The Arrival


This is the third in a series of blog posts where the author contrasts her experiences leading summer camps in America and China over the course of the summer. You can find her previous post here.

Getting off airplanes always confuses me: my brain still has trouble wrapping itself around the idea that the same doors I went through in New York now lead to a city where I know no one and cannot understand the language. I have been on an airplane for sixteen hours, of which I slept for maybe two, and I have just landed in Hong Kong.

When I finally find my group and we get to the car, conversation passes effortlessly into classes, TFs, concentrations, and houses. I don’t realize until later how much I missed being able to talk like this, how easy it is to turn off the part of my brain that translates TF into TA, concentration into major, house into dorm. I make a quip about Mather and how much I love it, realizing all of a sudden that even though I’m thousands of miles from anything I know, I’ve found something to hold onto.

Two hours later, we’ve crossed the border into China and made our way to the gated boarding school that will be my home for the next three weeks. Before I am even fully out of the car, the school’s principal wraps me in the kind of hug you save for old friends, and my suitcase is swept away by an eager group of teacher’s assistants. I try to insist that I can take it myself, but soon give up. This is their school; they’re proud of it and I should let them show it to me their way.


Sooner than seems possible, it’s time for the first day of school. I walk in with no idea what to expect. What I get is eleven tiny faces staring up at me, waiting for a first word. “Good afternoon!” I say. They respond as best they can, and we move on to names.

In middle school Foreign Language class, I had a different French name every year. Two of them were characters from Les Misérables. It had never occurred to me to think how an actual Francophone would react to names like that, but now I think I know.

My class has one Disney character, one Batman character, a name I haven’t heard used for anyone under 70, and a girl with the same English name as her older sister. And as names go at this summer camp, mine aren’t even all that odd.

My class is meant to last for three hours, and since this is the first time I’ve been able to meet my kids and assess their English level, I have very little planned. Back home, I’d had years of practice filling up forty-five minute blocks with all kinds of games that I could set up and explain in under one minute apiece. But here I flounder, having expected their English to be more
advanced than it is, and finally decide to go over numbers. When “numbers” is met with a blank face, I begin to count. One. Two. Three.

A look of understanding flashes across the room, and my kids count their way to a hundred before stopping.

I show them one thousand, to looks of recognition. I add three zeroes. One million. Someone says “whoa” under their breath. I make it a billion, and the whole class is in awe.

And that’s when I feel it. Here, in this breathless moment of childish wonder, it feels just a little bit like home.