Dear Door – I remember so well the way your handle pressed in my palm, the precise weight against my arm, the exactly pitched creak of your melodious hinges. In my mind you open to a world of sights and smells; the familiar flowers, stone floor cold on my feet, memories of times when you were the gateway to a sanctuary, the warm embrace of safety.
Dear Bed – You are so much more comfy than I ever appreciated. How could a simple mattress, so much more than 2 inches of padding on a wooden panel, bring so much joy? How I long to sink into your welcoming folds and lie there till all exhaustion has fled from my body and mind. I would jump on you… or just fall asleep. Bed, I miss you most.
Dear Shower – Sorry to say it, but I’ve actually replaced you. Yeah, I mean hot water can be nice, maybe calming, maybe relaxing, but I honestly enjoy cold water in a bucke. I’ll pour it over my head in one slow gasp of refreshing, and feel cleaner than I ever did with your electric spigot. Although… I never was this hot and sweaty at home.
Dear Phone – Okay. There are times when I wish I could escape to facebook. Music! Music I especially miss. I wish I was able to use GPS, but sometimes in order to see more you must carry less. I’m relieved not to have you. Distraction, I think, would only be degenerative. I don’t want to be stopped from living fully. I don’t want to miss a flash of color or smell of spice. Any moment lost could be a lifelong memory missed.
Dear Car – The freedom you brought. The familiarity of the streets, the joy of the journey from house to home. As much as they try, Becoks will never be as liberating. More fun, maybe. But driving here in Yogya would just be to much. The flocks of motorbikes, the general lack of stop lights or stop signs or really any kind of direction, the men running with food carts, and wait did I mention the millions of motorbikes? I’d probably just start walking.
Dear Kitchen – The taste’s you’ve given me throughout my life are a world away from these chilly – filled, rice mounded bowls of deliciousness. Food styles so different I can’t even compare, though I’m starting to realize that not only is it possible to eat rice three times of day, but it is, in fact, a cultural expectation.
Dear Non-Quick Dry Clothes – I don’t even remember what you feel like. My shoulders and knees are so used to being covered, the idea of wearing shorts is almost scandalous. I have so much respect for the strong women and men who are able to wear jeans, long sleeves, and head scarves in this kind of heat. That’s some kind of devotion.
Dear Mountains – You used to rise above my home like beacons of adventure, calling to be explored. Now my skylines have changed and are filled instead with houses, universities, the buildings and shops and hectic complexes of a busy and wild and full Indonesian city. Grain fields have turned to rice patties. Only the lush green remains the same.
Dear Odi and Zeus, My Beloved Golden Retrievers – You remain the most amazing dogs in my life. I dream about scratching you golden backs and watching you run with the ebullience only a happy dog can fully express.
Dear Family – I carry our memories with me.
Dear Friends – I think of you and smile.
Dear Home -
I have come to believe that you, home, are a deceptive concept. I don’t believe that one house or one place can be the joy of my heart simply because it has the predisposition of being the setting for the majority of my memories. If home was just one thing then, to me, it could never be a house. I think that it must instead be a state of heart. Not a state of mind or state of being, but a way that your heart feels when you are given ease and joy by your surroundings. That moment when the smile comes from the inside, the outer shells collapse and you know, in your heart, that you are home. I have had to say good bye to you Door, Bed, Shower, Phone, Car, Kitchen, Clothes, Mountains, Dogs, Family, Friends – you factors and beings that have been my home. I chose to do this not out of spite but out of an inner compulsion to stretch my boundaries. To expand my mind. To fill my heart with the sights and sounds of the unknown, even if it meant squat toilets and bucket showers and fleets of loud, filthy motorbikes, or a new language and a new diet and a new state of being. I did it because sometimes one home isn’t enough, and when the heart says its time to go exploring, well, who am I to disagree. So, home, I have left you behind. But in many ways, in almost all the ways maybe, I haven’t left home at all.
Hey y’all, ni hao!
Dan here – we made it to China, safe and sound. And we’re friends! If you were worried, we actually all like each other. A lot. As I’m writing, Mady’s sharing her Mahjong talents with the group, Annina’s journaling while taking bites from a massive Chinese pear, and a few of us are down by the playground, hoping to pick up some art tips from a group of local teens. We’ve only been here for two days, but it’s been two days of new friendships, amazing homemade local dishes, and preparing to learn about China – and about each other – over the next three months.
