…and thanks for all the fish (and eggplant, tofu, beef, etc.)

At various points in my life, someone has said the following to me: you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

In the context of Jishou, I’d say I’ve had that feeling twice—even after diligently telling myself that I would not, under any circumstances, have it the second time.

Well, even the best laid plans….

Day one back, and I throw myself into a crash course of cultural rehabilitation. Breakfast takes place at a Jersey diner, complete with oily hash browns and a chatty waitress who calls me “Honey,” as in, “Honey, you want lemon or cream with that?”, “Honey, how’s it taste?”, or “Honey, you got the morning off of work or something?”

“No,” I say, looking up from my eggs. “I actually just got back from a long trip. I was out of the country for two months.”



“Huh.” She proceeds to sit down, making my booth a little less lonely. “And what did you eat there?”

I pause. Perhaps she should have asked, “What didn’t you eat there?”, but I guess not everyone knows the full range of culinary options in the Middle Kingdom, what with fish-smelling tofu and the three sounds of Guangdong. I decide to tell her what seems most interesting. She nods her head as I talk, saying, “You don’t say….” and “Wow!” before going on to her other customers.

Somehow, this conversation seems wanting, so I move on to the next great bastion of human interaction: the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles. Sure, you might say that you’re going thereto register plates, or as in my case, renew a license, but everyone knows that the real reason people visit is for the thrill of long lines, a smorgasbord of accents, and a healthy dose of bureaucracy (“What do you mean you didn’t bring your six points of identification?”).



And all of a sudden, I feel like I’m in China all over again. Well, a decidedly cleaner shadow of China, but not too far off. Change the English to mangled Mandarin and switch the DMV with a line for tickets at a Chinese train station, and I wouldn’t feel like I was in too different of an environment. Voila. Magic.

This instance of seeing bits of China around me has in some ways made things come full circle. I spent a lot of this summer thinking about the ways that China reflected back the life that I knew back home. I looked for commonality to link what seemed two decidedly different places in my life. Familial obligation, whether or not within the Confucian scope, is a powerful force. I knew this from my own life, and my students showed it to me in their own lives. Whether it was through ancestral worship or planning a trip to Shenzhen to see a father who was working to support them, they were involved in their lineage. I also spoke to students about their frustration over the complacency acquired by many Chinese college students, and I thought of some people I knew back at Princeton.

Perhaps it seems a simplistic conclusion to say that both cultures reflect back on each other, but I would argue that as the returning wander, it is a deceptively easy thought to overlook. I spent so much of my time abroad analyzing things in comparison to what I know, so why should I not do the opposite as I return home? The Jishou experience does not end when one leaves Jishou; it ends when one thinks that it no longer holds relevance.

Given the experiences that I’ve had over two summers, I’d say that the relevance will be around for quite a long time.

Final Applause

Late afternoon. Golden sunlight scatters the shadows as we scramble over boulders and push through dense bushes. The foliage falls away and the lake stretches out before us, a serene body of water undisturbed with the exception of two floating turtles. The others jump into the sparkling water with reckless abandon, shattering the silence. I sit on a cliff and soak in the sun, but my mind is elsewhere. At times, home feels foreign. Things as simple as forks manage to confuse me, and I find myself wondering what people in Jishou would think of New York.

It’s hard to believe that a week ago I was cramming everything I could into our last 24 hours in Jishou. Harder to believe is that I survived saying goodbye to two summers’ worth of students and- now I can admit this- friends. Together we taught, learned, hiked, sweated, laughed, cried (well, most of us)…
I’ll miss them, but I’m grateful for the time that we shared.

A moment: 
We lounge around the large table at AJB, Dragons and scattered foreign teachers, picking at nearly cleared plates of food. The eggplant and eggs are long gone, the bitter melon waits unclaimed. Phoebe doesn’t believe in wasting food, so she proposes that we play a game: categories, if you lose you either finish a dish or sing. Jerry definitely loses in order to sing Call Me Maybe. Food, animals, movies, colors… John diligently chews through a plate of peppers, and then another. Finally he agrees to sing but says he only knows one English song “for children”.

