Remembering Jishou

It’s been less than a month since coming back from China, but already the details are starting to fade. The process is subtle. I haven’t forgotten; the images are just fragmented, the colors less vivid. It’s like trying to rewatch an old film, but finding the tape has been cut and sections removed. Rather than a continuous narration, I see only snapshots and slivers. The important parts are still there, but the story is incomplete.

Sometimes I don’t notice the process at all. Sometimes it hits me right in the face. Certain things draw it from the dark corners of my brain where it carries out its quiet work of deletion. The question: “Do you remember when…?” My response: “Oh yeah! I forgot.” Certain things alter the process altogether. Photos that ask that same question but then go even further, suggesting their own, tailored version of the story. The process ceases to be purely destructive and takes on an element of creation. Rather than simply being erased, my memories are gradually rewritten.

Every time I look through photos from Jishou, the missing details in my mind are quietly filled in with information from the pictures. Like sand under crashing waves, some is lost and some is gained with every iteration of the process. My memories are reshaped, and eventually, converge to what has been immortalized through my camera.

Whether I want it or not, this is how I will remember Jishou.


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开心 (kāi xīn) – Happiness

Halfway through July, I wrote an entry in my journal about climbing to the top floor of the school’s pagoda after dusk, following the sound of a lone zither whose sound echoed through the school courtyard. As I walked up the dark, steep and windy stairs to the third floor balcony and looked out on nighttime Jishou, I realized I never knew what I had expected of this small city in Southern China. Certainly not the illuminant letters atop the “BBG” mall, not the red and white apartment buildings that dominate the horizon, not the river that is jade green on clear days and mud brown on rainy days, and not a group of people, places, sights, sounds and tastes I would come to miss so dearly. Looking back, it’s as if Jishou provided me with a new pair of lens through which I now view China, my relationship with others, and myself.

As I was flying out of Shanghai and gazed out the cabin window, I saw the endless sea of lights below and realized that many of my students may never see this sight. When I asked my students about their future or their dreams, most of them talked of living in big cities and seeing what the “outside world” was like – for them, the “outside world” was the reality I lived every day and sometimes even sought to leave behind by going to a place like Jishou. But why is it, when some of my students are even more determined, hardworking, brilliant, and compassionate than I am, that I am the one who gets to enter their lives for six weeks and then return with ease to a place like Princeton? They’ve taught me there is no better or worse, no superiority or inferiority, simply lives with different opportunities and protagonists who are all trying to make the best of what we’ve been given. We all smile, laugh, cry, struggle for our dreams, and wish for a life where we can be our better selves.

And China is no longer the insular communities I have grown up with in the suburbs of Beijing – it is now the stories of the husbands who wake up at 4am to cook at “7 kuai” or my favorite baozi stand before the bridge, the life-changing “failures” of doing poorly on the college entrance exam so many of my students wrote about in their journals, a thirst for knowledge I have not seen in even many of my Princeton classmates, and the genuine kindness of students who bring us medicine when we are sick and breakfast when we wake up late – stories of people and places that have revealed to me what I have, and inspired me to continue finding and listening to the lives of the multitude of ordinary yet extraordinary human beings around me.

Almost a month after PiJ, I still receive caring messages and updates from my students. There is one student who has sent me a sentence in English every day so I can correct it for her, and another student who wanted me to know how much PiJ has influenced her, because she now finds time every day to study English.

During most of the program, I questioned the kind and amount of impact we would have on our students. Was my goal to teach as much English as possible, or to form deeper and more meaningful relationships with my students, even if it meant we had to have an occasional conversation in Chinese? How well can I come to know a student in six weeks, when our teacher to student ratio is almost 1:10? Especially after receiving extremely thoughtful gifts from many of my students (one student had kept a diary during the program and gave it to me on our last day there), I wondered if it was fair that I had not been able to offer the same emotional investment in return.

In retrospect, however, I shared so many parts of myself with my students that I have never shared with even my closest friends from home. Perhaps friendship is not measured by the amount of time you get to spend with someone, but by the genuine interest and desire to know one another during the short time you do have together. So in spite of my initial worries, I did become friends with many of students. Maybe not the same kind of friends as those at school or at home, not because of the limited time we had together, but because some of them were much more real, and made me feel so much more connected.

