The weather is bitingly cold now. I’m sitting in the main courtyard of Beijing 80, looking past the circular topiary hedge as the sun beings to set. It’s only 5 pm, but the days are shorter now, sunlight rarer. I can see it now, though, soft hues of pink and orange in the cloudless and slightly grayish Beijing sky I’ve come to know so well. A group of women dressed in tan-colored uniforms and colorful scarves just walked past, the “aunties”, as we call them, who tirelessly clean Beijing 80 as students in tracksuits and tennis shoes bring turf up and down the floors and stairwells. School security in their all-black uniforms that say “Baoan”—the pinyin for “security guard” in Chinese—on the back, blackcaps snug on their heads. The aunties are exclusively female, the security guards (at least from what I’ve seen) all male. 

I feel that we, as a cohort, have settled into the pace of life here almost entirely. If there was a honeymoon phase at all, we are most definitely out of it. We’re about two and a half months in, conversing in full Chinglish (Chinese with English interjections, or English-speaking with those quintessential un-translatable Chinese phrases), a notable and tangible Chinese improvement marker. I feel tired almost every day. I think I’ve gotten pretty homesick too, the night before Halloween a package came in from my aunt in California and she sent a letter, some American candy, a cat costume, and a few photos of family. Until that night, I hadn’t really cried yet. (Thank you Apple Julie!)

Now, I’ve got photos hung up on my desk as well as letters from home and articles/reminders that Pa mailed to me a week ago or so. A paint card with a Miyazaki quote is up there too, as is an essay/speech Kimia wrote her senior year that’s been giving me strength and guidance as I go through mine.

Though I miss family back home, it’s a good feeling to know how strong my relationships with family and friends are from back home—it feels good to love, and to be loved. I’m also starting to find family here. 

My host family, for one, has been incredibly kind and caring beyond simple hospitality. One very cold, very emotional Saturday morning, a few girls came over to drop their things off at my house because of how close it is to our school. I’d only given my host mom a few minutes’ notice, yet she had tea, coffee, and warm chocolate-chip cookies out for us.

They told me that they wanted to take me out to look at “fall scenery,” and we would take some photos and walk around. The day after coming back from our 湖南 trip I found myself in a sweater, boots, and white pants in a car two hours from the city center. We had gone out past the 6th ring road to the rural farms of Beijing. It was a windy and cold day, and my host dad rolled up to a woman with wind-burned reddened cheeks and a patchwork-quilted vest, slicing an apple while sitting on a blue plastic stool. He asked her which direction the “park” that we were going to was in, and she pointed him along, followed by an offering of her apple slices. My host parents kindly declined and we went on our way, driving up to a parking lot, where lo-and-behold, was a beautiful mountain range covered in red- and gold-leafed trees. Needless to say, it was not the “take a photo and walk a little” adventure I had excepted (or dressed for). We climbed mountains for about two hours (and yelled our souls out to the world from the mountaintops) and walked a few kilometers. We happened upon the remains of an ancient Buddhist temple. I wish I could’ve stayed longer and explored the area a little bit more fully, but I have a feeling I’ll go back one day. There were signs all along the pathway that instructed the “park”-goers on how to properly take care of your health while climbing a mountain, translated pretty well in English too. As we walked along the mud and stone paths, I asked my host sister (nicknamed 叶子—leaf) to teach me little-kid poems. I learned one about a swan (or goose?), then asked for another one. Unprompted, she launched into a robust performance of a famous Mao poem—so robust, in fact, that other “park”-goers bursted into applause once she was done. She then taught me a very simple Mao poem (only three lines, basically all the same sentence except the beginning of the lines) and then she and her family basically had a rap battle, only instead of hip-hop rap lyrics, they tested each other’s knowledge of ancient (and Communist-sloganesque) poetry. 

“叶子”, my host sister, and I on the side of a random road.