So we sit and grin as he tentatively sings:
“If you’re happy and you know it,
clap your hands.”

He claps. We clap.

Thank you PiA, thank you Jishou, and thank you to all of the teachers and students.
It doesn’t get much better than this.

Yi, er, san, qiezi!

“Yi, er, san, qiezi!” “One, two, three, eggplant!” That was probably one of the phrases I heard and used the most in our last week in Jishou. It is the Chinese equivalent of “say cheese!” when taking a picture. I love to repeat Chinese phrases I hear while walking on the street, regardless of whether or not I know the meaning. It’s probably not the best idea, but after I saw every Chinese tourist in Fenghuan during our homestay use this phrase, I caught on to it. The students also all seemed to be thoroughly amused when I say it.

One thing I’ve learned about Chinese people, is that every moment is a Kodak moment. That was no exception in our last week – Halloween, Talent Show, and Graduation. But this rule hasn’t really been an exception for us either, between Nick’s iPhone videos and photos and the collective thousands of photos taken by the own members of our group.

This last week has been a week of contrasts.

Contrasting emotions.  Joy and happiness for successfully completing the summer, establishing beautiful friendships, and all of the joy that the students always bring to our lives. Sadness and nostalgia as we looked back at the summer and realize we will soon be leaving Jishou and perhaps never seeing many of the students again.

Contrasting scenes. The twenty-four hour train ride from Jishou to Shanghai was full of realizations. Twenty-four hours on a train did not feel like a long time, as it did at the beginning of the summer. Unlike the first time I was absolutely disgusted to use the squat toilet on the train, it now seemed quite clean compared to what I’ve encountered on this trip. The vendors and carts on the train no longer amused us as much as they first did. The beds on the train felt hard in contrast to the wooden plank I slept on in Jishou. I was used to  China and everything that seemed strange at first.

And then arriving to Shanghai was a complete culture shock. It looked nothing like the China I was used to. What were all these Westerners doing here? Why isn’t everyone staring and pointing at our group like we’re aliens? What are all these modern buildings and Western foods? Why is the food not spicy? Shanghai literally felt like being in a different country.

And that’s when the assimilation to Western culture began. Now it’s my second day at home and, to be honest, I’ve never experienced culture shock like this. Thankfully we did have those two days in Shanghai to welcome us back into Western culture; I can’t imagine coming here straight from Jishou. For instance, yesterday my brother took me shopping with him…I asked him if he can bargain the price for his jeans. Turns out that’s not an option at the Aventura Mall. But as I unpack my bags, upload my pictures from this summer, and slowly adjust to being back in America, I can’t help but smile when thinking of the happy days spent in Jishou.

Unexpected Developments

China. Miao songs. Miao dances. Dead birds at the dinner table. Climbing rice terraces. Way blocking ceremonies. Wooden plank beds. Tongue numbing Hunan peppers. 7cup. Chinese barbeque. Swimming near waterfalls. Coning in Jishou. Service club. Fenghuang. Olympics 2012. Halloween in August. KTV. Chinese birthday parties. Teaching. Learning. Graduation. Tears on tears on tears.

Some of the above mentioned things are things I thought I would never experience in my life. I think the biggest one (literally – ha) is China. If you had asked me a year ago if I thought I would ever go to China, the answer would have been no. China wasn’t really on my radar before SoS, but now I can’t stop thinking about it. Oh how things change.

After a delayed flight from Shanghai to Osaka and an…exciting (?)…time at the Kansai airport, I am finally at my friend’s house in Japan. However, my brain is still in China mode. Jishou mode, really. When we were in Shanghai on Saturday and Sunday, I couldn’t get used to the large amount of foreigners that we were seeing. I was confused by the English around me. Shanghai was a whole different world, nothing close to the China I had come to know and love over the past two months. Even now, in Japan, Japanese sounds a little strange to me (words I never thought I would type in my life). I’ve become so used to hearing Chinese that everything that isn’t Chinese is now foreign.

