In a recent discussion held as part of the inaugural Lean In Beijing Mentorship Event, a college student in my circle noted, “In China, it’s so difficult to stand out sometimes. We all pursue the same goals, we all do the same things, we all study hard and we all have similar experiences and ideas. In order for us to stand out and be unique, I really think we have to be unafraid to be different.”
It’s true, especially in a country of 1.4 billion people. But it’s not common to see young Chinese doing what’s necessary to stand out: pushing themselves to their limits and going beyond their comfort zone. Which is why Ivan Xu’s project, the Ultimate Ride, is interesting: because it is different.
Ivan plans to bike alone across Europe in 100 days to visit 10 elite Ultimate Frisbee teams, then take another 100 days to bike across China to visit 14 cities and teach Ultimate players on nearly two dozen teams. He started an Indiegogo page, linked above, to help fund his trip. An excerpt:
Confucius once said, “While one’s parents are alive, one should not travel to distant places.” Growing up in a small town in China, I, like many friends around me, was brought up with fewer opportunities and approval to explore beyond. Unlike what is customary for many students and those in their 20s in the West, the Chinese education system and society is more conservative and does not actively encourage adventure, travel and participation in sports and outdoor activities. I hope my tour will inspire a new generation of jet-setting Chinese youth and help everyone appreciate the outdoors.
The journey is so ambitious and different that Ivan has already garnered media interest, even convincing a publishing house to let him write a book about it. If you know anything about China and its youth, there’s nothing more important than encouraging love for adventure, sports, and the outdoors, as well as the ability to take risks and tackle challenges.
We asked Ivan a few questions about his project.
Assuming you’ve told friends and family about this trip, what’s been their reactions? I wonder specifically if there’s a difference between how friends and family have reacted?
My friends are mostly my age. Most of them say things like, “You are so brave,” ”Be safe,” “Chase your dream,” “You’re doing the things we want to do, but dare not to do,” “Money problems can be solved, but you have the courage, perseverance and determination that most of us lack.” The most flattering comment has been, “If Ivan was born in the US, he will probably run for US president.” My sister and cousins have had similar reactions to my friends and they are quite supportive.
My parents, on the other hand, have lived in my small hometown in Hubei province their whole lives, and don’t really have an idea of what the outside world is like. They don’t really interfere with what I want to do; they have always trusted my decisions. However, I can feel the pressure they feel, as the people around them are just like other Chinese parents, comparing me with others my age who are married, have babies and are earning larger salaries. Every time I go home with a tanned face and arms after Ultimate Frisbee tournaments or long-distance bike rides, I hear comments like, “A college graduate like Ivan still works as a construction worker? Even our son who didn’t finish high school has a more decent job.” I don’t really care about what others say, but I feel bad knowing how my parents feel and react. Most from my parent’s generation don’t understand why the tour is important to me, nor do they approve of it. I am lucky in that I have never received much pressure from my parents to stop doing the things I like.
I think many people in my generation face such conflicts: to live a life we want, or to live a life that makes our parents happy. I have to make this tough choice as well. But I have chosen to live my own life and write my own story. I do feel guilty for not supporting them this year, but since I have made the decision to do this tour, I will do it with my full effort and passion.
What was your inspiration for the Ultimate Ride?
There are two main reasons I want to do this.
First of all, I really love Ultimate Frisbee and cycling; combining these two sports for 200 days in Europe and China is a dream that’s almost too good to be true. I don’t want to feel regretful in the future, I don’t want to think, “What if I could have done that biking-Ultimate tour?” I want to have the opportunity to tell my children and grandchildren that I accomplished something amazing when I was younger.
But if I only do this tour for myself, it will not be meaningful; there would be no soul or essence. I want to be able to benefit society and help others while chasing my dream. That’s why I decided to also help publicize two charities:
I care about the Mentor project for orphan kids in Belarus because I lived [in Belarus] for two and a half years, and I am grateful for what I have learned there. I want to leave behind something nice, a feeling that I have contributed and given back to their society.
I have played Ultimate Frisbee for seven years, and I have learned so much from the sport. It has changed my lifestyle and how I sometimes approach life. It would be my honor to do something to give back to the Ultimate community by furthering the sport everywhere, and I can help do that through a charity called Youth Ultimate Project (YUP), and by raising more awareness of this sport in my homeland of China.
What would be an ideal outcome from the Ultimate Ride?
I would like to see more people in China recognize Ultimate Frisbee as a sport and play it, and more teams to be founded. I hope more people can support the charities I represent. The kids I met at the Belarusian orphanage are cute and smart. YUP is doing a good job helping kids in Cambodia learn Ultimate Frisbee; it deserves more attention, the kind that Ultimate Peace has gotten (an NGO that promotes peace in the Middle East through Ultimate Frisbee).
You mention in the Indiegogo that you hope to inspire a generation of jet-setting Chinese youth to appreciate the outdoors. Why is that important to you?
Some of the best moments in my life have been cycling through birch forests and icy lakes, swimming in an ice hole in a freezing Minsk January, building an igloo that I slept in for a night, and traveling alone to different cities in Belarus without understanding much Russian. I really believe an interesting life begins when you are out of your comfort zone, and I think others can benefit if they are just willing to try and challenge themselves.
As China is quickly urbanizing and modernizing, more Chinese youth are getting used to daily comforts, but participate in fewer adventurous and outdoor activities. But if we’re not able to appreciate the beauty of Mother Nature, we will never be complete.
We are lucky today to be Chinese. There are fewer visa restrictions for travel, and China’s economy is strong so more people have money to travel. What I plan to do now would have been impossible for my parent’s generation to even think about.
What advice would you give China’s younger generation?
I actually wrote this on my Couchsurfing page: If you risk nothing, you will achieve nothing. Our world is so vast and amazing, yet I have seen very little of it. We should use our time fully and wisely to go out explore or explore inwardly, to engage our minds – not doing this is a crime. You have to understand and recognize that we will never be as young, strong, and trustful of our body as at this very moment. Learn, share, and grow as much as you can.
Alicia is founder and executive director of the academic prep center Prep Beijing.