Hello! My name is Ming, and I’ll be a member of your fall support staff. I’ll be with you on your travels in Yunnan in September, and in early October work with you to settle into Kunming, your home base for most of your nine months in China.
I joined Dragons as an instructor in the summer of 2015, and have led back-to-back summer and semester courses here in China. My most recent (and seventh) course with Dragons concluded over a week ago, by the grasslands next to Qinghai Lake, the largest lake in China. Despite being born in China I have not spent an extensive amount of time here – my family moved to Singapore when I was six, and I spent fifteen years growing up in the island city-state. I went to the U.S. for college, and after graduating moved back to my childhood base in Chengdu, Sichuan, where I started working with a local environmental NGO, promoting an ecological village project. It was at the ecological village where I first worked with Dragons students as a local guide and environmental educator, and for the last two years I have been working as a more general educator and mentor with high school and gap-year students.
Traveling with Dragons has opened me up to the scale and diversity of China, and a rich multitude of experiences. Some of my fondest memories in Yunnan province include a home-stay appreciation and dance party with the Naxi grandmas of Jixiang Village; a hike through fresh snow, as we departed from the Yi village of Geladan; and Sunday service in the Tibetan village of Baihanluo, at a Catholic church standing since 1905, built using tiles and bricks transported via horseback from the Lancang (Mekong) Valley over 13,000 feet of Biluo Jokul. These experiences have been possible because of how closely Dragons programs move to the ground: we are placed in close proximity to people often on the peripheries, and gain the privilege of hearing what societal change, development, and local people’s cultural and natural environments mean for them. It also helps that we travel as a medium-sized group, which facilitates community-level cultural exchange that is hard to replicate on my personal travels, and of course makes for more varied offerings when we sit down for family-style meals. In the months to come I hope you will embrace both the ruggedness and the group aspect of our travels, and enjoy exploring the unknown and the uncomfortable with your peers.
The theme of group-based exploration and adventure is common to all Dragons programs, so I think what sets the Bridge Year program apart is its duration. When I introduce the program to friends and partners outside of the Dragons instructor community, the most common response is an incredulous “they [the students] are here for almost a full year!” It can be a daunting prospect, to be so far away from home, for such an extended period. At the same time, I think it is a perfect length of time, at an important transitional stage of your lives, to be away from the distractions of home, and really look inwards and understand who you are, how you came to be here, and in what areas you need to grow. The China-specific learning you will encounter, and the connections and friendships you will build with your peer group should not be mere events on your nine-month-long calendar – these should also inform your views on ‘home’ and the place you hold in the world, and how you are and can be as a leader and a teammate. I am very much looking forward to joining you on your path of self-discovery and growth this fall.
A final hope I have (for now) is that you will create deep and meaningful impact with our community partners and your NGO placements. This past week I had accompanied some U.S.-based high school and middle school teachers around Yunnan and Sichuan, to introduce them to our local partners and share with them Dragons resources on the ground in southwestern China. When we entered the Kunming office of Pesticide Eco Alternative Center (PEAC) for an afternoon visit the first thing I noticed was a photo of Natalie Nagorski (BYP 2015-2016) on one of her field trips with PEAC to a village project site in Dali. I then ‘saw’ Nikhita Salgame and Christina Moon (BYP 2016-2017) as well, and it was nice to see images of our volunteers displayed prominently, and recognized for their work. While April 2018 – when your time in Kunming dwindles down and you are fully focused on your month-long expedition – is a long time away, I encourage you to start thinking about the service you would like to have done by the time you leave, and with some goals in mind work backwards to figure out how you can best set yourselves up for success. What are the skills and tools you will need? What are the potential challenges, and how will you respond to them? You have the potential to do great work, and I am excited to learn about the creative efforts you will put in.
See y’all in-person, in less than a month!