To our favorite furry friend, to the wonderful people we’ve met here, to our brilliant students. Goodbyes are never easy. I suppose if they were, we’d all miss out on the connections that bring us close together and ultimately make saying goodbye so hard.
* * *
Bjorn... sigh. This little guy appeared so unexpectedly into our lives, but we never once questioned it. We fell in love with him the moment we found him in the stairwell of our building and coaxed him into our apartment.
He was the most wonderfully loving companion. He would do the cutest little butt wiggle every time we would come home, always jumping up on our knees to hug and kiss us. Love was all he wanted, and I think we gave him that.
Whenever we would take him on the city streets or to the park, he would stay right next us, constantly looking to the left and the right to make sure we were walking beside him. He would lay at our feet while we cooked dinner, when we did chores around the house, or even when we went to the bathroom. He always wanted to know what was going on; he always wanted to be right next to us.
We only knew this pup for two months. But, like people do, we just clicked. Selfishly, we wish we could have brought Bjorn back to the States. But, we just couldn't. I cherish every second we had together and I'm thankful we found him a good home in China.
* * *
The friends you meet traveling are unlike any other ones you’ll have. Right away, you form an instant connection with them: what brings you all together, thousands of miles from home. You can experience a city, a landmark, or a site together, and then you share that, forever. The friends you meet abroad understand all the weird quirks of the country you live in together— the good, the bad, the exciting, the boring, and everything in between.
Most of all, the friends you meet abroad give you a sliver of your life back home. They comfort you. They remind you you’re not the only foreigner living in a sea of Chinese people.
While still hard, saying goodbye to the friends I’ve met here was the easiest of all. I think it’s because I know we’ll meet again someday— whether in the States or across the world. Maybe it’s foolish or naïve, but I do find comfort in that possibility. And I know if we meet again, we’ll pick up right where we left off.
* * *
Saying goodbye to my students was the hardest of all. At first, I didn't think it would be. I mean, with 1,200 students it’s really hard to get to know any of them, especially when you only see them for 40 minutes a week. As I walked into each of my classes for the last time, I realized I knew and connected with more of them than I thought.
I think about the little boy in class 6, grade 1 who always jumped up out of his seat and waved to me with a beaming smile across his face when I walked into class every Monday morning. I remember the girl in class 1, grade 3 who chatted with me on the 10-minute break before our class. I picture the group of girls in class 4, grade 3 who would run up to me at the end of every class with hugs, little gifts, and many “I love yous.”
I may not have known their names, but I don’t think you need to to connect with someone— especially if that someone is eight years-old.
For my last week of classes, I put together a slideshow of pictures from my year in China. I talked about all the beautiful places I traveled to and all the wonderful things I got to experience. I included many photos with my students, of course. They loved this and enjoyed trying to pick out their friend or classmate in a photo.
After my bit about China, I explained to my students I would be flying back home, to America. I even showed them a few photos of summertime in my New England home. They ooh’d and aah’d at this part— some even screamed, “So beautiful!” They looked so hopeful, starstruck even. They all had dreams of going to America someday, but what tore at me the most was realizing a handful of them would get there, if that.
The final slide was one last photo of me and my students. Above the photo, I wrote in English (and Chinese): “I will miss you all very much. Thank you for a wonderful year.” I gave them a moment to read the Chinese. Some looked at me blankly. Others cried. Many students even clapped. My Chinese teaching assistant helped them say, “I will miss you too.”
At this point, in every single one of my 20 classes, my eyes would get a little misty. I looked at my students’ faces, trying to memorize every detail of their expressions— anything that would allow me to hold on to the moment as long as I could. I knew I would never see any of them again, but I tried everything I could to fix a permanent spot for them in my memory.
I can only hope they felt the same.
* * *
I never thought I’d be a teacher. When I was in college, I refused to consider it as a career path when I realized my mom, my aunt, and my grandmother— all the women on my mom’s side of the family— were teachers. It was nothing against them or their profession, I just wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to follow down the same, predictable path.
When I decided to teach abroad for the year (in China of all places) the women in my family looked at me like I had six heads. “Why? I thought you never wanted to be a teacher,” they said.
I think about why I wanted to do this and I’m drawn back to a similar impulse— to be different, to experience a different place, to live differently. I didn’t want to be stuck in that utterly soul-sucking 9-5 rut, staring at a computer, driving the same route, seeing the same people, every day. I wanted adventure, spontaneity, something out of the ordinary.
China has given me that in every possible way. Sure, some times were challenging as hell, and in those times I would wish I was back to my predictable, comfortable life. Whenever I felt like this— frustrated, impatient, at my wits end— I would remind myself of why I came here and what I wanted to take away from this experience.
Not trinkets, not souvenirs, not even photos, but real connections with real people from a culture so different from my own. I think that's the only way we can grow, the only way we can change, and the only way we can open our eyes, our hearts, and our minds to the world around us.