During our last Chill Circle, Alex C mentioned how the word for happiness in Chinese (开心) literally translates to “open heart.” I was surprised that I’d never made this connection before – perhaps when you grow up with a language you take words for granted and don’t question why they exist. Yet after experiencing Jishou, I couldn’t think of a better explanation for why I have felt so happy this summer.

The students’ unconditional open-heartedness and full acceptance of who I was allowed me to become truly comfortable with myself, even when I was stepping outside my comfort zones. Leading OA songs in a circle of more than 30 students, belting out-of-tune lyrics at KTV, or rallying people to dance at Prom – these were things I would’ve never even thought of doing back home or at Princeton, yet in Jishou, in the presence of my students, I couldn’t think of moments when I have felt more like myself or at ease with revealing these parts of my personality.

They’ve taught me that to receive happiness, I must trust that others will have open and accepting hearts. They’ve taught me that to provide happiness, I must first open up my own heart, so that others may in turn open theirs. They teased out of me a heartfelt smile that even I was surprised to see in my photos from this summer, and reminded me that understanding, joy, love and compassion for others are what bring us true happiness.

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Dobbs Ferry to Jishou

Sitting in my house in Dobbs Ferry, New York, the distance to Jishou feels every bit its 7660 miles. The memories are there, but they seem oddly packaged. The experiences I had in Jishou are so far removed from anything like my life before or after that I seem to have some trouble sticking the two together into a continuous timeline. It seems as if my life were chugging along like normal, paused while I went to China, then resumed when I got back as if nothing had happened. So little changed while I was gone that it feels as if I had never left in the first place.

But soon after I returned, it become apparent that even though my house, friends, family, and virtually every other aspect of my life had remained exactly as I had left it, something was different. As cheesy as it may sound, that something was myself. Try as I did to avoid it, Jishou affected me. Princeton and the Northeast and America no longer form the concentric axels around which the rest of the world rotates. Foreign countries are no longer places to walk around in sunglasses and gawk at the locals and snap photos and eat “local cuisine” and then leave forever.

As I mentioned to a friend on the trip, Jishou is about as out-of-the way spot as you can get to. Deciding to go there, you might as well have spun a globe, closed your eyes, and put your finger on a random dot. “Let’s go teach English there.” But yet, in this most unassuming of places, I met some of the most unique, intelligent, inspirational people of my life, my friends despite coming from such different worlds than me.

The world is a much bigger place than I imagined, but not because of the distances involved. In that sense, it’s getting smaller every day. In a pinch, I could get back to Jishou in around thirty-six hours, realistically. I can get in contact with any one of my students instantaneously, with the same ease as getting in touch with my neighbor across the street.

Rather, the world is so huge because it is full of so many incredible human beings. Jishou is special of course, but, in another sense, it is pretty ordinary. There are a thousand small cities very much like it throughout China and tens of thousands throughout every part of the world. But the fact that in an ordinary place like Jishou, you can encounter some of the most amazing people in your lifetime, friends who change the way you view learning, culture, society, success, who touch your heart and bring a tears to your eyes, who inspire you be become a better you because they know what they need to do to reach their dreams and won’t take shit from anyone trying to stop them.

These friends are wonderful and unique in every way, and they found me on a random dot on map like any other. So it follows that every dot will have these types of people. Every little out-of-the way city and town has people in it that can change your life.

It’s overwhelming, yet in a sense, oddly reassuring. It reminds us that there is no us and them, no nations or identities that we cannot relate to.   The world has seven billion humans and the extraordinary ones are spread evenly throughout. There are too many of them to find in a thousand lifetimes, but we can be assured that they are out there all around. I’m just thankful I was able to meet a few this summer.

