Apologies in advance to Virginia Woolf.
Thunder rumbles. The rain falls in sheets on the tin roof above my bed. I glance at the mosquito netting hanging fifteen inches from my face and listen to the storm. The door to my room opens and my Homestay Mother, Mae Sveung, enters. She silently proceeds to drape a thick blanket over the mosquito netting, ensuring that all four corners cover the length and width of my bed. I say a quick “Okhun” (which translates to “thank you”) out of courtesy and continue to try to fall asleep, confused as to what had just occurred. It was only later that night, when I was still awake and listening to the rain, that I realized the purpose of the blanket: it was to protect me from the droplets of rainwater dripping slowly and rhythmically from the roof onto my bed.
Five minutes remaining. Robbie, Lina, Izzy and I frantically search for a rhyme for “monastery”. It is the end of our stay in Laos, and our group has been tasked with writing and performing a rap about our experience in the Land of the Million Elephants. Finally finishing the fourth verse, we run into the square of our guesthouse, ready to show what our four minds had created.
I walk along a thin path of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail. The steep cliffs loom large above us, and the peaks of the mountains look down from their solemn heights. I comment to Shade on the stunning power of the rocky slopes. We stop hiking to soak in the view, and smile. We both love mountains.
In full honesty, I have not read Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf. I have heard it is good, and that it is an important work among Woolf’s anthology. Today, the reason I have stolen her title is not because Woolf’s writings directly relate to this Yak post, but because the idea of “moments” is relevant to my experience on this trip.
On the third day of our China homestay, my 14-year-old host brother showed me photos of other students who had visited his home. The Naxi village in which my brother lives has provided homestays to Dragons students for 15 years, and it quickly became clear during my stay that my family was well-versed in the art of hospitality. Once my brother had come to the last photo, he wrote to me through a translating app (which, until then, had been exclusively used for casual questions such as “where are you from,” and “do you like dumplings?”): “the foreigners I have shown you have come here to experience life”. I raised my eyebrows, surprised by the incongruously deep statement, and gave a thumbs up.
A few days later I revisited his statement in a journal entry. I wrote his words out verbatim on my page, ready to move on to recording my next remembrance from the day, when I realized that I had no understanding of what he meant by his words. What does it mean to “experience life”? Doesn’t everyone experience life, like, all the time? And if everyone is constantly experiencing life, why would anyone go elsewhere to experience it? It crossed my mind that there was a translation error — perhaps a misplacement of the word “here” from “experience life here” and “come here to experience” — but I quickly disregarded this thought: I wanted to do my best to understand my host brother’s statement before dismissing it as a simple mistake. However, after reflecting for awhile, I was still confused. My 14-year-old host brother had me, to use one of Myles’ favourite words, flummoxed.
I still don’t believe I fully understand his statement, but I think that I have extracted a few thoughts which, looking back, are important in understanding my experience over the past three months. The key thought I have extracted is the following. Life is a series of moments. These moments, on the smallest scale, are infinitesimal; they are fractions of milliseconds, a beat of a hummingbird’s wings, the pixellated frames of a film that cannot be paused. Our lives are comprised of the sum of these moments. Experiencing a single moment is to experience life.
A stereotypical goal of gap-year students is to “find themselves”. In my mind I have always perceived the act of finding oneself as an abrupt realization, something that happens in a singular moment and in the snap of one’s fingers. Looking back on my gap year, I have not found myself. There has been no singular moment where I have suddenly understood who I was and my place in the world (as simple and nice as that would be). Instead, I have begun to recognize that “finding myself” is a life-quest, something that I will continue to do throughout the rest of my life through all of the small moments that I will experience. I have begun to recognize that “myself” is an ever-changing concept that evolves with each passing moment, and that “myself” must be constantly re-evaluated to achieve greater understanding of self and (as follows) others. I have begun to open my eyes to the small moments unfurling before me — the moments which both comprise life and, for me, give life its meaning — and to truly “experience life” as a series of “moments of being”.
The moments of the Mekong Spring Semester 2018 (as exemplified by the three moments I shared at the top of this page) have, like a series of tiles in a mosaic, come together to create one beautiful moment in my life. I know now that my host brother was right. I have come on this journey with Dragons to experience life. And I believe that I have succeeded.