On Leaving China

With my friend, Li Haimei, at the Yunnan Nationalities Village. She is from the Nu ethnic minority in Northwestern Yunnan.

Last Monday, I woke up at 4 AM and proceeded to spend the next 24 hours traveling via bus, plane, and car, finally arriving in my hometown of Seattle, Washington.

I was not ready to leave to leave China. It felt wrong to suddenly rip myself from the life I’d built for myself in Kunming. I was getting used to life in my apartment, building friendships I cared about, feeling confident about my Chinese ability, experimenting with the limits of what could be cooked in a wok (our only kitchen utensil), teaching English, and finally making good progress with my research at the Yunnan Nationalities Village.

On top of that, everyone kept asking me, “When are you coming back?” and I didn’t have an answer for them. I would just offer a half-smile and say something like, “Well, I have to graduate from college first,” knowing full well that it would be at least another year until I was back in China.

Goodbyes with some friends in Kunming.

The hardest goodbyes were at the Yunnan Nationalities Village, my fieldwork site for most of my time in China. I had become good friends with a few women who worked there and none of them had ever left Yunnan province. As the day grew closer, it started to seem absurd that I was about to casually hop on a couple planes and fly back home to America. On my last day, my friend Guo Zhenglong mentioned that she would love to take me to her hometown near Baoshan, but my time was limited. Another friend, Li Haimei, offered to show me around Nujiang, the river valley where her family lives. I wanted so badly to take them up on their offers, but I couldn’t. Research was going well, too. I’d established a level of trust and these women were beginning to open up to me about their lives — and all of the sudden I was leaving the country.

With my friend Ye Nuo, a Shui ethnic minority woman from Qujing. She has been working at the Yunnan Nationalities Village for almost 10 years.

I won’t complain about leaving China for the entirety of this blog post, though. Although my seven-week fieldwork experience had its highs and lows, it was ultimately very positive and has cemented my desire to live in China after graduation. Back at home, I have begun looking for fellowships, programs, and jobs that will take me back to China (particularly the Yunnan province). If I can, I’d love to do something that builds on the research I did and the connections I made this summer. In addition to post-graduation plans, this summer has laid the groundwork for my thesis, which I’m sure will prove helpful in the months to come. I have loads of my own interviews, observations, photos and collected materials to reference and I’m actually excited to start synthesizing what I’ve gathered.

And as much as I miss China, I’ll certainly admit that I’m enjoying the couple weeks of summer I have at home. I’m grateful for things like swimming, hiking, avocados, camping, waffles, road tripping, paddleboarding, burritos, and English language bookstores, all of which I have enjoyed in abundance since returning to the wonderful Pacific Northwest.

alpine lakes
Summer in the Northwest – swimming in beautiful (and extremely cold) alpine lakes!
In China, cooking everything in a giant wok was cool, but you definitely can’t make these delicious waffles in a wok.