Maybe it was the food that got me. There were so many things I encountered this summer that I thought I would never eat or never even thought people could (would?) eat. The list of foods I’ve consumed with reckless abandon this summer includes pig feet and noodles, goose feet, pickled chicken feet, duck blood and rice, pig blood, frog, duck collar bone, and donkey meat dumplings! Who wouldn’t fall in love with a country that has food like this?

Slight jokes about food aside, I really believe it was the people that got me to love China so much. At first, it was my fellow SoSers, who are all amazing teachers and friends, who helped to spark my China craze. Soon, it became the PIJ students and Jishou residents that made me be willing to consider a serious relationship with China. I woke up in the morning excited to see what challenges and surprises my kids would have for me, I was excited to walk down the streets and wave at my neighborhood friends, and I nearly died from excitement every week when it was time for service club. One of the best parts of the summer has been seeing my relationships with all of these people change and grow as time went on. Sometimes I still can’t believe that I was given this amazing opportunity so early in my life.

SoS taught me a lot this summer. Not only did I learn about teaching, but I learned about learning and communication. I found that I had more in common with my baby Phoenixes (who are now full fledged Phoenixes!) that I could have ever imagined. As I was hoping at the beginning of the summer, as I taught my students, they also taught me. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Everyday that we’re apart, I think of something else that I can take away from this summer.

Overall, after leaving Jishou, I’ve realized that my life is turning upside down, just when you would think it should be getting back to “normal.” I don’t know what normal is anymore, but I’m okay with that.

Thank you so much, PiA. I owe you big time.

– Kelsey


Before I began teaching, I absolutely hated chalk. Not just the awful screechy sound it can make on the blackboard (which I surprisingly haven’t heard once this summer), but its ability to linger – in the air, on skin, on tabletops. It has the uncanny ability to infiltrate zipped bags, breach the secret spaces between notebook pages, and invade nostrils and lungs in a matter of seconds; in short, chalk is a nuisance.

At first, I experienced major struggles with my new teaching tool. For a while, the words I wrote on the board were constantly lopsided and wobbly; I couldn’t quite figure out how not to make them look as if an arthritic 87 year old had written them. I can’t count the number of times I’ve snapped a piece of chalk mid-sentence, much to the amusement of my students; or the number of times that, while clearing the board, I’ve dropped the sponge eraser on myself, resulting in obnoxious white stains down the front of my shirt. It took a while, but after several weeks of teaching, I managed to make peace with this powdery fiend. I now know the perfect length of chalk for optimal use – not long enough for the stick to break, not short enough for the tips of my fingers to come uncomfortably close to the board. Picking up a piece of chalk has become as familiar as eating with chopsticks.

I realize now that chalk is an elusive substance; it never really goes away. Just when you think that the board is wiped clear of all powdery traces, you see that the chalk has simply been transformed into tiny particles of dust, which are now resting on your shoes. This realization is what led me to draw the following parallel between chalk and memory. Memory, like chalk, undergoes a series of transformations – time is the main culprit here, inserting things that never happened into your most treasured memories, mutating words that were said, adding and taking away bits and pieces. This is inevitable. But most memories don’t just go away. They change a little over time – that’s all.

I know that my memories from Jishou will always remain with me. The way that I remember things now, only one day after leaving the city, can be compared to a full-length stick of chalk; solid, unblemished, easy to hold onto. But I also know that, as time goes by, the memories will begin to chip and break, disintegrating into smaller fragments. Then, they will pulverize, until only discontinuous snippets remain – moments, smiles, words. But they will still be there, nonetheless…and this is what I have come to accept.

Leaving Jishou was as difficult as I’d imagined, if not more so. Snapshots of the last day: bulging suitcases, apartment decorations. Stifled tears. Tears on tears on tears. Blurry waving figures outside a train. Nostalgia. Despite the sadness I felt on departure, I know that I have left China with the sense of accomplishment that I set out to achieve. I hope to go back to Jishou – whether in one year, or ten years, I don’t know. One thing I am sure of is that my memories of this summer are not going anywhere.

The chalk is here to stay.

Phoebe and me (thanks, Kelsey!)


