I have been returning to China every summer since I was nine. The first year, I went with a summer camp and noticed quickly that I was homesick. After all the fun and games with my peers, I sat in my room and cried helplessly, thinking I would never get through the summer.
But the next year, things got better. And the year after, things got even better. In the summer of 2005, I went back to China again but this time it wasn’t just to visit my grandparents and cousins.
It wasn’t just to have meals with my parents’ old college friends and go bargain hunting in hundred-degree weather with my aunts. It was to act as a camp counselor for Chinese children who had been adopted into American families at a young age. Most of them had no recollection of the language or the food or the culture whatsoever but before long, it all came rushing back at them.
Both the children and their parents were a part of a two-week long summer camp in which adopted children were taken back to their roots to learn about their heritage, but not to be a tourist or sightseer. Instead, they participated in tea ceremonies and made their own dumplings. They sang Chinese nursery rhymes and danced traditional Chinese dances with local children of similar ages.
There were adopted children from all over the world that came to participate in this journey of understanding and appreciation. We had one family from Ireland, two families from Michigan, and a handful from the tri-state area. And I looked on, almost longingly at how easily these families connected with Chinese families from halfway around the world.
I was in awe of how the common language between the children was neither Chinese nor English but rather youth. And in these two weeks, I learned more about my own heritage than all of my previous summers combined. I learned about the origins of Chinese cuisine and calligraphy and even got to do a little teaching of my own.
While the children were busy making friends, the parents had their own classes. In the morning, they woke up to tai chi class and by the early afternoon they were taking mandarin lessons and by late afternoon they were learning about Chinese opera or masks or music or acupuncture or whatever the day’s seminar was. Once in a while, I sat in on their lessons and got the chance to teach the parents some of the more interesting phrases in Chinese.
It was everything from Diet Coke to vanilla ice cream to ‘More towels please.’ And it was fun. Going into the summer I had not expected that I would come out of it knowing new people from all across the globe. That summer I had not only learned new things but I felt them.
I felt them somewhere deep in my heart when the families threw me a surprise party at the end of the program to thank me for my help and support. I felt them even when a camper would give me a hug for no apparent reason and tell me they wanted to sit next to me on the bus. Even though most of the things that I saw and places that I went were not new to me, they seemed to come across in a whole new light. I was more inquisitive and fascinated than ever before. I realized that all of this country, this 5000-year-old culture was beautiful. I will always find it amusing how a bunch of campers could make me renew my appreciation for China and in a way, renew my appreciation for myself.
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