So I’m the team’s first “Yak-er” (we all have jobs, from Most Honorable Chairwomen, a student leader, to “camel,” who is in charge of hydration), and I could share the details of our flight (safe), our drive to the hostel (beautiful), the activities we’re doing (most weird, all fun), but since I don’t have so much time I’d rather do something else. I’d rather share what China is to me, why I’m coming on this trip, and what I hope to leave this trip with. Hopefully, our Yak posts can go beyond just the details, and let you see China through our eyes, through the window of what’s important in each of our hearts.
On the way to the hostel, driving past groves of trees, dusty villages and with the majesty of the Great Wall across the mountains ahead of us, we were told to ask ourselves what China meant to us, what this trip meant to us. And honestly, thinking about it made me a bit anxious – it always does.
See, I grew up in a Chinese immigrant family. My parents moved to the states in their early thirties. And I’ve never truly understood what it means to be Chinese.
When I was younger, my Chinese-ness was something to be ashamed of, to be hidden, as if my personality could somehow erase the color of my skin. The words of the people around me told me that I should be embarrassed for being Chinese, for that difference. When I performed well in school, it was chalked up to my race, and when I didn’t, I was told I wasn’t Chinese enough. In fifth grade, while watching a cartoon documentary of Chinese railroad workers, my classmates only laughed as they watched the Chinese caricatures slaving away, and ridiculed their rice-picking hats and their slanted eyes. They mocked Chinese accents, apparently not aware that my parents and our friends and relatives spoke in those ways. I mean, it’s just so tiring – having to prove that you’re more than their preconceptions, every single time you meet someone. These are pressures, and hurts, that no one should have to deal with.
But still, especially when I was young these experiences had their effect. I refused to participate in Chinese school. I tried to break the stereotypes around me by purposely underachieving in school, trying to fit in. I rejected my heritage, and learned to deal with feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. And the Chinese side of my life often made it no easier. Unable to speak the language, it was so, so hard to build any sort of relationship with my cousins, my grandparents, no matter how hard I tried. Though Americans would often toss me into the vast box labeled “Chinese”, in China, with my clothing and hairstyle and body language, I can stick out almost as much as I do in the US. They call me an ABC – an American Born Chinese – and though my skin may look alike, they don’t think I belong. Even a stranger on the plane told me, with no humor, that I should accept that I’m not “really Chinese.” I’m not sure he knew what words like that mean to me, and so many young people like me – as I searched for a feeling of “home”, of community, he’d me the same casual rejection I’d been trying to escape.
So that’s why I come to China – I’m trying to discover and define something about myself that has eluded me for my entire life. In the past few years, I’ve learned to be proud of my heritage, of my family, of the struggles my ancestors overcame to give me the life I have. I’ve found the value in hearing their stories, and sharing them with others, so that they’re never lost. I’ve fought to bring the pride and strength in self that I found too late to other, younger Asian Americans. But I’m still not even sure what that phrase – Chinese American – even means. How Chinese can I be if strangers here hear my English, learn of my birthplace and reject me? How American can I be when the word itself seems to be defined by whiteness? And, more importantly, how much of either do I want for myself? I don’t know yet, and I may never be sure, but the only way to learn is to dive straight into those fears, those doubts, those questions, and keep on pushing those mental boundaries. And what I learn, I want to bring back home, to the kids who grew up just like I did, with the same doubts and hurts, and help them find a little more about themselves as well.
LAST THING! I want to add a little note from all of our happy campers, to the people they love back home (you).
Mady: Hi mom. Pet the dogs for me!
Jimmy: Hi mom. I’m warm enough.
Sam: Hi mom. I’m not dead. (He skinned his knee though. He’s thinking of amputating.) (Not really.)
Margot: Hi mom. I still haven’t found an ATM here in the country side.
Andrew: Hi mom. I didn’t need to bring two jackets.
Jeremy: Hi mom. I’m alive.
Pete: Hi mom. Is the towel in the tiny little compartment? Also, bored from having nothing to complain about.
Max: Hi Quinn. And mom. The food is awesome.
Elena: Hi mom. I’m not starving.
Annina: Hi mom, I wasn’t sold into slavery in Beijing.
Ethan: (He would have said “Hi Mom”, but felt too uncreative.)
We really miss our moms.
Dads are cool, too.
