Bitter – Sweet
The Journey East kid’s last day with the New Star kids was an almost indescribable experience. We’d only spent a few days with these kids and for some of us, I think it felt like we had known these students for years. By the time this day started I could probably say that I knew more about my host sister Celina (11 yrs. Old) than I currently know about anyone I came on this journey with. There we all were, sitting on the bus on our way to spend our last day together at LongDe Miao Village. The New Star students, wearing their bright yellow matching sweatshirts, curious eyes, and wide smiles. The Journey East kids (for the most part) wearing tired eyes yet understanding faces. It was obvious that the fact today was the JE group and New Star kid’s last day together was on everyone’s mind, but no one wanted to talk about it.
Celina and I sat by each other listening to her music, playing games, and losing ourselves in the laughter and quirkiness of one another. We both knew that the other one felt sad because our time together was so short and despite trying to hide it through a kind smile or funny face, it was obvious in just a moment of eye contact. It was an amazing day full of learning and bonding moments for everyone, but that little feeling of emptiness in everyone’s gut was so hard to ignore. We were in such an amazing place full of tradition, beautiful land, beautiful people and years of hard work. The day was just so full of contradicting emotions.
After a traditional Miao performance, monger harassing, and a village lunch, the New Star students and JE students exchanged gifts and goodbyes. It was an absolutely beautiful and heartwarming experience. I was trying not to look across the room at Celina because I knew that if I did, I would cry. One by one the New Star students shared a hug, gift, and some kind words with the student that their family hosted and one by one each person experienced something new and rare.
When Celina came up to me it was clear that she didn’t know what to say or how to say what she wanted. She started to cry and I hugged her. I started to cry and immediately felt an extreme feeling of loss. I didn’t want to say goodbye to her and she didn’t want to say goodbye to me. The night before, we were in the car and Celina said my name to get my attention. I looked to the left and saw she had written something in the fog on the window. She wrote “I no play a Chong Qing with you” and drew a sad face next to it. I was confused at first, but my heart sank to the bottom of my stomach like a rock when I realized what she meant. She said she liked playing with me very much and “thought we played together well”. She knew she couldn’t come to Chongqing with us and play with me and I couldn’t stay in Kaili to play with her. I felt like crying, but knew I had to keep smiling for her. If I cried, she would probably cry and I didn’t want to see her cry. These people didn’t represent just a place to sleep at night or something to do to pass the time. These host families represented opportunity. An opportunity to learn more about the world and yourself, an opportunity to see the world through new eyes, an opportunity to grow, and most importantly, an opportunity to create a one of a kind bond that could only be created once. Celina wasn’t just a host sister to me. I became a part of her family and she didn’t just become a friend, she became a little sister to me. I cared about her like a sister and felt like I had to protect her. When we walked on the street, I stayed close and kept an eye on her. When we crossed the street, I held her hand. When we played, I kept her laughing. When she looked sad, I made her smile. When we sat on the bus, I talked to her and we learned about each other. These goodbyes at Miao Village meant so much more than just a simple ‘nice to meet you’ or ‘thanks for letting me stay at your house’. These goodbyes weren’t only showing everyone that we connected with these people, but they were making our bonds with them stronger and making it even harder to say goodbye.
When Sam Harrison’s host brother Dance gave him his gift and said goodbye, he didn’t just share something beautiful with Sam. He shared something beautiful with everyone in the room. He made a speech and at the end he said “we aren’t crying because we are sad, we are crying because something beautiful has happened”. It was clear that the relationship we had with these other students not only caused us to learn and grow, but it caused them to learn and grow as well. It’s so amazing how Dance’s speech was in English and that it was poetic at the same time. It just goes to show that these students want to learn our language and understand it at the same time.