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June 2015, Before embarking on this trip, I had, just like all others, already made my assumptions about what this trip would turn out to be – we’d just teach English and go on weekend hikes. August 14, 2015, sitting on our very slow train leaving Jishou, I still had not yet come to terms with the fact that about 30 or more students were outside the train station crying and grieving our departure. I had my sunglasses on outside the train station as we were all saying our goodbyes. Two hours before that faithful time, I said to Athena and Mao Mao, who both had asked if I was going to cry during departure time, that I was going to cry but however I would have my sunglasses on to conceal my tears. I lied. I had my sunglasses on during that faithful time but I did not shed a tear. I knew that I would not shed a tear not because I cannot cry because I am a ‘manly man;’ as a matter of fact, I cry without borders. I’m not heartless, neither. I loved them as much as them me; I loved them more than they’d understand.I wore my sunglasses to conceal the lack of tears; but more importantly, I wore my sunglasses to show …


We all have our unique ways of showing and appreciating care. Some cry when their loved ones are leaving, some remain very quiet, some completely isolate themselves. Throughout my stay in Jishou, I struggled internally to show equal or more love and reciprocate the excess love that was shown to me by my many students. The dilemma was huge: how possible is it to dedicate your undivided attention and love to all the 100 students? The ones that show you excess love and attention, should the same excess love and attention be reciprocated? When I unconsciously reciprocate this excess love and attention, it is only human nature, I have done the other students wrong or at least, it feels so.

Some say it is human nature to treat people better than others or to have ‘favorites;’ according to this view, tribalism and racism are direct outcomes of the tendency. I loathe the idea of treating someone better than another yet it occurs. It occurs to everyone. This, though, can be very deadly for politicians especially the foremost leader of a nation. Citizens expect that their leader does not prefer a tribal group to the others and rightfully so. But is this attainable?


It most definitely is!


The leader must have to neglect his or her own eyes and put on another pair of eyes, in which he or she shows no favoritism to a select few but rather spreads as much love as he or she possibly can to all. We are all special and we all deserve to be treated like a King or Queen. When one decides to become a leader (not necessarily a ‘leader’), he or she must treat everyone as a King or Queen. He or she must sacrifice in order to do this.

I wore my sunglasses to show the utmost love to all by detaching myself, through the sunglasses, from the ‘favorites’.

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See you next Tuesday

Every Tuesday afternoon, I brought a group of students to a children’s foster home a twenty-minute cab ride from the teacher’s college. The first time we went, I admit I was a little scared. Most of the kids could not communicate verbally and did not even acknowledge us visually. However, as I returned again and again during the next couple of weeks, some of them have left a lasting impression:

There is Yolanda, or 小妹 (little sister), who is 16 and has the sweetest and most genuine laugh I have ever seen. Unlike the other kids at the foster home, she always sits in a wheelchair. She has no mental disability, but has no control over her feet and has difficulty using her hands. When she becomes excited and desperately wants to convey an idea or overwhelming joy, she will stammer and struggle to form coherent speech. Whenever we visit, she lines the side of her seat with well-worn notebooks filled with English words and phrases so we can teach her English. She hides a small white phone under her seat cushion for taking pictures with us, and asks us to help her keep it a secret. Whenever I sit close to her and her feet accidentally kick my shins, she will apologize and try to wheel her chair backwards, away from where I’m sitting. Her favorite English song is “See You Again,” and her face lights up and she throws her head back in laughter when we agree to listen to her sing her favorite Chinese songs.

Then there’s 毛毛 (Maomao), who is 13 but acts like a mother and guardian to many of the younger children. Maomao can’t stand upright, but can walk with stiff legs by leaning her upper-body forward. Her hands and fingers are not fully developed, but like Yolanda, she has no mental disability. She will tell the other kids to study English carefully, or direct volunteers to read to certain children if she sees that they’re being left out.

Then there’s Yongyong, who never responds to me verbally but always replies with a big toothy smile. He towers over the other kids, but often uses his size and strength to physically bully them. When he’s displeased, he will groan and throw things on the ground, but when I offer to trace his hand on a sheet of paper he will giggle and shyly shrink his hand away. The only time I have heard him talk was when he called me 姐姐 (big sister) the last two times we visited.

Then there’s the little girl who will grab your hand and bring it to her head to show that she wants you to pat her head. And there’s 月月 (Yueyue) who tries to give me a drawing every time, and when I ask if she drew the picture, she will nod yes and smile really big even if she didn’t.

They reminded me to appreciate my physical health – something I often take for granted. They reminded me that every human being, no matter their physical or mental capabilities, has value in this world and something to contribute. They reminded me that many of the things that trouble me are so insignificant in comparison to what they must go through every day.