Buhbye! Buhbye! Buhbye!

After the first Service Club trip, I was left feeling quite uncomfortable and utterly shocked, and I didn’t really know what to do with myself. In the immediate aftermath, I doubted if I ever wanted to return, and momentarily regretted having agreed to lead the Service Club. But soon enough, the next Service Club day rolled around, and we went again. And again. And the gears began churning. And I became attached.

By the end of the Jishou summer, it was one particular baby that I absolutely fell in love with. Although she has some kind of muscular dystrophy, her muscles are quite functional at this point. Perhaps she will get worse as she grows older, but right now she is a strong girl. What a sweet baby! I’m not sure how or why, but I have so much love for this baby. She loves music, especially Jason Mraz, apparently. I don’t know how many times I’ve sang I’m Yours over the past month and a half. This girl is an incredibly happy baby when she gets hugs and kisses, but the ladies at the orphanage pay almost no attention to her.

It was emotional (to say the very least) having to say goodbye to this baby and everyone else at the home for the last time today. This orphanage took me by surprise. It somehow grabbed my heart and I don’t think it will ever let go. It was difficult telling some of them that today would be the last day I’d be coming to see them. When preparing for a summer of teaching English, I never would have expected Service Club to be a point of the trip that would affect me this much. Having this experience has changed me, and helped me to realize how much I still have left to learn. There are so many people out there whose experiences I can’t even begin to imagine. I’m yearning to learn more about the lives of children like the ones at this orphanage. There is so much more to know.

By some unknowable force, I have been given this beautiful life that somehow brought here this summer. However far life takes me from Jishou, part of me will remain where the children forever are, standing at the gate, smiling, waving “buhbye, buhbye, buhbye…”

Final Impact.

It ended right where it started. Reuben and I first arrived to Shanghai with Cameron and Eliot. Reuben and I were the first to leave. I was pumped to be in China, but it didn’t hit me until we began the Wild China trip.

This summer was nothing like I expected it to be. We kept hearing the term ‘life changing’, but I wasn’t sure if that word would be used to describe my experience.
The last two weeks in Jishou were both physically and emotionally draining. I pushed myself to teach the same way I had been teaching even though I knew my health was getting worse. I scheduled meals and activities knowing that I needed time to rest. I went to the orphanage, entering the building a bit nervous because I knew I needed more emotional strength. On top of that, the students drained me of the little emotional stability I had left. On the day of graduation, we went around the classroom and each student had a chance to say what they expected at the beginning of the program, and what it was really like. Students who hardly spoke in class expressed their gratitude. Students who always smiled and laughed were crying. I couldn’t help but to also shed some tears. I wasn’t going to hold them in. I wouldn’t have been able to if I tried. And just when I thought it was all over, just when I thought I could go back to the apartment and rest, I was hit with the final blow. Five amazing individuals, not my students, said their goodbyes.  At one point I wished it would have been a simple goodbye. But it wasn’t. It was an expression of sincerity and gratitude that I have not seen in other people before. Just when I thought that dehydration and fatigue had taken all the water and willpower from my body, those students made me shed some more tears. To me, this was not an exaggeration, but a reality. I felt that I was leaving them behind. I felt that maybe my job wasn’t completed.
Thank goodness for the trip to Shanghai. All I can say is that it was the perfect transition before getting on the plane. As Reuben, Eliot and I rode the taxi to the airport, I found myself smiling, no tears. I can’t tell myself that my job isn’t completed. On the contrary, now I feel like I did more than I thought I’d be able to in Jishou, all thanks to the students and my fellow foreign teachers. The eleven teachers had to deal with me, and I’m thankful to them for their hard work. Jishou students and Princeton students.  They’re the ones who taught me everything.
I’m on the plane, almost back in New York City. I see Reuben’s head and headphones from my seat. I’ll ask for water when the flight attendant comes around.
I need rest.
-Christian J. Rivera

Seeing in color

I wasn’t sad when I left Jishou, and this bothered me. I would look at the students and teachers crying around me and wonder why I wasn’t crying. The students waved at us with teary eyes as our train pulled out of the Jishou station, but I stood calmly and watched them through the window.