Later, we all sat down to work on embroidering small designs onto cloth. A lot of embroidery seen on clothes, bags, and other items used and being sold in the small village is done by hand. I think they wanted us to try this activity so that maybe we could understand how much work and effort goes into the beautiful work we could see all around us. I looked around and everyone had a sort of sad look on their face and seemed quiet. It seemed difficult for everyone to try and focus on something other than the moving experience that had just happened. When we were done Celina handed me her little white piece of square cloth and told me to keep it. It said “I love you” in bright orange letters and below it was a bright red colored heart. It’s a moment I’ll never forget and a gift I’ll always treasure.
Before leaving the village we all had some free time to admire the land/buildings and buy some gifts in the center of the village. The women who danced in the traditional performance at the beginning of our visit also carried around big baskets full of jewelry, bags, embroidered bookmarks and other small items to sell. If you look at one thing someone’s selling, at least three other women will come up to you holding the same thing in your face and competing with the others to sell it to you. You never want to pay the price they ask for and if you don’t get the price at least cut in half then you’re probably paying more than everyone else is for the same item. It can be overwhelming and a little agitating at times, but it’s important to remember that this is how they make their living and it’s what they know how to do. The beautiful land and design of the village is almost more overwhelming to take in than the vendors. It’s crazy how in a short bus ride the people of Kaili can leave one world and enter a completely different one. They can go from looking at tall buildings and listening to the loud city noises to admiring the structure of the villages and breathtaking views. Visiting these places in Kaili gave me a new appreciation for Vermont. I don’t think that the people in Kaili realize how lucky they are to live in and around such beautiful places. Just like a lot of people in Vermont don’t realize how lucky we are to live there and take it for granted. A lot of people (including myself at times) complain about how Vermont is boring and say they can’t wait to move away and blah blah blah, but they don’t realize how many opportunities and resources we have that not everyone has. Simple things like a peaceful hike, skiing or snowboarding, being able to jump in the river and cool off on a hot summer day, fishing, and even something as simple as having your own front yard are taken for granted because most Vermonters have never not had these things. It’s crazy how it’s taken me being on the other side of the world to appreciate my own home. Better late than never I guess. 🙂
That night, my host family and I continued to learn about each other and enjoy the last bit of time we had left together. My host mom wrote me a letter while I sat on the couch with my host sister looking at some of their photo albums. Celina fell asleep and I was about to when I looked up and realized my host mom was crying. She looked at me and asked me if I believed in fate. She said she thought it was fate that brought me to their family. I then realized that I had gained more than a sister, I had gained a family. A home away from home. It was so amazing. She told me that she thought my mom was a good mom and that she raised me well and she wanted to know what my mom taught me because she wanted Celina to grow up like me. It’s crazy because I wouldn’t have even been sitting there in that situation and having a beautiful conversation with this woman without the help from my mom, but this woman didn’t realize that she had been a mother to me while I was away from my home and taught me things about myself that I would’ve never discovered without her help. I know that if my mom could meet her, she would thank her for taking care of me when she couldn’t be there to.
We wiped away our tears, laughed, hugged, went to bed, and that was the end of another amazing day on this Journey.
The language barrier was never broken because in my mind, it didn’t exist. I didn’t let the fact that we spoke a different language or lived a different day to day life create a wall that could stop me from getting to know these people or connect with them. If I went into this experience without willing to step out of my comfort zone and embrace their culture, I would have never been able to build such a beautiful bond with these people and felt at home. It may have been difficult or taken longer than usual to have a conversation or learn about each other, but it only made bonding more worth it and taught me to be more patient. They weren’t mad at me because I knew very little of their language so why would I be upset if they didn’t understand something I said when they were speaking to me in my language. We come to their homes and they speak to us in English and try their best to make us feel at home and comfortable. Its crazy how giving and kind these families and people are. I feel bad for anyone who may have let our differences in culture or a little awkwardness effect what they gained from these homestays and the time we had with the students from New Star. I will never forget a moment of this incredible Journey. Every day is a new adventure and full of new opportunities. They say that home is where the heart is and Kaili will always have a piece of my heart. <3