Into the Map

It’s been a long time since I last stared at this familiar, blank screen, but I’ve never felt more compelled to finish this story that I started 8 months ago.

Now, I could list pathetic reasons as to why I’ve waited this long to finish my narrative, all of which would probably revolve around the idea that it was an ‘artistic choice’ to wait 6 months after returning home, but I’m not going to do that, because it’s blatantly false. I think it’s important to mention that I had every intention of completing my travel logs soon after the program ended, but “life got in the way” as some would say (I will return to this point in a few paragraphs).

However, I can explain why I did not post again before I left Xi’an. A few of you know this, but Yuan Yuan left for her hometown a few days before my scheduled departure…

(cue flashback…)

I was sitting in class, working on my final project on Chinese education vs. American education, when my phone vibrated violently as a message lit up the black screen. A message from Yuan Yuan. I slammed my textbook shut and lurched for the device, eager to see what she had planned for the afternoon. A walk around town? A new noodle shop tasting? A meeting with another monk obsessed with America’s pop hits from 2003? My fingers raced across the keyboard unlock the phone, and I pulled up her paragraph of Chinese characters. Here’s what she said, phrase for phrase (the English equivalent, anyway)…

Beloved angel child, how are you today? Happy? I hope you enjoyed your summer here. I’m so happy that we became best friends, and even loving sisters. I loved having you here with me. We’ve had a great time, but time always moves too fast. You’re about to leave Xi’an to return home, and I hate that you must leave. Say hello to your family for me, and bring them all back to Xi’an so that we can have more fun together. I’m already impatiently awaiting your return here. Unfortunately, because of some family business, I must leave for my hometown today, and I might not be back to send you off. But, we’re just saying “see you later” right? Stay safe. Yuan Yuan. 

Yeah. I had a hard time speaking the rest of the day, and all I wanted to do was pack up my things and teleport home. I don’t remember feeling homesick during the program except for in this moment. I wanted everything to stop, wanted the world to quit throwing hurdles at me, and wanted to curl around myself and just sleep the days away until I opened my eyes to find that I was back in my soft bed in the US. Plus, I had stomach issues from hot pot for the rest of the week, along with nose bleeds from an EVEN WORSE heat wave, and migraines. On top of that, my suitcase broke the night before we had to leave for the airport, and I just completely broke down. .. overall, great last few days :/

 

Saying goodbye was the hardest part of my trip. I went to D.C. and NYC this week and met up with 4 of my friends from the NSLI-Y program. It’s strange how little time we’ve spent together, yet I trust them completely, and feel as if we’ve known each other for a lifetime. I never would have thought that Xi’an would become my home away from home (and China is very far away from MA), but it really did. I miss it every single day.

My family believes that Yuan Yuan left so that she could escape a painful goodbye.

I often look back on the night before she left. Of course, I didn’t know that it would be our last night together, but that night was really special to me. During our walks, we normally joke around with each other, listen to the sound of our footsteps, and occasionally burst into spontaneous laughter (we’ll also laugh if I trip or if we see an older woman dancing wildly to Chinese hip-hop music (both of which happened quite frequently)). But that night was different: we were silent. I remember glancing over at her, and realizing that both of us had tears glistening in our eyes. She looped her arm around mine and pulled me close by her side.

“I don’t think I can say goodbye,” she said. I just shook my head, unable to speak. Neither of us pointed out that we had been walking in circles for the last hour; neither of us wanted to go home just yet.

“Then we won’t say goodbye,” I declared after a long moment. “It’s just a… ‘see you later’. We’ll see each other soon.”

She smiled sadly and glanced in my direction. “See you later,” she confirmed quietly.

Once we were home, we huddled next to each other as she read me some Chinese poetry. She taught me a few characters and explained the origins of a few proverbs. Then we said goodnight.

(Skip ahead…)

I remember when we were all settled into our seats on the plane ride from Xi’an to Beijing, and how I glanced out the little window as we taxied down the runway. There were two workers standing beside the plane who were smiling and laughing and just being happy. Honestly, this unnerved me a bit because I was definitely not happy to be leaving. Suddenly, they both turned to look at my side of the plane, lifted their hands, and started waving with silly smiles smacked across their faces. And despite my body aching from the emotional stress of saying goodbye to the beautiful land that welcomed me with open arms, I lifted my weak hand to wave goodbye in response, and didn’t stop waving until long after the clouds enveloped us and the city disappeared beneath the wings of the plane.

