Coming back from studying abroad has been a difficult adjustment, compounded perhaps by having returned to the States only 6 days before arriving in Claremont. For a couple weeks, I was overwhelmed — by the sheer number of people I knew on campus, by jumping right into classes without having time to readjust or catch up with friends, by having to answer the same questions about being abroad…the list goes on.
Particularly difficult is reconciling the experiences and knowledge I gained abroad with life at Pomona. Southwestern China, rural Thailand, Bangkok — they’re nothing like Claremont. For a while I feared my experiences backpacking through Tiger Leaping Gorge, writing papers about ethnic minorities in China, farming in Northern Thailand, and eating delicious street food would have no counterparts in Claremont–that they’d be lost, stored away in a place so far from my present life, soon becoming only distant, intangible memories accessed less and less frequently.
This is not to say that I’ve found direct counterparts to my experiences abroad (I haven’t — though I’d LOVE to see 20 cent milk tea and late night street vendors in Claremont!). Instead, I’ve found ways to apply the lessons I learned and discoveries I made while abroad to life here at Pomona.
1. Organic farming and cooking! I learned so much from my two weeks living and working at a farm in rural Thailand, where I spent a lot of time thinking about consumption as well. On the farm, we grew everything we ate, and ate everything we grew — an incredible (and delicious) experience. Luckily, there are a few farms/gardens around Claremont that try to do just this. There are great opportunities to volunteer at Pomona’s Organic Farm, as well as participate in cool cooking workshops, and these have been great ways for me to reconnect with farm life and use what I learned abroad.
In addition, I plan to get involved helping with a friend’s after-school gardening and cooking program at Vista del Valle Elementary’s organic garden. Finally, while on the farm I learned how to bake bread from an Italian friend, and I plan to continue baking bread with friends and with Challah for Hunger.
2. Communal eating. A big part of my experience in Thailand, and somewhat in China, was communal eating. It was lovely to sit around a table (or on the ground) and share food. We often used our hands to eat, or used sticky rice as our only utensil. Since arriving back in Claremont, some friends and I have been able to cook and eat together, which has been a great respite from sometimes loud, rushed dining hall meals.
3. Getting outdoors. While I was abroad, I had some fantastic opportunities to travel and explore, much of it in the outdoors. I trekked through Tiger Leaping Gorge, saw the Stone Forest, biked around Erhai Lake, hiked Shibaoshan Mountain, Cangshan Mountain, and the tallest mountain in Thailand, and swam in all kinds of waterfalls. While Claremont doesn’t boast a huge array of mountaintop Buddhist temples, there are still magical places here in the Southern California wilderness. Right now, I’m in the process of becoming a certified On The Loose (OTL) leader, so I can lead (well-reimbursed) trips and explore the Southwest!
4. Learning about ethnic minority and women’s issues in China. And now we get to the academic stuff! While in China, my academic classes included a one-on-one independent study on women’s issues in modern China and a seminar-style class on ethnic minorities in Yunnan Province. Both of these topics really resonated with me, and luckily I’ve been able to continue engaging with them even back in Claremont. My final paper for my Ethnic Minorities class analyzed the gendered portrayal of ethnic minority groups in Yunnan province and what that meant on for minority women, personally, and for whole minority groups, politically. Back at Pomona, I’m lucky enough to do more research about gendered media portrayals of ethnic minority and indigenous groups around the world through a fellowship at the Women’s Union. I’ve talked about this topic with Professor Dru Gladney, whose research concerns ethnic minority groups in China. I will also hopefully have the opportunity to return to Yunnan this summer to do research funded by a Pomona grant.
5. Student life and doing things I care about. Being abroad wasn’t perfect. The academics were hard and Chinese college campuses are not the bustling hubs of student life that we’re spoiled by here at Pomona. I cared about my classes, for sure, but beyond that, there were not nearly as many extracurricular activities or cool lectures or community engagement opportunities or social activities as exist at the Claremont Colleges. I realized that I really care about the engaging in student life at Pomona College. I work with the local community by leading a Weekly Writing Workshop for elementary and middle school students. I lead tours for the Admissions Office to introduce people to the Pomona community. I attend talks and lectures and PE classes and meetings and workshops and trainings and performances. I get lunch with my professors, and swing by their offices just to talk.
Being abroad was an invaluable experience in itself, but it has also lent me new perspectives on Pomona and helped me appreciate what life in Claremont has to offer.