GALLIPOLIS — After facing unemployment and language barriers half the world away, Erin O’Neil decided to make the best of her situation to explore the environment around her.
O’Neil is the author of “Gui Ren: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary People” and the great granddaughter of Bobbi and Charles Holzer, Jr., and granddaughter of Karin O’Neil. O’Neil shared her story with visitors Wednesday at Poppy’s Coffee, Tea and Remedies.
“I spent a lot of my childhood in Gallipolis,” said O’Neil, 24, of spending time with her family.
O’Neil studied at Butler University in Indianapolis and graduated with a degree in digital media production. The summer before her senior year in college, she joined a six-week internship that took her overseas to Shanghai, China, where she produced digital media for an entrepreneur. O’Neil continued to do remote work for the entrepreneur after returning to the U.S.
“February in 2017 before I graduated, I got an email asking me to return to China for three to six months to continue our work together,” said O’Neil. “It was all expenses paid. I would go to five different countries…I was promised new equipment and fulfilling adventures. So, I said yes. It was a story in itself to give up a secure job. I moved to Shanghai by myself, June of 2017. Two weeks in, I knew it wasn’t right. I didn’t have a desk, an email or an office key. He wasn’t in the country and there was a gut feeling that something wasn’t right. I stuck there and things just declined. He wasn’t the same person I had known the previous summer.”
O’Neil said she found herself in a tough situation.
“I found myself either continuing or did I go home early or do I start traveling. Ultimately, I landed on what I went over there to do in the first place which was to travel and experience the world,” said O’Neil. “So I started backpacking by myself. I went out to western China and five different cities. Then I went to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Taiwan. I did a loop through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.”
O’Neil said she traveled over 34,500 miles, and through several countries over the course of 183 days. She said she does not speak any language associated with the countries she visited but was able to often work through communication issues with some effort.
“It was a lot of charades at times and sometimes using (phone apps to translate writing),” said O’Neil.
“What I started to realize as I was traveling around was that I was connecting with people in a way I hadn’t before,” said O’Neil.
O’Neil shared a story of how she communicated with a Chinese mother on a train despite being strangers. The mother offered her some partially eaten food and a scarf in hopes of helping O’Neil’s journey.
“…There’s this underlying desire to take care of one another as humans and we are connected by so much more than our backgrounds and experiences in life,” said O’Neil. “We all experience hope, joy and sadness. We have those to relate to one another and we forget that’s a human experience we can all share and we can often be blinded by outward appearance or status…It inspired me to keep exploring and connecting with people in ways I never thought possible.”
O’Neil said she managed the trip on $2000 before returning home. She blogged about her experiences and eventually decided to write a book.
Gui Ren, according to O’Neil, is a Chinese phrase “that encapsulates the synchronicity of people entering your life with purposeful timing to help guide you…”
For more information about O’Neil’s journey or her book, visit www.onmylist.org.
Dean Wright can be reached at 740-446-2342.