Those last few days in Jishou and Shanghai I analyzed my feelings like this: we had a job to do, we did a damn good job with it, and it was time to move on. In a brief six weeks I learned an extraordinary amount from the students and they learned from me. Perhaps that sounds presumptuous, but I know it’s true. The students told us. During our last teary precept, which was Thursday, August 9th, Nick, Arianna and I brought all of the Dragons together and reflected on the summer. It was amazing to hear our students recount the small details of our interactions over the summer that meant so much to them. It was more clear than ever that we provided a singular experience for them, and that’s what we came to do. So I left with a comfortable sense of satisfaction and a perceptible but not overwhelming amount of sadness.

Now I’m on a plane from Moscow to NY and my feelings are changing. I just reviewed my pictures from our last day in Jishou and felt a sudden pang of sadness. I’m going to miss those guys. They’re the best and they deserve the best. I can still do more for them and I will.

(I also just watched A Beautiful Mind on the airplane which was emotional and is not helping things right now).

Here are some memories that make me miss the students:

–During one precept, we were discussing whether one’s personality is different when speaking a foreign language. Maybe “personality” is too strong, but I do think that one might say something in a foreign language that they wouldn’t say in their native language. For example, one of the students mentioned that when they’re speaking English they often throw around the phrase “I love you.” In Chinese, however, they rarely say it (so when they do, it carries much more weight). During our final precept, one student’s final comment to the three of us was, in Chinese, “我爱你们” (I love you.)

–Some of the Dragons that we went on our home stay with like to call me “ben ge”. “Ben” is the second syllable of “Reuben” and “ge” is a friendly way to say “elder brother.” I like this name.

The first thing I plan to do when I get internet access, after publishing this post, is respond to two emails from students from a few days ago.

One last shout out to the sick, mad, dope, crazy awesome Dragons team. And the rest of the amazing SoS group, I love you guys too. Thanks for making this an unforgettable summer.

And thanks PiA for bringing me to Jishou. I’ll pay you back somehow.

Over and out.

Same train, different train

Two months ago, we started this trip to China. “The Eleven” who later became “the Twelve” roamed the streets of Jishou for 7 weeks, passing through Miao villages, Dong villages. Zuolongxia, Wangcun, Dehang, Fenghuang, Yuanling, Shanghai. Guizhou province, Guanxi province, Hunan province. On Friday we took a train- Jishou to Shanghai, 23 hours non-stop; similar to the same train that we had taken when heading to Kaili for the beginning of Wild China. I remember how on the first train Miryam had to hold my hand while I ventured into the squatting toilet on that train. “Which way do I look?! Why is there no paper?? Can I hold on to something?!” Now, we are all pros at squatting toilets, immune to the worst of them (you look away from the hole, not at it; a Miao village will do that to you). Some of us even find them comfortable and preferable to Western toilets. In the words of Reubes, chew gum and don’t wear flip-flops. Trust us on this one.

The smells of China have become a part of us. Its sounds and grunts- part of our vocabulary. Want a sticky bun? Uh. What? Ah? Want some ice-cream? Uh-uh. Some of us even hock loogies and roll our shirts up to fight the heat- Chinese man style. We all have QQ accounts and chat and stalk our students and the statuses and photos they post of us. Some of the teachers even know their QQ IDs by heart (QQ is a state-of-the-art social media website: Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Foursquare, LinkedIn, Spotify, all rolled into one.)

By the end of the 7 weeks, we we’re not only living in Jishou, we were having fun with it. Memorable is the ice-cream parlor near Jia Le Fu where for Cameron’s birthday Nick and I pointed at an empty Tupperware and the ice cream machine with the DQ Tornado picture on it and asked the lady to fill it up with whip-creamy ice cream. She stared at us, laughed, charged us 20¥ and then filled it up. On Thursday, Miryam and Nick went coning at the same place- same bewildered ladies staring and then laughing as Miryam grabbed the cone backwards, took a bite, said “xie xie” and smiled. 4 weeks ago, there’s no way we would have done that- we already called enough attention by walking, let alone by pranking people. Tonight at dinner in Shanghai, we all complained that the food was not spicy enough when weeks earlier we were kissing bottles of beer and chugging water to soothe our lips. Hunan heat indeed.