Even so, during the course of the summer, I often thought about whether we should have visited the foster home. Especially after one of my students told me that she herself was an orphan and that she thought we shouldn’t have gone to the foster home if we knew we could not commit to it long-term, I began to question why I had wanted to lead Service Club in the first place and whether ending our visits so soon after we started might actually be more harmful than good.

But from the genuine love and kindness I saw so many of the PiJ students show during our visits, I believe we went with true intentions, which is perhaps the best we can do at this time. And I hope that our trips to the foster home weren’t only for our learning, but that the time we spent with the children really brought them joy and laughter that maybe we can no longer share with them, but that they will remember for a long time.

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Rude Behavior

Walking through the supermarket today, a student asked me what behaviors I’ve seen in China that I would find rude at home. What first came to mind (that I ended up deciding not to share) was the constant hawking and spitting of phlegm at all times, in all places, by a shocking number of people. But eventually, I got used to that one and decided that there was no point in bringing it up. (They were already bringing enough up, right?) A more important difference to me that I decided to share with my student was the way people navigate around one another in Jishou.

Jishou is a city. It’s not a particularly big city, especially by Chinese standards, but it’s a city nonetheless. It’s busy, it’s crowded, and you have to be assertive if you ever want to make it through the sea of people that stands between you and your destination. The way people move through a supermarket or a busy street in Jishou, however, is different from the way I would expect someone to politely move through the same environment at home. People don’t say excuse me. They don’t look at you and smile. They just push their way through, jostling you out of the way if necessary. For me, I think the worst part is not when people do it to me but when I have to do it to others. I don’t know how to say “excuse me” in Chinese, and when I asked my student, she explained that it’s not really something you need to know because it’s not something they ever use. If you want to get through, you simply push your way through, moving others aside if necessary. I found it difficult, however, to simply set aside my engrained notions of rude and polite behavior in order to adapt to these different social conventions.

In turn, I asked her the same question about the way the foreign teachers behave in front of the students. Her response was entirely unexpected. When I end a conversation, I say goodbye, turn around, and leave. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think this is how many of the other foreign teachers typically end conversations too. From the students’ perspective, however, this behavior seemed cold. They understood it wasn’t intentional, but it made it seem like we weren’t interested in talking to them or just wanted to get away as fast as possible. My student explained to me the correct way to say goodbye. I should say goodbye, start to walk away, turn around again, give another farewell, perhaps walk backwards for a bit while chatting, walk away again, etc. until the distance made it uncomfortable to continue talking. After that, I tried to say goodbye to my students “properly,” though I have to say it isn’t the most comfortable or time effective strategy.

In the end, neither of us will permanently adjust our behavior to fit the other’s standards for good manners, but talking about our notions of rude and polite behavior brought to light some small but interesting cultural differences.

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Interacting with Nature

This weekend, I went to Zhangjiajie with several other foreign teachers. Though the hikes were beautiful and the views were stunning, what interested me most were the differences between how people interact with “nature” in Zhangjiajie and in our own national parks.

When I think about why people visit national parks in the US, some of the first reasons that come to mind are enjoying the scenery, escaping the bustle of daily life, getting away from crowds, and reconnecting with nature. While there is certainly some amazing natural scenery to enjoy in Zhangjiajie, the other motivations seem to be forgotten entirely here. Walking along the paved paths of Zhangjiajie is worse than trying to push your way to the front of the line for Space Mountain at Disneyland. There were people everywhere. Crowds. Huge crowds. After we made it to the top of the mountain on our first day and were waiting to pass the natural stone bridge, we could hardly move forward or backward because of the sheer number of people crushed together along the paths. It was like bumper to bumper traffic – something I expect on the freeways of Los Angeles but not on the narrow trails of a national park. Like I said, there were incredible views to enjoy from the top of the mountain, but I could enjoy them only after setting aside my expectations of doing so in any manner of peace and solitude.

I was also intrigued by the apparent chokehold of commercialism on Zhangjiajie. When I think about the desire to get away from society as a reason for visiting a natural park, I include in that the desire to escape – if only briefly – from our commercial and material preoccupations. In Zhangjiajie, however, business is alive and well. At every vista, photographers charge visitors to capture their memories on film. Stalls upon stalls of vendors hawk nearly identical souvenirs. And just when you think you’ve climbed high enough to get away from it all, another restaurant appears around the corner, bustling with families who enjoy a nice, sit-down meal before finishing their trek to the top. And that restaurant just might be McDonald’s.