 

About three days and four flights later, I plopped my suitcase onto my bed (which was much softer than I ever remembered) and spun around to stare at the world map hanging on my wall. I had gaped at that map before I left. Every night since I opened my acceptance letter, I had stared at the map and at the overwhelming ocean and land masses that stretched between the US and China… How the heck did I end up here? On my way to China? I had asked myself.

Every now and then, I stand in front of my map to plant my index finger right over Boston and then carefully twist my hand to walk my fingers across the Atlantic Ocean, over Barcelona, past Rome, through Uzbekistan, below Tashkent, and then skate my fingers across China’s plateaus and foothills to land in Xi’an, where a big red marker is plastered onto my map.

See? I tell myself, it’s not that far. 

 

I guess the point I’m dancing around is that travelling is not just getting from point A to point B. My map now has 7 red markers stuck on countries around the world where I’ve visited. And it seems that the more I place, the more my map becomes 3 dimensional. I no longer look at my map and see dividing lines; I see a blend of people. I can see the young cow herders from Costa Rica that were distracted by the leaf-cutter ants that marched across the dirt road I was trying to cross, or the Parisian women that peeked over their sunglasses to glare at me from a cafe patio with one hand draped over their knee and the other hand loosely gripping a cigarette, or my brother when he played duck-duck-goose with a group of Tanzanian children with joy lighting up their eyes, or the carefree Ayi that gently swayed to the plucking of a Chinese Pipa in a Xi’an park. I can see my friends, my family, strangers, animals, city streets, country roads, and even myself — the ultimate fourth-wall break — right on my wall.

It’s the oddest feeling, but I never feel alone in my room, because I have the whole world hanging on my wall. On the fourth wall, you might say.

 

A lot of my friends and family ask me if I still talk to Yuan Yuan. The answer is YES! We send pictures to one another, share some stories, check in when we hear something on the news (or when I get an air quality alert for Xi’an), but a few days ago she told me something that made my heart sing…

You remember my one-year-old sister right? She could barely make out a syllable or two when I lived with her. Well, she’s nearly 2 now, and just started to say a few words and phrases here and there. Yuan Yuan said she showed her my picture a little while ago and asked her daughter “who is this?”

My little sister responded with “that’s Ana! That’s my older sister!” (in Chinese, of course).

Yuan Yuan said her family was completely shocked and overwhelmed with joy. Not only did she recognize me and remember my name, but she also spoke in complete sentences. She’s the cutest little girl I’ve ever seen, and I’ve never felt more honored than when she called me her older sister.

 

Now, I’m going to answer some quick questions that people normally ask me since I’ve returned. Speed round GO!

How was the food?

FREAKING FANTASTIC!

Are you vegan now?

Yup! I think eating cow stomach surpassed my lifetime-animal-consumption quota…

Did you eat anything you absolutely hated the taste of?

I ate a VERY BAD cookie while I was there… Still makes me shiver just thinking about it…

Are you going to go back?

Heck yes.

How’d you do on the OPI?

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the program, or if I failed to mention it in a previous blog post, once you return home from your time abroad you must complete an Oral Proficiency Interview over the phone with a native speaker using only the target language you studied. Your conversation is recorded and then judged by a State Department panel. It’s an accurate representation of your skills because there’s no way to prepare for the conversation or for the role-play activities you’re asked to complete.

I went from Novice-low (the lowest level and starting point for all members of the beginner program) to Intermediate-Mid. I went up 4 State Department language proficiency levels in 6 weeks. The goal of the program was to reach Novice-high (2 levels up), which everyone in my group did! 😀

Are you continuing to study the language? 

