End of a chapter

As I write this blog from the Sydney Airport, I think it’s finally time to consider my study abroad experience over. Up until now, it’s been unclear- what determined the end? Was it over when I turned in my final assignment? Or when I said goodbye to the first round of GSA’ers who headed to the airport? Or when I checked out of my room at PKU? Now that I’ve finished my coursework, said all of my goodbyes, and have landed in a different continent, it’s definitely done. I have completed my semester abroad.


Coming into the trip, I was nervous. I didn’t know anyone. I’d never taken a class in global health and had only one public policy class under my belt, while I knew that my many of peers were majors in these fields. I’d never been away from the States for more than 10 weeks. And to top it all off, I was going to India and China, two of the fastest developing and most populated countries in the world.

The trip that I spent months anticipating is now over. And it was so much better than I could have ever expected. But, I still don’t know how to articulate what I saw and felt over the last four months. The summer before my sophomore year, I went a ten-day canoeing trip in the Boundary Waters with three other campers and our counselor, Lauren. During our last day, Lauren prepared us. She said that once we got back to camp, everyone would ask us how it went. They’d ask for our favorite moment and favorite meal. They’d ask us what the hardest part was, the funniest thing that happened. How were we going to respond? With adventures like this, people want a recap. And they’ll expect an answer. How will you encapsulate your experience in just a few sentences?

I had a really hard time explaining my ten-day canoeing trip, and I fear I’ll have the same time with my latest adventure. I took classes on public policy and global health in India and China. I stayed with two host families in Udaipur; one lived in the town and another lived in a rural village about half an hour away. I stayed in a dorm at the Peking University Health Science Center. And I got to know some of the most incredible people in the world. That’s a brief summary, but doesn’t do the experience justice. When I think back on the last four months, it’s all in little snapshots:

  • Walking through the security checkpoint in Minneapolis
  • Watching the bus window shatter on our first day in Delhi
  • Meeting my host dad and host brother for the first time
  • Eating lunch in the school courtyard in Udaipur
  • Watching “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” with Deepti, Ajay and Golu
  • Walking through Sangat with Meenal and Mohini
  • Riding rickshaws with friends after school
  • Making chapatti with my village host family
  • Shopping in Old City
  • High-fiving Ajay through the window of the train as it pulled away from Udaipur
  • Riding an elephant at the Amber Fort
  • Seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time
  • Reuniting with my mom in Beijing
  • Eating eggplant at Ralph’s
  • Getting lost on the subway
  • Visiting the rural maternal health center in Chan Ling
  • Hiking to hilltop temple in Yunnan
  • Racing on the Great Wall
  • Eating fried worms at the farewell dinner
  • Singing karaoke
  • Breaking Swetha’s bed when 15 of us decided to try to pose for a picture on it
  • Staying up all night before goodbyes
  • Leaving my room
  • Riding through Beijing for the last time

Those memories are how I’ll remember this trip.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been in countdown mode. Every aspect of my life became part of it: days, meals, classes, loads of laundry, showers, pages of my final project…all until I was done. The countdown was certainly a product of anticipation for the next chapter of my adventure: seeing Collin in Australia, but it was also a product of fear: leaving the people I’d grown to love on my trip. I had been so nervous to begin the trip with a group of Duke strangers. And by the end, I didn’t know what life would be like without them.

ImageThis trip has been a huge challenge, but it’s one that I’m so happy I took on. I didn’t have any groundbreaking revelations about India and China. I don’t know what’s going to happen to them in the future. And if anything, I’m more perplexed than when I started the trip. The cultures, histories and current situations in both countries are incredibly complex, and I feel like the more I study them, the harder it is to really know anything for certain. I learned was about what life is like on the ground. I learned about the problems normal people face and what, if anything, is being done to fix them. More than anything, though, the trip taught me about myself. I learned how much I love travel and Bowdoin and writing and rowing and home. Spending time away from things I was so used to at home showed me how much I missed them. And I was exposed to new people and things that I love now too.

This major chapter in my life is over. And I now need to figure out how to explain it. But so much of it will carry on with me. Those parts are not over; they’ll be a part of me forever.

When I arrived at the Sydney airport, I realized that I still had 73 kuai in my wallet from Beijing. I went to the money exchange desk and the woman handed me $6.50 AUD. “That’s six dollars and fifty cents,” she said as she counted it and handed it to me. She smiled, “That’ll get you a coffee.”Image If the blue, cloud-filled sky outside wasn’t a reminder enough, this interaction sure did the trick; I’m far from Beijing. Back at PKU, 73 kuai would have gotten me through a week and a half of lunches or given me close to 35 rides on the subway. But that part of my trip is over, and I’m three hours away from the moment I’ve thought about for the past four months. It’s been an incredible experience and one that I will certainly hold on to for the rest of my life.

Zaijian, China. G’day, Australia.


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