At the time, these differences didn’t bother me as much as they intrigued me. I was able to set aside my expectations for a national park at home and just appreciate the experience here. Still, I would never hope for these qualities in any hiking destination, and I know they would grow to irritate me over time. Seeing how differently visitors interact with nature in Zhangjiajie makes me appreciate my own attitudes and the attitudes of those around me when it comes to enjoying nature.

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the students

I had a lot of opportunities to daydream the week after returning from China. Solo hiking up, down and around Adirondack peaks (to self: “hey remember that time I taught the word ‘peaks’ to Cherry, Wensa, and Athena when Kelly’s dad was driving [stickshift, like I think most cars there] to Liye even though our homestay was in Baojing, because we were going to ba mian shan, 8 side mountain, and through the windshield we could see its 8 distinct craggy peaks [is anything else craggy besides peaks?], one of which we drove to the summit of and ate a roasted lamb and…”) couldn’t be lonely, because memories of students and the things I did with them rush to fill any empty mental void, or interrupt other thoughts (like this sentence). I think of that time when hiking club climbed those super-narrow uber-worn steps up a mountain to a Buddhist temple from which we could see most of Jishou, and during the hike Sea and Sunshine would point to different plants and explain how they were used in “ancient Chinese medicine” but we joked about how they could be making up everything and pointing at poisonous weeds, for all I knew. But on the hike they also shared pieces of their real selves with me, like being an adopted girl child to a family with two sons (an incredible rarity in China, where sons are seen as more valuable than daughters), and what they imagine their future family to be like (they’re willing to raise my children so I come visit), and I confessed my strictly grandmotherly aspirations to raising kids, despite which they treated me  like a toddler, reaching out protectively to hold my elbow if I showed the slightest unsteadiness. (I could recall more details of that day, but these run-on sentences and parentheses cop-outs are so unbecoming of an English teacher that I think I’ll just stop and attempt to reflect meaningfully.)

I never knew until seeing the view from the temple that the Dong River switchbacked through Jishou. I’d noticed that in our corner of the city, where on one side of the bridge is the nice baozi lady and on the other side of the bridge is the better baozi, the river went west to east, and assumed that was the case everywhere. I knew the geography of this one corner well, from the Playground (actually a track field) to Hong Kong Street (which has the “Jishou pizza” shop), but as we could see from the temple, the city sprawled around about five wide bends of the river, flowing east, west, north, northeast, northwest and almost anything in between. There was more to explore than I knew I would never get a chance to. It’s this feeling, an unsatisfied emotional hunger, that squeezed out so many of my tears the day we left Jishou. I hugged students goodbye who I’d only really connected with that week (with Lucy the day just before as we ambled around a bookstore, with girl-Chris that morning walking back from Jiahui lunch) knowing how hard it would be to get to know them more from the other side of the world. But I’ll Wechat Chris and ask if she’s finished Pride and Prejudice, the book she stayed up reading until 5 am that day, and find out why Lucy was dressed so elegantly in the picture she sent, and show them photos from my hikes, and tell them how I was thinking of them when I needed to smile “qiieeee zii!!!” [“eggplant!”] for the camera.

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How is your relationship with your father?

Here’s another retrospective blog post, taken from a journal entry I wrote on 8/13:


Last week on Monday, we did a speed-friending activity with our class for the first time. (We called it “speed-friending” instead of “speed-dating” in order to not freak out our students.) DLG and I took turns presenting fun, slightly personal questions to our class, inspired by the New York Times Modern Love article “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This”:

  • How is your relationship with your father?
  • If you could wake up one morning with one new quality or skill, what would it be?
  • If you lived to be 90 years old, would you rather have the body of a 30-year-old or the mind of one?
  • And more…

With 5 minutes to discuss each question with a new partner, the students got down to business. They learned about each other’s dreams and fears, triumphs and failures, hopes and regrets. Many of our students even took notes on their classmates’ answers. It was definitely one of the few times I had ever seen my students this engaged with their classmates.

