When a job she took in Shanghai turned out to be not quite what she expected, Erin O'Neil found herself at a crossroads.
"There I was in the middle of China, stranded, unemployed and not sure what to do," she said. "It was painful, and part of me just wanted to come home."
It was the end of September 2017, and what was supposed to be a six-month job producing digital media for a company owned by an American citizen in China had turned sour after three months for O'Neil, who grew up in Upper Arlington and graduated from the Wellington School.
"I wanted three things from this job: to travel, to tell stories using digital media and meet incredible people," O'Neil said. "I was only going to be making $7 an hour, but those things were going to be the reward."
It was a risk to accept the job after earning a degree in digital-media production from Butler University, she said.
But what she was promised by the business owner when her internship from the previous year turned into a job offer didn't pan out, O'Neil said.
Instead of travel, she was stuck in an office, and the encouragement she received during her internship turned into hostility once she became an employee, she said.
"I stuck it out for three months, but I couldn't finish the job under those conditions," O'Neil said. "I decided there was no reason I couldn't experience all of those things (the rewards) on my own."
With that in mind, she struck out on a journey that led her to eight countries between October and mid-December 2017.
O'Neil will speak about her adventures in Asia in a presentation at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 2, at the Grandview Heights Public Library, 1685 W. First Ave.
She also will appear at 6:30 p.m. May 16 at the Westerville Public Library, 126 S. State St.
What she quickly found during her travels, O'Neil said, was that people she met often were able to provide aid just when she needed it.
She also discovered a Chinese written phrase that encapsulates that philosophy.
Gui ren, she said, is about meeting people who "come into your life with synchronicity to help guide you, inspire you or help you solve a problem."
"It's all about being open-minded, trusting and vulnerable enough to allow these people to come into your life," O'Neil said. "Trusting means not only trusting others, but trusting yourself to allow yourself to be mindfully vulnerable.
"Those people are there if you know how to recognize them, whether you're traveling halfway around the world or just around the corner," she said.
With only $2,000 to her name and a language barrier to overcome, O'Neil said she often relied on the kindness of strangers during her travels in Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China.
O'Neil completed the trip in three legs, between returns to the apartment she rented and maintained in Shanghai after she left her job.
"I have so many stories of times when I met someone who enriched my experience or helped me out," she said. "My favorite example is probably Zeman, who I met in Penang (Malaysia)."
Zeman worked for a water-sports company and served as O'Neil's guide when she went parasailing, she said.
"He asked me if I'd been to the Monkey Beach National Park and I told him no, so he invited to go with him," she said. "Something told me it was OK."
The next day, Zeman showed up on his motorcycle and invited O'Neil to hop aboard.
"There's a direct route to the park and I figured as long as we stayed on that route, everything would be fine," O'Neil said. "When he suddenly veered off the route, I got a little worried,"
But Zeman had no intention of harming O'Neil.
"He just wanted to show me all of the places he loved," she said. "We went to sites that I would probably never have seen on my own, and we finished with a great hike through the national park."
Being open-minded and trusting of people doesn't mean being foolish, O'Neil said.
"You need to be careful, and I think people often will give you a tell about their actual intentions," she said. "In one instance, a man came up to me and started asking me where I was staying and if I was traveling alone. That didn't seem like a good sign."
Rolling with the flow
Before her Asian adventure, O'Neil already was a seasoned traveler.
She studied abroad in western Europe while attending Butler University and participated in trips to Chile and France during her years at Wellington.
"Those were sponsored trips where you were accompanied by other people and guides, but I think they helped prepare me to be ready to take a journey totally on my own," O'Neil said.
O'Neil has posted stories, photographs and videos from her trip and her reflections on the life lessons she's learned on her travel website, onmylist.org.
She also is writing a book titled "Gui Ren," which she will self-publish later this year.
Beyond that, who knows what the future may bring, said O'Neil, who now lives in the Easton area and works as a member-service specialist at Life Time.
"You don't know what life will bring you," she said. "I'm ready to roll with the flow and be ready to go where life takes me."