Well, I hope this post helped you learn a little bit about me, and I’ll try my best to post a better summary of what we’re all doing in the next few days. But you can trust that we’re all having fun, building an amazing family, and learning more every second. Talk to you soon!
Oh, and hi mom.
The second morning of our stay in Shibaoshan, Chaz, Blaine and I decided to hike to the top of the mountain. The air was full of fog which thickened as we got further up until the views off the edge of the mountain were made invisible. We were amazed to find that there was indeed a temple at the very top, and a return later in the day revealed spectacular views of lush Yunnanese landscape. But a remark Chaz made brought our attention to a subtly disquieting element of what we saw:
“Do you think we should come back up with a bag to pick up all this trash?”
It struck me as a great idea. In the midst of so much natural beauty and spiritual serenity, one could not walk more than a few paces on the hiking trails without encountering a cacophony of candy wrappers, soda bottles, and other miscellaneous trash. When we broached the idea of picking it up to Jesse in the morning meeting, he said little until asking later on if the group approved and, upon hearing an affirmative answer, asking, simply,
The question was troubling. Our motivations seemed clear: to clean up a place of great beauty and religious significance (especially to China’s Bai minority), to give back to a place that was giving us so much, to remove what seemed to us completely out-of-place. A major component of our trip is service, but we had not yet engaged in it. Yet discussion revealed the problem with our reasoning: the “seemed to us.” For that judgment was dependent on a set of cultural values and assumptions which, we had to acknowledge, local people might not necessarily share. This was made particularly apparent by heaps of trash and piles of bottles to be reused or sold we observed on the temple caretaker’s compound on top of the mountain. Perhaps the reason refuse was left on the hiking paths was that there was no readily available way to dispose of it.
Nevertheless, we decided to go through with Chaz’s idea, hoping to dispose of the trash we collected in small bins we had seen at the base of the mountain. Trying to pick up all the trash within sight of the path on our way down, however, felt at times a bit useless. In some areas the trash was so widespread or difficult to access that we just had to settle for the most conspicuous items on the path and move on. About halfway down the path my group was working on, our bag reached its maximum capacity and we had to stop. Before that, though, we walked past a group of local 20-somethings lounging on the path. Our group happened to be composed of people who were all clearly foreigners, and as we passed the locals and our eyes met their slightly confused stares it was hard not to feel a tinge of awkwardness, and perhaps even guilt. Who were we to think it was our responsibility to clean up the trash in somebody else’s country? Did we think we were somehow better than them?
Over lunch afterwards, we had a discussion that raised these issues and many more. We decided that our motivations and mindset in going about this or any other service project are very important, perhaps essential to the meaningfulness and efficacy of the project. The idea was raised that the most effective service will flow naturally from a genuine desire to help others, and we agreed that it would have been much better for us to have talked more with the temple’s caretakers beforehand, to ensure that our actions corresponded to areas in which they really needed and desired help.
Another troubling aspect of this first service project of ours that we discussed was that when we got down the mountain with our bags full of trash, the temple’s caretakers informed us that the trash would have to be burned. Sure, we had made much of mountain’s hiking paths indisputably cleaner, but, as a result, toxins would be released into the local atmosphere. This brought us back to the question of futility. If the garbage was burned, and a few weeks’ or months’ time found the trails equally dirty, would we have made a dent?
The answer we arrived at, despite our service’s problematic nature, was yes. Some pointed out that every bit of trash removed makes people less likely to litter in the future, and that setting a good example here or anywhere in the world has the potential to create a ripple effect of more positive behavior in others. Others noted that good habits of behavior, however small, have the potential to shape the values of society and thereby the decisions of the institutions that most affect it. Having the right attitude and motivations can make even small acts of service powerful agents of change.
Every week each group member is assigned a specific duty, and it is the responsibility of the “Sage” to provide a few words of wisdom at morning meetings. A few days ago, Blaine, our current Sage, quoted Daniel Handler to say that “It is not the diamonds or the birds, or the people or the potatoes; it is not any of the nouns. The miracle is the adverbs, the way things are done.” As we commence a year of service and learning, we should consider the importance not only of what we do but of how we do it.
Whether or not you realize it, you guys are the luckiest people in the world. I would give anything to be where you are at this moment; you are about to embark on the most incredible adventure.
I would give anything to be able to see the mountains again, for the first time. To realize what it means to be in awe of nature, shocked that our world can be so physically beautiful and powerful at the same time. I guess that’s what you call majesty.
