Digging a Hole in China

by Kelsey Larson

“What am I doing here?” I wondered as I stared out the window of my host family’s car as it wove among the streets of Changzhou, China. My hosts chatted in rapid-fire Chinese as I tried to pick out the few words I knew from the waves of unfamiliar syllables. The signs flashing by on the road, declaring their messages in bright neon shades, were elaborate mazes to my eyes. Every twist and curve reminded me that I was a foreigner, now in a country whose language I couldn’t even read.

People frequently say that China is a big country, but they often fail to specify what that means. In China, “big” means skyscraper apartments filled with people, laughing and shouting and hanging their clothing out 14th story windows to dry. It means streets  packed with bikes, buses and pedestrians dodging across in a high-stakes game of Frogger, and it means food stalls permeating the air with countless competing scents. China’s size fills it with life, with chaotic crowds of humanity brushing their stories with one another’s.

My host family manages the whirlwind of humanity with a cheerful, effortless grace, one that they have immediately started trying to teach me. From the moment they welcomed me with heavily accented English (the alternative being my incomprehensible Chinese), they’ve crammed little lessons into every day of my stay so far: how to eat chicken with chopsticks, how to say my address, how to bargain down the price of a poster for my dorm room. Whenever my host sister grips my hand to lead me across 6 lanes of traffic (“lanes,” incidentally, not being a concept widely embraced by the Chinese), it stands as another reminder of how much I still need to learn to find my place in China.

Traffic in Changzhou (Kelsey Larson).

What am I doing here? The other day, my host family and I went for a walk in a Changzhou park. We came to a lake, kicked off our shoes, and played around by the water. My sister and her cousin started digging at the sand and pulled me over. “We dig for water,” she explained. No reason was required or offered. Instead, we just dug, pulling more and more sand out of the hole. When the water at the bottom finally started glinting in the moonlight, we grinned and cheered, rallying around the completion of our task. I realized that maybe that is my purpose here: to learn to overcome barriers of language and culture and cooperate.

For all our differences, some things require no translation, like smiling or laughing with family members. In the chaos of Chinese life, each of those moments reminds me of how many fundamental aspects we have in common. With each bit I and the other language students in China learn or teach, we cement that deeper human bond between our two nations. It might be a bit of a stretch, but if we can dig a hole in the sand together today, maybe we can work for peace together tomorrow.

Kelsey Larson ’16 is in Silliman College.  Contact her at kelsey.larson@yale.edu.