At the train station on Friday, thanks to the wonderful university officials (Mr. Dai, Tony, Chris Wu, Linda, Miss Yang) and our students, we were able to at least have a chance against the horde of Chinese people trying to get on the train. The meek Americans who were unwilling to push or cut lines at first, were now pushing and running with their suitcases, trying to at least gain some advantage on the Chinese. It was an Olympic event- suitcase lugging- and this time, we were not losing. Train food -which had seemed sketchy weeks before- a feast. No ramen for us this time. Eggplant and tree ears with beef and two bowls of rice plus a bottle of wine.

While everything else in comparison was so much better than we had first remembered- I’m telling you, being a foreign country for two months changes your perspective on things (ask any SOSer how fast we ate the queso fundido last night at a Mexican restaurant)- we were still surprised by the amount of children and babies running around in our cart, counting us, eating with us. Stares from Chinese people that had gradually diminished in 7 weeks reappeared as soon as we stepped onto the train. I hope someday, I will be able to come to China and be stared at- not for being a foreigner- but for fitting right in. For now, there is nothing to do but smile back at them.

A whirl-wind analysis of the before and after. In the meantime, I have to go deal with arriving 6 hours earlier and reliving the morning and evening of Tuesday, August 21st in the Dirty Salv. Jet lag, here I come!

-Arianna, MengNa.

Fun and Fin

I wanted to see tears, but I couldn’t have expected the final response from my students.

Last Friday we decided to have an hour and a half share fest instead of normal precept. This involved talking about our expectations before SOS, our experiences during the program, and our goals after the summer. Since this was the last precept, we understood what we were doing: we were creating the perfect storm for ugly group weeping.

The plan went swimmingly. Soon several of the students were sniffling messes, laughing through tears about their favorite moments, often times calling out us teachers on aspects of our styles:

Deborah (from my earlier post) was quick to chime in. “Arianna, to be honest, I wanted to sleep in your class during the first week of PiJ. However, your class improved very quickly.” Other students murmured in agreement, much to Arianna’s chagrin. However, it was clear that they were only able to tease her because of how close of friends they had become. Another student wrote to Arianna, “I love you, and I need you.” She would later change her train to ticket to wish Arianna a prolonged three-day goodbye.

Neither Reuben nor I were spared collective teasing. It was almost universally commented that at first Reuben seemed serious and handsome, but later was found to be “humorous” (and still handsome). One student mentioned that she counted the amount of times Reuben said OK in class (161 times), and proceeded to imitate his laugh. Soon the whole class was forming a cacophony of Reuben-like chortles. Of course, “The Reubes” himself was quick to join in.

As for myself, one of my students was quick to note, “Nick, your handwriting is very very bad.” I thought this was a fair criticism, as flashbacks to Ms. Dinoto’s 5th grade class filled my mind, reminding me of my blatant ineptitude at handwriting. “And, when I first met you, I thought you were a playboy.” As the class chimed in agreement with her, Arianna and Reuben proceeded to die of laughter. Disclaimer: I am in no way a playboy, and I vehemently protest said label. Nonetheless, the nostalgic dragon powwow was an unforgettable experience.

As I reflect now on the summer as whole, I can’t believe how much has happened. After the countless days of late-night journaling and greasy meals shared with teachers and students, I feel I have changed. I have made some close friends, and I’m on track to being the person I want to be. Thank you PiA and SOS for the best summer of my life.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening came from a student who had slipped a tissue underneath her glasses to create a paper veil that shielded her tears and reddened eyes from the class. “I will only say two things, otherwise I will cry,” she said shakily. “I love you all, and I’m getting a gmail.”

Like her, I experienced a tremendous amount of love from my students and fellow teachers, and I look forward to a future with these people in my life. As I said to my saddened students when I left, “this is not goodbye, this is only the beginning.”