And of course, I can’t write a whole blog post about family without mentioning perhaps the most pertinent family of them all—our NSLI-Y Beijing AY 2019-20 cohort. We are really coming together as a group, a “hive-mind” as NSLI-Y alum Jessica Yan so accurately described to us last year. Everyone’s so dynamically different, yet being here under a unified goal, living together for at least 5 days of the week, in an academic setting for 10 hours each day, has brought us together in a way I have never felt before. I told Alec this a while back: I’ve never felt so simultaneously part of a group yet equally and incredibly so inspired by those around me. I found a journal log I had written at the start of the program  (Monday, September 16, 10:32 AM to be exact) which I think captures a tiny portion of the people: “Sitting in Gaojiban’s classroom, our 班主任 (another Li) is watching over us, Logan has written “只够叶子,不可以够花儿,只够叶子”on the blackboard in large letters, Bethany is on Bing news, Logan is 3 inches away from his paper as he writes his 汉子, Joel’s trademark klean kanteen is on the desk along with his 50 identical pens, Pleco-ed iPad out. Ella is hunched over, studying as well. Anna just walked in, I think she was sick this morning. Tyler is writing. Carolyn is sketching the plant mascot for the sign in front of the room. Leila and Alec are gossiping in Chinglish. Kat is catching Anna up on what the class has been doing for the past few days.” 

The cohort group photo in Hunan (plus three out of the four Boston kids who’ve come to visit for 6 weeks)

And another, half-assed blog post draft from the first month where I try to describe some of them: “There’s Joel, the astronomer, laid-back, mid-Westerner with at least 5 roomy pockets at all times, and Charlie, the spontaneous yogi, computer smarty-pants from South Dakota who’s been (poor thing) shamelessly and pretty extremely objectified by every teacher we’ve had so far on program. There’s Carolyn, an energetic, generous thespian from North Virginia who is also Asian-American and we both agree we’ve been living parallel lives, and Ella, a fellow camera-head, obsessed with how people work large-scale in public transport systems and is more transparent (thanks Joel) than most people I’ve met. Then there’s Alec, a happy and kind-hearted Hoosier mini-philosopher with a New Jersey lax bro persona named JT, and Logan, a tall (bean-like) sweetheart with an almost-tangible love for Chinese. There’s Kat, the graceful ballerina from the big Apple who shares my fascination and admiration for Tokyo’s almost-utopia, and Bethany, the talkative yet eloquent Mormon sweetheart, who’s about to spend 5 years in China. And there’s Leila, an animated Persian-American whose facial expressions and reactions are a joy to watch.“

Reading back on these now, I realize how hard it is to try to describe a cohort of ~14. What I had realized, though, from the start, is that these people are changing my life, and for the better. Isn’t that what family is for? 

P.S.: As briefly referenced and mentioned above, we went on a school trip with Beijing 80 to Hunan. Because I have college apps to write and a few hundred characters to memorize, I’m not planning on writing a whole blog post about it. (Honestly, it wasn’t that deep. It was very much so a tour-guide touristy trip. Truly hope I have the opportunity to further explore this beautiful area of China later in my life!) (Also, disclaimer: it was a fun trip, and I’m grateful that we had the chance to get to see a few of the “must-see” parts of Changsha/Hunan, but probably not blog-post worthy.) Instead, here are some photos!


  1. Awesome to read this Mei, so cool to read your first-hand descriptions of the people as we’ve only had snippets to-date on the people you have so much interaction with.

    The statue (presumably from the Hunan trip) I had to look up – searching ‘hunan statue that looks like beethoven’ I frankly didn’t recognize Mao. (Looking at other photos of the statue online I think it was the angle you took it at… anyway…)

    Thank you for sharing these observations and insights! So interesting and thoughtful. 👍

  2. I am so intrigued, I so want to know what the three lines of Mao’s poem 叶子taught you, if I know it? Mao is a great poet, he is!

  3. Ah, you wrote this on my birthday! I miss you being part of my “studio family”. How wonderful to climb mountains and find an old Buddhist temple; did you feel like you had walked back in time?

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