along an interstate highway to deposit an unemployment check from another state into an account that was nearly empty, I wouldn't believe he was about to move to the other side of the world.

To be sure, it wasn't just perfect strangers who questioned my sanity back then, at the end of 2009, when I told them I planned to move to China after nearly a year out of a job in the United States.

"So let me get this straight," my father said, when I walked in his front door unannounced, my tail between my legs, about a month before my departure. "You used your credit card to buy a plane ticket to Shanghai, because some school you've never seen with your own eyes has offered you a job teaching English there."

"And you think," he paused. "You're going to come back to the U.S. in a year in a better place then you are now?"

"No," I shook my head. "I know I am."

No matter how many friends of family members expressed skepticism toward my grand plan -- and nearly all of them did -- I remained steadfast in my determination.

To me, the path to financial salvation was as clearly laid out in front of me as the sidewalks in the suburban neighborhood where my father's house was located.

Not only would teaching English in China enable me to earn significantly more than my local cost of living -- and thus to pay down, with extreme speed, the debt I'd accumulated while unemployed -- but I would gain marketable work experience.

I would also have a great base for traveling in Asia, and an opportunity to pursue the only goal my friends and family viewed as crazier than my stated one: To create a travel blog, which would, with any luck, eventually become my primary source of income.

It was only after arriving in Shanghai, the shining, seaside monument to China's economic boom, that I realized the larger irony inherent in the doubt my American comrades had expressed upon hearing of my dreams.

Public discourse in China, you see, was dominated by a positivity that had all but disappeared in the U.S. after the financial collapse of 2008, even if it was a decidedly pro-China one. Gone were the doom and gloom that had come to rule over my eyes and ears during a near-year in post-apocalyptic America.

Instead, my vision was dominated by the sight of huge skyscrapers rising seemingly everywhere around me. The only sound louder than the drills and jackhammers assembling the behemoths was the chitter-chatter of a society as upwardly mobile as the concrete pillars and steel beams of their increasingly-dense cities.

The past three-and-a-half years have seen me not only pay off my debt entirely using money I earned teaching in China, but also parlay my travels there and elsewhere into one of the Internet's most popular travel blogs. The transformation of my life has been profound.

So, too, has the transformation of my understanding. Any individual's perception of reality is inextricably linked with his perception of geography: The more comprehensive a picture someone has of the world, the wider his perception of what is "possible" becomes.

It is not surprising to me that America's collective reaction to the gargantuan fiscal, infrastructural, educational and societal problems that continue to plague our country has been so narrow in its intellectual scope. After all, only 39 percent of us own passports, and it is likely that even fewer of us have use our passports to travel to fundamentally different parts of the world.

This tendency is not only true on a societal level, but also on a personal one. How many times have you foregone pursuing one of your dreams because you (or, more likely, someone close to you) saw it as unfeasible, childish or -- God forbid -- impossible? My guess is more often than you wish you had.

The surest way to make more of your life is to become more aware of what's out there, to expand your definition of what's possible -- and the surest way to do that is by traveling.

Think you don't have enough money to travel? I didn't, but I made it happen anyway. Think even a small trip won't fundamentally transform your perspective? Tell me how you feel when you get back.

When I left the hell that had become my life in the United States nearly four years ago, all I truly expected to happen was that I would pay off my credit card debt, gain some professional experience and see more of Asia than most people are able to.

It was only through taking these preliminary steps, and allowing my perception to be changed by the process, that I realized the world had so much more to offer -- and that I had more than enough to give back in exchange.

I'm willing to bet you do, too.