Thoughts from Kat.
Home is something I’ve always carried with me, like a turtle and its shell. Wherever I travel, I generally feel at ease, my shell shielding me from feelings of alienation and difference. Despite never visiting China or even the eastern hemisphere, I approached this trip with discreet hubris. I felt so comfortable within myself that I thought I could solve problems by retreating from them. Regardless of conflicts surrounding me or involving those I cared about, I assumed I could weather any challenge.
The chaotic transport from the airport did not intimidate me nor did the obvious language barrier; my cocoon kept me safe and only curious, not afraid. My feelings shifted, however, when I arrived at Dandelion Middle School. Students and teachers bustled about, tracing an intricate set of intersecting orbits. The school, the teachers, and the students maintained a bubble of their own, but unlike mine, that shielded me from the outside world, their community shifted to include new members and adapt to unexpected events. I instinctively withdrew further into myself; I wondered how I could ever carry my shell in such a permeable, fluid space.
Members of the school community held multiple identities––student, teacher, friend––and easily slipped from one role to another when the situation called for it. I’m not sure if I make sense, but I tend to remain in one role. I stay the same and trust in my ability to remain above problems to prevent embroiling myself in conflict. However, the residents of Dandelion allowed themselves to shift in inconspicuous ways; they both helped and learned from each other.
The students and teachers welcomed us and quickly facilitated our assimilation into the Dandelion community. As we walked to our room, students would greet us with, “Lao shi hao,” or “Hello Teacher,” despite our recent arrival. Regardless of our foreign mannerisms and attitudes, they viewed our presence as an opportunity for mutual growth. I remember in middle school that I rarely recognized the arrival of older students; I prized the emotional and physical barriers that kept me independent of others. However, my insistence on separation denied me fluidity and adaptability. The kids here understand change and embrace newness. Like all children, their world is immediately limited to what they can see and touch, but their ability to accept changes in their environment facilitates their exploration of worlds beyond their school, their families, and their cultures.
My students are undoubtedly curious. Despite my nonexistent Chinese, they continue to communicate with me via facial expressions, gestures, or simply pulling me along with them. I approached the language barrier between my kids and I initially as a surmountable obstacle, but I quickly realized that my tongue lacked the finesse to even mimic the four tones. I despaired and sat quietly by my kids at meals, praying to some unknown deity for sudden linguistic omniscience. My kids weren’t as interested in religious figures and instead tested the boundaries of communication. They wanted to include me, a new element, within their world and were determined to find space for my shell within their larger bubble. Change should not incite fear nor should novelty intimidate curiosity; both are only elements pulling and pushing our world into motion.
I think that here, in this fluid state, I have finally found others to bob alongside. Though we may not always immediately travel together, I believe I have found companions with whom I may venture farther than before, into an unknown future, now made warmer by my kids’ companionship.