I would give anything to sit with my amaa (mother), rolling out roti by candlelight, sipping chia and discovering that language far surpasses simply words.
I would give anything to trace the streets down to my ISP, and feel hard silver in my hand; to begin the art of turning a figment of imagination into a piece of jewelry.
I would give anything to wander down rocky hillsides with my bhaini (sister), tired and dusty, ready to swim in the river with friends.
You will feel happiness greater than you could ever imagine. But there are also moments of great pain and struggle ahead of you. Each of you will have challenges: for some, trekking will be the hardest weeks of your life; for others, meditating silently may drive you crazy. But there is also great sweetness in every trial. Nepal taught me to embrace the beauty in life – beauty that appears as pain and as joy. Both sides of life shape us into the person we will become.
I wish you all strength and joy. Be excited – the next three months are yours, yours to grow and live and learn. Your families and friends will be waiting when you return, so try and embrace every moment in Nepal with 100% of yourselves; the time will fly by and you only have three months!
And, just in case you were wondering (I know I was): Yes. It is possible to find ice-cream in Nepal!
Himalayan Studies Semester Alumni
To Our Soon-To-Be ANAK NAGA (Dragons students):
Sitting down to introduce myself to you, I’m filled with curiosity about your lives and aspirations. Who are you adventurous young adults that Rita, Jen, and I will soon meet in Yogyakarta? What is calling you away from all that is familiar to an island nation on the other side of the world?
It has been twelve years since I embarked on my own first journey into the world. I was 16 and somehow convinced my parents to let me spend several months with family friends in Spain. I wonder if you feel now some of what I felt then: that longing to experience life outside of America paired with an equally powerful longing to know myself. It’s funny that these two desires should arise in us together. Why should we think we are more likely to find ourselves, our truth, in a cobblestoned plaza in Madrid or in a remote Indonesian village than at home? Why couldn’t truth have chosen an easier place to get to? Why couldn’t it be available on the aisles of a Walmart in American suburbia?
There is an Indonesian proverb that goes: “The will of the heart is to hug the mountain even when the arms are not long enough.” (“Ingin hati memeluk gunung apa daya tangan tak sampai.“) We can be sure that this saying wasn’t originally intended for global travelers like you and I, but its meaning certainly speaks to my question above. It is only when we reach out to embrace the world that we really experience our limitations, our fears. At home, our limitations can go unnoticed. We hold tight to our distractions and habits; they are easy to wrap our arms around. People in our lives may even encourage us to settle, to allow our fears to draw the boundaries of our dreams.
When we immerse ourselves in a foreign culture, however, our limitations come right to the fore. Encountering difference forces us to question our unexamined assumptions, reconsider habits, and develop deep compassion and empathy. This fall, through countless situations, we will have the opportunity to stare our fears and limitations in the face, to push beyond them, to open our arms ever wider and embrace the world as fully as we can. There is so much joy in that embrace!
If your travels in Indonesia are anything like mine over the years, you are likely to feel simultaneously bigger and smaller than you ever have at home, more elated and yet more challenged, more independent and yet more closely knit to others than ever before. As you experience this spectrum of emotions you may find yourself looking inward for what remains still, a voice of clarity, an inner refuge. This is the inward turn of the outward journey. It is precisely what makes a trip to Indonesia a more effective way of finding your authentic self than a trip to your local Starbucks!
This inward turn, in combination with an aspiration to serve others and a love for bridging cultural divides, has kept me traveling ever since my first trip to Spain. During high school, I returned to Madrid each summer. In college, I managed to spend three semesters studying abroad. First I went to Mali, West Africa, to work with an arts-based human rights education project. Then I backpacked throughout India and Nepal before moving into a Buddhist monastery to spend a semester studying philosophy and meditation. After graduating college, I received a fellowship to work on environmental policy advocacy and poplar education with a foundation in New Delhi. In 2011, I started working for Dragons in Indonesia and have been back and forth between there and India ever since. Through all of this, my heart has never stopped yearning to embrace the mountain fully, and staying open, flexible, and welcoming of life’s challenges has remained a daily practice.
So that’s a little about me and my approach to the journey. How about you? Feel free to use the Yak Board to tell us, your future instructors and co-travelers, about yourself.
It goes without saying that Rita, Jen, and I, along with the 79 species of mammals unique to the island of Sulawesi, can’t wait to meet you!
Sampai Jumpa! See you soon!