Love Letters to China Part III (Harleen Kaur – Bonderman Fellow)

china,

i’m quite awful at goodbyes, which you’ll see in just a few days now.

what is home really? as a girl who lived in three states and attended school in at least five different school districts before college, i’m not sure that i’m qualified to speak on this. (you’d think this would make me better at goodbyes, too. sadly not.) but somehow, i feel that traveling to more places has allowed me to better realize what this four letter word could possibly mean.

teaching at english to adults a school in yangshuo, i spent my “cultural presentation” night talking about the history of chinese americans. i felt that it would touch on both my students’ history and my own. when i finished, a young man asked me, “would you ever go back to india?”

my mind fixated on the idea of “going back,” since i had never arrived in india in the first place, but i tried to share—in my simplest english—the current state of affairs. thinking of the bloodshed and the police brutality and the government-mandated curfew and how i could never go back because punjab and especially india were never mine to begin with. but never was america. and so i cannot go back to anywhere.

my first night in shanghai, my dad’s old colleague took me out to dinner and remarked how on his recent business trip to mumbai he had realized how similar india and china were. i nodded and tried to say something intelligent, but i had never thought about it before, to be honest. how could i, since i’m not even sure what india is like to begin with? yet i have always been homesick for the land i do not know.

Large Goose Pagoda, Xi’an.

Large Goose Pagoda, Xi’an.

china has been a funny experience because it has both made me thankful for parts of america i did not even think to be thankful for, but it has also made me feel welcome in new places and given me friends and companionship and confidence and strength. it has taught me how to bargain a vendor in a language i can barely count to ten in and how to signal for which fruit or dumplings i want to buy for breakfast and how to pick street food based on photos and semi-familiar chinese signs.

thank you, china, for making me feel home.

thank you for teaching me and reminding me how we are more similar than different. how even in the deepest parts of your history i am reminded of my own—both the american and punjabi parts of it. your rice terraces remind me of farmland in punjab and midwestern america, your neon lights and skyscrapers reminiscent of new york, your tuk tuks and scooters and traffic like the streets in india, and your pride and strength like all people have—or hope to have—of their own home.

Muslim Quarter shops, Xi’an.

Muslim Quarter shops, Xi’an.

what is home, really? i think it’s the woman doing laundry in front of her house who smiles and gives directions without me even asking, through gestures and laughs, when she sees me wandering lost in the streets. it’s the driver who cannot find my hostel at the address i gave him but signals for me to wait in the car while he runs up and down side streets in the pouring rain until he sees it. it’s sitting in the lawn of a mosque after friday prayer and seeing all the kurtasand hijabs walk out into the street to the rest of their weekend. it’s the street vendor who recognizes me from the day before and that i don’t eat meat and brings up the same order for me again. it’s the farmer who helps me get my bike out of a ditch when i take a wrong turn and end up losts in the villages of yangshuo county.

i sit in a bus and watch a grandma confidently eat cherries, or some fruit that looks like them, spitting the seeds to the ground without a second glance. i wish that i had the same confidence, to look forward and get rid of what is not needed without a doubt. i see how the sun has wrinkled her skin after yeaHarleen Kaur China 4rs in the fields and happiness has wrinkled the corners of her eyes. perhaps she is going to pick up groceries from the next town or maybe she is going to see family. we make a stop and another woman gets on, they know each other, and they exchange banter lightly with laughs. eventually the second woman goes further back in the bus to sit down. the grandma returns to her cherries, seeds falling to the ground, her eyes never looking away from home.

love always,

h

For more information on how you can receive $20,000 to travel the world for 8 months as a Bonderman Fellow, visit the CGIS website.

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