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.

The Mystery Woman

Her face was etched with deep wrinkles. Her back hunched from decades of carrying the world — in all its forms — on her back. Her black hair had turned silver, shimmering in its long braid under low light.

As I revisit her features now, two years later, each detail seems harnessed with my Peruvian experience. But in that moment, they only represented my fears.

I had been living in Cusco, Peru for less than a week — not enough time to yet have a routine, but sufficient time to avoid getting lost in the mountains of Cusco. After school I would return to my new home of Lucre, a small agricultural town imprinted on the side of the Cusquenan Andes. Our first bus up the mountain seemed laden with handsy men and only enough oxygen for two thirds of its passengers. I felt scornful eyes on me as I struggled to occupy the least amount of space possible.

But perhaps the scorn was my own, as I became increasingly more aware of my whiteness. Our eventual stop in Huacarpay yielded fresh air and a taxi ride of seven adults up the mountain to Lucre (what later came to feel like a spacious ride). Here, I would leave my peers, anxiously cross the makeshift bridge and join my family at their new fish restaurant, where we would eat dinner and I would do my best, through broken Spanish, to tell my family what I learned that day.

Tangled Paths

The children stopped to stare at the green truck as we passed. Our eyes locked: mine memorizing their angled arms and milky palms, theirs taking in my strange, thin hair and pale skin. Their mothers picked their way along the uneven ground at the side of the road, balancing wide ceramic bowls, eyes steady and careful.

After six weeks of study with the other SSTers in Abidjan, the largest city in Côte d’Ivoire, we were all heading au village. My destination was a tiny village beyond Danané, close to the western border of the country. I sat in the front seat of a Chevy pick-up, smashed between Charles, a Baptist pastor in Danané, and Lydia, his wife. Their children rode in the back. It wasn’t very far, but not knowing what lay ahead, I wished the drive would last forever.

The road was full of potholes and ruts, losing ground to the thick green vegetation. Some puddles were as long as the truck.

“The name of this village is Bougle,” Lydia said.


They laughed. “Bwug-lee.”

I repeated it over and over until she nodded, smiling. Bougle’s buildings were white-washed mud huts with packed dirt floors. Chickens ran loose in the road. An old woman sat bare-breasted on a low stool in the shade. She stared as we passed.

A Morning with Ma Ma

Ma Ma and Ba Ba Wang were an older retired couple — he an ex-military officer, she a rotund local tennis star. I lived in their apartment in Nanchong, China with their dog, Er Wa, and a turtle that mysteriously disappeared after a few weeks. Neither parent spoke a word of English, but their bubbly personalities, the deep bowls of noodles ready each evening, and their strange daily routine of stripping down to their underwear after a long day out on the town — it all became my world for a few months, so dear to me over time.

The Wangs were an odd duo, as many fellow SST friends would attest to after spending an evening with them. They were always eager to teach me everything there was to know, despite the language barrier. They’d tell me where to place my hands when I slept, scolded me for having a pimple on my face, and instructed me on how to correctly sit at the table. What seemed overwhelming at first, I understood later as a way of trying to shelter me, they just wanted me to feel at home with them. They were goofy, and made me feel goofy. We soon made one happy family.