Yes! I am continuing to study Mandarin and loving every second of it, especially thanks to my beyond fantastic tutor, 高老师. I’m writing and reading more characters now, which is proving to be quite challenging, but extremely fun, and very efficient actually. I use some Chinese characters as short cuts whenever I copy down powerpoint slides or complete classwork (my friends are quite irritated by this though when they need to borrow my notes…)

What do you miss most?

Being there. Plain and simple. I miss walking around the city. Didn’t matter if I was walking to school alone or sitting in line for some noodles or sprinting with Yuan Yuan towards a crowded bus. I just miss being there.

Were you ever scared?

I was followed home once, but I managed the situation and I was fine. Other than that, nope. I think I was running off adrenaline for most of the trip, considering I wasn’t really jet lagged when we first arrived there.

Did you bring back anything cool?

Um, besides invaluable knowledge and a newfound understanding of the world and its inhabitants, the coolest souvenirs I brought home were ones with meaning. My bracelet, for instance. Not the coolest thing at face value, but it makes me smile every time I glance down at it on my wrist. Plus, I have a super cool tea-pet of the Buddha, which turns colors under hot water 😀

Did you do anything to keep yourself calm when you were nervous or homesick?

Well, I didn’t get very nervous/homesick while I was there, but if I ever felt uneasy, I would look up at the moon or the sun. They’re always constants in your life. It was something to hang on to; I knew my family would be looking up at the same sky. It would remind me that I can spend all the time I wanted to sulking in my room when I get home, and that I needed to make the most out of my time on the other side of the world.

It’s funny actually, that in China, it calmed me to think of the bigger picture. To think of my summer there as a starting point for independence, or the blooming of my personality, or the rocket fuel necessary to launch my future career. But, once returning home, I had so little inspiration to do my everyday tasks. For instance, completing 37 math problems for homework was incredibly difficult to get through during my first few weeks of school, because all I wanted to do was run around town to absorb the culture or volunteer my time helping others or just do something more interesting and impactful. School is important, but it feels awfully restricting when you have bigger plans in mind.

 

This quickly became a very long post, yet I feel like I’ve barely touched upon the points I wanted to make. But I remember when my brother returned from a few weeks in Africa my dad said to him “we want to know everything, but the most meaningful memories will pop into your head when you least expect them as you go about your life. Hang on to those.”

I’ll end with a bang…

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A picture is worth a thousand words right?

I found a gold mine of pictures from our RD that I didn’t know were taken during the trip, and as I was looking through them today, I realized that I’ve never looked happier or more at ease than I do in those photographs.

Hope you’re all well, and I’ll write again soon.

Thank you for keeping me company on my journey. And who knows, maybe I’ll be posting more this summer……… (hint hint wink wink) 🙂

安娜. 安琪. Ana.

3 thoughts on “Into the Map

  1. Hey Ana, my name is Myles from Ohio and I’m going to Xi’an this summer with NSLI-Y and I just wanted to say how amazing your blog was, I literally sat up until like 3 in the morning reading all of your posts just trying to get an understanding of your experience and I can honestly say I got way more than I expected ! I’ve read a lot of blogs and tons of videos of the China summer trips and I don’t know what it is about your posts but There’s just something about them that really made me think a lot about this trip I’m taking in 3 weeks now haha. It was beyond amazing hearing your experiences and how you overcame your obstacles and the bonds you have created. It was like a spiritual awakening or something 😃 I loved every post! I hope you get to go back to Xi’an soon and see Yuan Yuan and the rest of your family. I can’t wait to go myself. I’m hoping and praying that I learn a lot and retain it and just in general create a lot of amazing memories. Thank you for sharing your story/ adventure! It was amazing :))

    Like

    1. Hello, Myles! You have no idea how much that warms my heart. I put a lot of work into this blog with the hope that future students would be inspired to travel abroad, and/or be able to prepare for their journey. If you have any questions AT ALL, please email me through the contact section of the blog and I promise I will respond and answer your questions to the best of my ability. I also recommend joining the NSLI-Y program groups on Facebook, If you have one. Best of luck on your travels! Hope to hear from you soon! 🙂 -Ana

      Like

      1. Of course! Thank you ! 🙂 I’m currently practicing now Haha and I’m already in the Facebook chats and everything 😅 And thank you again!

        Like

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