Ni han piao liang! You’re beautiful.
Wo ting bu dong. I don’t understand.
Those were the two Mandarin phrases I heard most frequently in the small resort city nestled in between lush green mountains; Chengde, China. As I navigated through the tiny city, soft Mandarin echoed in my ears, and the new sounds grew more familiar. I knew nothing, but I was just as eager to satisfy my insatiable curiosity for the endlessly complex country of China as my twelve year old host brother was to find out how much homework American students had each night. Two hours? Three? He had six. He’d rather play video games.
When I had found out about being awarded a scholarship to Northeast China, I wasn’t disappointed, but I wasn’t particularly ecstatic, either. China wasn’t my first choice, I had already traveled to East Asia, and besides, it was China. I didn’t know a word of Mandarin, but just as I had emphasized in my interview, I had been craving an adventure consisting of wandering off into the unknown for my entire life. A one-month journey through a country I knew nothing about did much more than satisfy this need for discovery, self-growth, and challenge–it transformed me entirely. We traveled to six different cities in one month, so one can imagine how rich my experience was in both culture, language, struggle, self-discovery, all of which underlined, most of all, our need as humans to love, be loved, and accept each other.
Ninety percent of the time, I struggled to understand my host brother as he guided me around like a bewildered child, leaving me on corners and wandering off before I could comprehend the purpose of his absence. Always, before I could become panicked at the bare-bellied farmers persuading me to buy fat peaches bleached light pink and covered in flies, he returned. I cut my thumb on the pamphlet of a museum tour, blood barely cropping up to the surface of my skin. It was painless, but that didn’t stop him from scouring the entire museum for a band aid. What had I done to deserve such kindness? His family tended to my every need while they lived simply and handwashed my clothes underneath the sweltering hot sun, the air in mainland China dense and polluted.
“You are so lucky. In your country, you get to play after school. My parents scold me if I don’t eat enough, or play too much. I want to be American.” my brother lamented in his squeaky voice. The United States is not so easy, I thought. Yet I couldn’t contain the envy brewing within me when my host sister returned from school and ate steamed dumplings with the creases folded gingerly by her grandmother. She’d read quietly on the stiff red couch after, nestled in between rice paper paintings and cans of black tea leaves. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d even taken a few deep breaths or eaten a meal with my family. I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t have to impress my peers, riddling myself with concern over my friendships or hopelessly dysfunctional parents. Wearing makeup to class will get you a sharp ruler slap on the palm of your hand in Chengde; not wearing makeup at my school is unusual.
Through these differences, I had developed an appreciation for my host family’s hardworking, humbled simplicity. I had never felt so wholly accepted and welcomed in my life. You’re beautiful too! I’d encourage my sister. China is beautiful! You’re better at math than I’ll ever be. I wish I could read as many books as you do in a day. She wished she could play soccer instead of study gruelingly to get into medical school. She didn’t even want to be a doctor. I wish I could value my whole family, with separation unheard-of and unconditional love running through our blood.
“I don’t want you to leave. Take me back with you!” It was nearly impossible to deny my little brother with his glossy eyes and shy smile the day I had to leave. Each English word slipped and stuttered out of his mouth gracelessly. It took days to learn how to say water in Mandarin, shuai, so I guess I couldn’t complain.
I heaved sobs into my little brother’s frail shoulder the night I had to board the train back to Beijing. My wails could probably be heard from three subsidized apartments away.
“I don’t want to leave!” I croaked, voice trembling and tears breaking through the seam of my lips.
“I’ll take your place, quickly! Let’s trade!” my brother chuckled, his attempts at consoling a girl unfamiliar and awkward.
My sister had ink-black hair, thin-rimmed glasses and a dimply smile. “I didn’t think we could be friends, because you don’t speak Chinese.” She stuttered, the English barely detectable under the thickness of her accent. “But you became my best friend.”
“I know.” I responded, attempting to recall which Mandarin tone was used. She stifled her laugh with the back of her hand, embarrassed at my atrocious accent. “I think it is fate.”
I never dreamed of creating a friendship with someone whose language I didn’t speak, whose culture was alien-like to me, with a divide of tens of thousands of miles. But we are human, and familiar with the incredible need to be loved and accepted. China may be helplessly complex, but my excursion in the little resort city of Chengde proved that a headfirst dive into the unfamiliar could teach me more than my own English-speaking counterparts ever could. I will carry my sibling’s wide-eyed curiosity and unconditional love for the undiscovered for the rest of my life.
Yǒu yuán qiānlǐ lái xiānghuì. We have the destiny to meet across a thousand miles.