From China to America, Lives Collide

The year was 1987. My aunt Kristina, then 20 years old, was with Goshen College’s fourth SST group to China. The group was stationed in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, living in dorms and attending classes at Sichuan University.

China was still nine years fresh from “Reform and Opening,” and the long, slow crawl toward modernity had just begun. Bicycles lined the car-less streets and SSTers relied solely on the tedious process of snail mail.

For her service location, Kristina was assigned to teach English classes at the university. During this time she became especially close to one student in her class, Zhang Xiaowei, or Kathy, a spunky and out-going young woman. Every day Kathy and Kristina would meet after class to eat noodles or walk around the city. Despite their cultural differences the two formed a deep bond of friendship.

“We would talk about everything,” Kathy said.

Ideals from Gladys

Mrs. Gladys Sutherland, my host mother in Belize City, was a devout Catholic. She would get up every morning between 3:30 and 4:00 a.m. to go to Mass, and then come home and get her husband ready for the day. He was a large man, and couldn’t walk very well, so it was quite a chore to get him around.

She was a great cook. The meals that she prepared from scratch were healthy, and there was always enough. My absolute favorite meal was chicken, rice and beans, greens, and fried plantains. She would grate the coconut, squeeze out the milk and cook the rice in it. It was heavenly. When I came back, I tried to make fried plantains like she did, but it was never the same.

Here

Why am I here?

Throughout my three months here in Senegal on SST, I have gotten this question from a wide range of people in a variety of forms. My place here doesn’t fit into any of the pre-existing, easily understood boxes; I am not a traditional exchange student, I am not a missionary, I am not moving here permanently. My answers to these queries of my reason for being in Senegal have never quite satisfied my listeners, and have not satisfied me either.

Why am I here?

Why have I spent the last 3 months in a foreign, developing nation where both the languages and culture were previously unfamiliar to me? In my first week or two, my only answer was that I was fulfilling a graduation requirement and expanding my worldview. I vowed to continue to ponder this puzzle, and while I am still thinking, I believe I have arrived at much more of a response. 

I am here to be. I am here to be a listener, be a participant, and be open to learning and growth. It is difficult at times to accept that I have the privilege to live a different life for 3 months and then return to my comfort. It is difficult to accept that I have spent this much time here but have not done anything visibly constructive to help this land that has welcomed me.

I have come to realize that there there is value in projects and action, but being able to act wisely and conscientiously first requires understanding. And wisdom and understanding are only gained through time, experience, and thoughtfulness. SST has opened this door of understanding wider for me, helping me to see and think more clearly without biases and assumptions. 

I have learned the value of seeing with my heart, turning the world inside-out so that it can be right-side up. I have found that all the reasoning and logic in the world mean nothing if they are not joined with caring for others and looking with love. All the cultural differences — religion, food, homes, dress, language — become beautiful in their diversity when you learn to connect with the intangibles of a place, such as hospitality, love of family, and emphasis on community.

My Sister’s Room

Out of my two families on SST, I connected the best with my study family, but especially with my little sister Julia. She was seven and speaks just about zero English, but despite the language barrier, I connected with my little sister almost immediately.

I was her jiejie (or “big sister” in Chinese) and we quickly became the best of playmates. We would sing Disney songs together, play with dolls, and practice her English on the weekends through games. Our greatest achievement together was building a Disney lego castle, which is pretty difficult when you are working in two different languages. Julia was — and is — the light of my life.

A Life in the Present

As I watched the microbus pull away, I felt the sinking feeling in my stomach again. This was a feeling totally new to me, and not easy to define. It bordered on the lines of terror, curiosity, and helplessness. Throughout my time of study I had briefly greeted this feeling, but now it had decided to skip the gut and go straight for the chest. The pressure was rising into my throat and I was on the verge of tears. But I held it together; trusting that these strangers I just met will take care of me. Either way I didn’t have a phone or computer or any way to escape even if I wanted to since I had no idea where I was or where I was about to go. So I followed them blindly, surrendering to my fear and helplessness.

We passed by my host mom’s daughter’s house in El Crucero before heading to the rural community where I would be living for the next six weeks, called Santa Julia. As I tried to catch bits and pieces of rapid campo Spanish, I discovered they were trying to decide how to transport my gigantic gringo-sized suitcase. Finally I saw my host dad, a flaco, offbeat war veteran nicknamed “El Zorro” (“the fox”), zip up on his motorcycle as my host brother propped my suitcase on the back and hopped on as well, sandwiching the suitcase between them. That wasn’t even the best part. An older gentlemen on a horse trotted by and hoisted my barrel of purified water behind him, continuing down the path like this was perfectly normal.

Looking back, I see this was a humorous insight into Nica culture lesson No. 1: Strangers will go out of their way to make sure you get where you need to go. And without much thought or planning, things always seem to fall into place. This insight continued to ring true my first day in the campo as my host mother, Lola, and I started the trek on foot to Santa Julia.