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To China And Back: The Adventures Of Globetrotter Lily Kempf

I met Lily’s mom, Andi Kempf, at ARTCanDo. She was helping Beverly Ann Wells with the class, and I told her all about my blog. Andi suggested I should meet her daughter, Lily, who just came back from China and was trying to gather a Shakespeare reading group. A week later, Lily and I were sitting at MannWell’s, taking about her travels East and the freedom of not being tied down to a job.

Lily, with a sparkle in her eye, at MannWell's Coffee Alley in Washington, Missouri

Lily, where does your interest in traveling spring from?

Ever since I was little, I have always been interested in everything! When I was in college, I had a lot of Asian friends from Japan, South Korea and China. I enjoyed conversing with them, learning about their culture, and trying their traditional foods. It comes as no surprise that I majored in Liberal Arts and Culture. When I graduated college, everybody kept asking me the same question: “What are you going to do next?” I had no idea, so I just told them that my plan was to swim the English Channel by the age of 30. Now, being 26, I am having second thoughts about that 😉

Lily, hiding in a field of rapeseed in Menyuan, Qinghai. (Photo courtesy of Lily Kempf)

Why China?

China was not planned, it just happened. After I graduated college I came back home to Washington. I didn’t feel rushed to jump right into a career, so I took some classes at East Central College. Always eager to expand my horizons, I studied Art, Photography, Spanish and Chinese. When I got close to the end of the second semester, my Chinese teacher told me of a great opportunity to teach English in China and get a Montessori diploma. Having no commitments, I decided to pack my bags and go.

Lily, climbing the Great Wall of China. (Photo courtesy of Lily Kempf)

How did it feel to be an American in China? Did you experience a culture shock?

When I first arrived in Beijing back in 2008, I was very busy working and mastering the language. It is extremely difficult to be in a foreign country where you can’t read the street signs, the labels, or the store names. We don’t realize how many things we take for granted, until we go to a place where everything is unfamiliar. I felt like a child, learning everything anew. In the beginning, me and my two roommates used to go grocery shopping together and combine our language skills. Later on, I got more comfortable with the new surroundings and began taking the bus. I immersed myself in the culture, observing the people, their clothing, the way they acted and went by their daily routine.

Lily, with friends at the market in Golmud, China. (Photo courtesy of Lily Kempf)

Eastern culture is quite different from the culture in the USA, and some of its subtleties can be elusive. Did you have to learn something the hard way?

During my first year in Beijing, there were many incidents that reminded me how different the Eastern and the Western cultures are. I love cycling, so one of the first things I bought in China was a bike. It got stolen almost right away. I went through four bikes in six weeks. The last one I got was an old dingy one, that lasted a year and a half. What I learned the hard way, was the importance of blending in. Another time, I got pick-pocketed in a bus. A middle-aged Chinese man tried to steal my camera and some money out of my pocket, but I caught him and fought back. I managed to push him on the ground at the bus stop, while yelling at him in English. Everybody around looked at the scene in dismay, but nobody interfered. I felt angry that he tried to take away something that was rightfully mine, but then I realized that I shouldn’t have put the camera in my pocket. I learned that if you never travel with your favorite anything, you won’t miss it.

Lily, fitting in. (Photo courtesy of Lily Kempf)

What is the most dramatic experience you’ve had abroad?

During my first year in Beijing, my roommates and I decided to go on a trip for the Chinese New Year. This is the biggest holiday in China, and the whole population migrates back to their hometowns. We got to experience the crowded trains with passengers having to stand for more than 24 hours until they reach their destination. While we were visiting a small town on the way, I attempted to climb a tree, but I lost my balance and fell down. My pelvis was fractured badly, and I was transferred to a Western hospital in Hong Kong. I was there for two weeks, but not all by myself. The news quickly spread in Washington, and friends of family friends who happened to be in Hong Kong came to visit me throughout my whole hospital stay. I was not allowed to travel on my own, so I flew a good friend of mine from the USA and together we went back to Beijing. My friends helped me find a place to live closer to my work, so I didn’t have to ride on commuter buses for hours. In a week and a half I was walking on crutches, and still got on the bus. This amazed the locals, because they believe that people should stay at home until they recover. However, there I was, a foreigner handicapped in a place that just started recognizing the needs of people with disabilities after they held the Special Olympics. I had to use sign language and signal to the bus attendant when my stop was getting closer, which was always tricky since I still couldn’t read so well. It was interesting, to say the least.

Lily, with friends in Xunhua, China. (Photo courtesy of Lily Kempf)

Do you have any funny stories to share?

I’ve had so many interesting experiences, but if I had to pick one it would probably be the photo shoot I was part of. One day a friend of mine called me and asked if I would like to go to this dealership and test drive a new car. They ended up taking a video of me driving the car, and then I got interviewed. Every day brought something new, and I just went with the flow. Another time I was invited to a wedding and at the reception I met a local journalist whose autobiography I had just read. Then we ended up travelling to the Great Wall together. It’s funny how if you let things happen, they will.

Lily, with a Tibetan monk lady who she stayed with for a night. (Photo courtesy of Lily Kempf)

After spending a year in China, you came home for a while and then you decided to go back abroad. What have you been doing for the last two years East?

I found a teaching job through some friends, and I have been traveling a lot. I love swimming, and I made friends with a lady who used to be a Chinese national swimmer. She signed me up for a competition to swim across the Yellow River. That was a wonderful adventure and a personal accomplishment of mine. Last year, I traveled alone in Western China and went to the border of Pakistan. I have also traveled Mongolia and Thailand, and have lived in Japan for 9 weeks. The Eastern culture and way of live fascinates me, and I enjoy meeting new people all the time.

Lily, after she swam across the Yellow River. (Photo courtesy of Lily Kempf)

Lily, with Sally the camel in Mongolia. (Photo courtesy of Lily Kempf)

Lily, in a Tibetan town in Gansu. (Photo courtesy of Lily Kempf)

I asked Lily to write something in Chinese. "I am a foreigner" is what she wrote.

You’ve been at home for a month and a half. Is it time to take off again?

I don’t know what I am going to do next, but travelling is definitely a possibility. It is hard to stay at home, when I know that so many adventures await me. I always tell myself that I can do anything for a year!

Lily, a true free spirit, making the whole world her home. (Photo courtesy of Lily Kempf)

About Slava

I am a twenty-something Bulgarian girl in the USA, re-discovering the world through the lens.


6 Responses to “To China And Back: The Adventures Of Globetrotter Lily Kempf”

  1. Thanks Slava, you picked some great photos!
    Who knows where Lily will be next?
    I can tells she is ready to be on the go again.

    Posted by Andi Kempf | January 3, 2012, 3:54 pm
  2. Nice article! I love the picture choices.

    Posted by Lindsay | January 3, 2012, 11:17 pm
  3. Lily, what a fabulous collection of photos you have!! You are SUCH a free spirit and an inspiration to me!
    Please keep us posted on your future travels. Slava, thank you for this wonderful feature on Lily!
    Keep up the good work! You too are helping to make OUR lives more interesting.
    Beverly Ann Wells, Director

    Posted by beverlyannartist | January 12, 2012, 8:24 am

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