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What's Your "Number"?

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Why I don't believe in country counting. 

People ask me all the time: "How many countries have you been to?"

The truth is, I don’t know—and I don’t plan to figure it out. I guess I could, easily enough, but why? What would that number really tell me? Or anyone else?

I have never counted the countries I’ve been to because that’s never been important to me. I’m not trying to go to as many countries as possible.

I know some people are, and every once in a while I read about someone who's travelled to “every country.” This doesn’t impress me. There’s not even any consensus on what “going" to a country requires: Travelling through in a car or train? Having a meal there? Sleeping there? Does transiting an airport count? If so, I was in Iceland in 1989 on my way to Luxembourg, even though I never left the terminal. Hmmm.

Hiking my own hike

On the Appalachian Trail, there’s a general piece of guidance people try to follow: “Hike your own hike.”

What this means is, go at your own pace, cover the number of miles you want to cover each day, and stop when and where you want to stop. Don’t be pressured to do things the way someone else does.

Don’t be pressured to do things the way someone else does.

I think the same could be said about travelling. Do it your own way. Do you want to go back to the same country/city/town/village/forest/lake every year? Then do it. You don't have to listen to people who insist you should go somewhere new. 

It might blow your mind to hear I’ve been to China almost 40 times; 39, to be exact. And on almost all of those trips, the centre of my activities has been a small town of roughly 12 million that you may have heard of: Wuhan.

To many, Wuhan is only the epicentre of COVID-19. But to others of us, Wuhan is a place of fascination and friendship. A place that is famous for reganmian (“hot dry noodles”) and the Yellow Crane Tower. We have friends who are family there. In fact, I am godfather to a teenager there. It’s my Chinese “hometown.” 

I was there every summer from 2004 until 2019 (except 2009, the H1N1 summer) and each year, I would go to new places: Qingdao, Kunming, Lhasa (Tibet), Urumqi (Xinjiang), and so on. I have also of course been to Hangzhou, Suzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Changsha, Shenyang, Tianjin and too many other places to list. 

From 2011 until 2019, I was in and out of China four to six times per year. I was almost commuting there. And the truth is, every time I go to China, and every time I go to a new place in China, I learn something new.  

Could I have said after 2004 that “I don’t want to go back—I want to go somewhere new?” Of course I could have. In fact, I’m ashamed to say I’ve never been to Japan. (Unless transiting in Tokyo-Narita airport counts?) 

Valuing depth over breadth 

It’s an old argument: which is more valuable—in a variety of contexts—breadth of experience or depth of experience. Is it better to be a “jack of all trades, but master of none” or to have deep expertise about something in particular.

I’ll take depth any day. I’m not crossing countries off the list for the sake of increasing my count. The more I go back to Italy (11 times),  France (eight times), and Turkey (seven times), the more I connect with the local culture, reconnect with friends I’ve made over the years, and learn things that I didn’t learn the first time I was there.

Now, I’m back in Moldova for the second year of what was supposed to be a one-year grant. And I couldn’t be happier. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go back to high school, or college, or anywhere really, knowing what you know now? Well I get to do that. Last year was incredible and special and I get to do it all over again, knowing what I know now.

I get another year where instead of festivals and holidays surprising me and sneaking up on me, I can anticipate them, look forward to them, and understand them more deeply. I will take this heightened experience any day over starting fresh in another country.   

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Robert Eckhart

Bob Eckhart is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Moldova. He has managed language programs in China, Turkey, and Indonesia and was previously the Executive Director of ESL Programs at Ohio State University. Bob was also a Fulbright Scholar in Belarus in 2018.

Website: www.instagram.com/bobeckhart

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