NSLI-Y, Thoughts

Walking the lonely wooden bridge


You can walk your sun-lit path, I’m going to walk my lonely wooden bridge.

Or so says my mother. She taught me this phrase, like many other Chinese idiomatic phrases, in the middle of a lecture. Now, more than ever, this phrase is being applied to my life here in Beijing.

A recap of the happenings this first week of classes: we started with a two-part test to separate the students into 高级班 and 中级班, advanced-level and middle-level Chinese classes. The system here keeps all of the students in one room, separated by level, and teachers cycle in and out per class. Personally, my Chinese oral and listening skills are at a proficient level (bothers me when people ask if I’m “fluent”, which is a no-no word for any language learner) but I can barely—and I mean barely—get by at a preschool/kindergarten reading and writing level. Subsequently, instead of having an oral test, the Chinese teachers and I discussed the best plan of action for the next 9 months of class. They asked me if I’d like to go to the higher level class, where I knew I would absolutely struggle the entire year, lagging pretty significantly behind the other students in almost every class except 听说课 (listening and speaking class).

Maybe it’s my Montgomery County conditioning to always stretch myself with the most difficult course load, or maybe it’s just the nature of being compared to 15 other Chinese language learning-peers (all of which I’d just barely met), but my initial instinct was to say “yes, let me take on this challenge! If they can do it, so can I!”

Then, Mom’s voice came to me. Mei, don’t do that. Despite the fast-paced fancy vocabulary and almost glamorously difficult course of study that joining the 高级班 class would entail, I’ve got a language to learn, and there’s no way I’m going to be able to do it without foundational basic knowledge in all four language skills.

I’m in 中级班 (and got “elected” to be the 班长 aka class monitor—thanks Aristide!), finally learning how to write all the words I want to say, consistently finding flow state in the endless repetition of characters. (I also go to the other class for their speaking/listening class—finding much excitement in being stretched.)

The rest of the week progressed, slowly but surely. This week felt like a month. Monday and Tuesday included a lot of introductions and not much homework, but waking up at 6:10 AM, going to morning 自习 (self-study) at 7:15, having Chinese class until lunch at noon, back to class from 1:20-4:10, going to the supermarket/mall Carrefour—every single day—until evening 自习 from 7-9 and lights out (yes, completely out) at 10:10 PM five days in a row after a luxuriously wonderful summer break was a little tiring.

Similarly, the YES Abroad Senegal kids just landed a few days ago (Instagram can really be a wonderful tool). I’m going to be honest—as the first week and the subsequent moments of discomfort and restriction have passed, I found myself wistfully wondering what fun I’d be having had I chosen to go to West Africa instead. Yes, yes, I know, Mom and Pa, I’m literally living what I’ve been dreaming of for the past many months. Yes, this experience is what I make of it, and yes, mindset is the key to success, happiness, productivity…

Time and time I have to remind myself—this path is one that I have chosen. This lonely wooden bridge, crawling with bugs and marked with endless vocabulary repetition may not be lined with sunny Instagrammable photos, but it is the one that I have begun to cross. And cross it I will.


  1. This is literally the best thing to wake up to.

    We all have our lonely wooden bridges, and everyone has their own private burdens to bear. We see so little of people, the tip of that iceberg, and I’m still getting over the fact that you went to Carrefour every day. Sounds like you’ve arrived in China alright. Here in the US, the shopping mall is the new temple, the modern place of worship. Different country, different language, different culture, yet people are all the same: they want to be happy, they want to be secure, they want to feel loved and accepted.

    And it takes time (and attention) when traveling to appreciate this. It’s great that you now have the space and the time to observe and to learn.

    The other night your mom and I watched ‘Miss Hokusai’, about the famous Edo-era artist from the perspective of his daughter. It was a bit meta (if I can use that word) in that as ukiyo-e as an art form was essentially ephemeral, the movie itself was done in an absolutely ephemeral, existential way.

    And the movie ended with the fact that Hokusai, a great master, wanted to live to be 110 but only lasted until the age of 90.

    Here’s a somewhat famous quote of his, written when he was 86:

    From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking into account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvellous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own.

    Hokusai was one of the two great masters of ukiyo-e, and produced an astounding 30,000 works, yet never considered himself having ‘reached the level of the marvellous and divine’.

    It’s a lonely bridge, the road less travelled, for a reason. Not many aspire to something greater.

    1. when we walk our own lonely paths, we often come to face hard decisions between one good thing and another good thing — having to make these tough decisions (blessings) is only a sign that we’re on a path that, though sometimes lonely, is authentic to our identities. You’ve made wise choices so far — the rest is only going to get better.

  2. when we walk our own lonely paths, we often come to face hard decisions between one good thing and another good thing — having to make these tough decisions (blessings) is only a sign that we’re on a path that, though sometimes lonely, is authentic to our identities. You’ve made wise choices so far — the rest is only going to get better.

  3. Senegal is located in West Africa, I know you know it. Well, anther Chinese saying, “ 三十年河东,三十年河西”, you never know, maybe in 30 years, Senegal will be shifted to East Africa. 😄

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