I am still trying to figure out the culture of social interactions in China, as exercises like this speed-friending one make me realize that Chinese people aren’t always the curt, impersonal people I interact with at restaurants and stores. Despite the lack of “excuse me’s” and smiles from service workers, I am sure they all have their own stories to tell, just as how my students crave to tell their stories.

For example, as our SOS gang went out for a late night smoothie run at our beloved corner bubble tea shop one evening, I managed to strike up conversation with the middle-aged storekeeper. Initially hearing her count the number of drinks of our order in Cantonese, I exclaimed in Mandarin, “Wow, you know Cantonese?”, then asked her about her hometown (it’s in Guangxi province, west of Guangdong and south of Hunan) and why she came to Hunan (for work opportunities). In return, she asked me about how I was liking China (“I love it! The people here are so interesting and polite.”). If only I had went out my way to ask the countless of other service workers I encountered about their lives, I would have a much more complete understanding of the locals I interacted with this summer.

As for my students, one-on-one interaction in as public of a venue as a school is rare for students in China. Their classes during the school year all are lecture-style, and with eight classes each day, my students say that more often than not, their classmates are either texting, doodling, or napping during class. It’s a bit unfortunate that their usual lectures are so disengaging, and it is no wonder that speed-friending, along with our HONY-esque partner interviews a week prior produced some of the highest student engagement in my class this summer. I do hope these activities gave my students interesting ways about to engage and interact with their classmates, friends, and any new people they meet in the future.

– Jen

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PIJ Coming to a Close

It’s been a while since I wrote my last blog post, so I am going to write a series of posts that capture my thoughts from over the past few weeks. I took some notes in the meantime, so I will include the date of which set of notes was written.


The rice paddies, mountains, and homes outside my window rush by in the blink of an eye. “Don’t run away!” I tell myself. Alas, I am on a high-speed train going back to Shanghai two days earlier than the rest of the group to assist DLG with his passport, per my leader duties.

The images that rush by, I want them to slow down for my own sake. I am rushing by millions of people, millions of lives, millions of stories in just a 7-hour span from Huaihua to Shanghai.

This summer has finished too soon, and I feel sadness that just as things got started, it’s time for the 外教 (wai jiao, foreign teachers) to leave. 5 1/2 weeks was too short. Perhaps the amount that happened in those weeks have made more of a difference in our students’ lives than their English classes during the school year make. Perhaps the friendships we made with our students are previous — not in the sense that we can be there for each other forever, but in the sense that our friendships have changed each other’s lives forever.

Here, I enclose the speech I gave at the PIJ 2015 Closing Ceremony, as it sums up my thoughts simply and accurately:

Good morning! Today marks the last day of PIJ 2015.

Before we came to Jishou, we were strangers, living our own lives in two different countries on opposite sides of the world. This summer, we met face-to-face for the first time at Jishou Normal College.

Every day, the foreign teachers and students discussed articles, new vocabulary and grammar, and American culture. Outside of the classroom, we learned from each other at meals, clubs, English Corner, Chinese Corner, and weekend trips. Over this summer, we have celebrated Halloween and Prom, competed in PIJ Olympics, hiked in Dehang, and performed in the Talent Show together.

Students, this summer, you have not only been our students, but you have become our new friends.

As PIJ ends, each and every one of you has gained confidence. You not only improved your spoken English, but also deepened your understanding of American life. In return, each and every one of the foreign teachers has learned so many new things about our students, as well as Jishou and China. We have taken away deep impressions of this incredible place. We will remember Jishou forever. With this new knowledge, we are now more complete human beings. We will go out into our lives, armed with knowledge, to bring our two worlds even closer together.

Wherever you go in the future, you will always be a teacher to others. Maybe you will teach English, maybe you will teach a different subject, or maybe you will pursue a different career. Regardless of what you do, remember how your foreign teachers have taught you. Remember to remain open and curious. Lastly, remember to let your dreams carry you far.

Students: I hope you continue your journey of learning. I hope you remember one another and tell each other about your studies and adventures. What we can learn does not stop with the end of PIJ. This is just the beginning of our journey. Enjoy every moment.

Thank you.

– Jen

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