When I entered the chaos of a new environment, I was shocked by how calm this new normal was. On my first day in our homestay in Hóngpó (红破), my most substantial contribution to my host family was the four bowls and pairs of chopsticks I set for dinner. Besides that, I sat in our wooden kitchen for most of the afternoon, watching TV and trying to stay out of the way of my family. For the next few days, I continued to feel unhelpful. I would set the table and wash dishes, but, primarily, smile as I followed my Yeye (grandfather) around the farm, as my family shot rapid-fire Tibetan at each other at dinner, and as I tried to make myself useful.
The ways in which I could help evolved over the coming days. When my Aiyi (host mother) and I video chatted with my host sister in college, she convinced my Aiyi to let me work in the fields. The next day, armed with a sickle and a pair gloves, I took to the mountainside. Even though my broken wrist prevented me from working as fast as my Aiyi (who was a MACHINE), I was able to cut grass for a few hours. When my Aiyi and I finished, we walked back to the house and chatted in broken Mandarin, the smiles on both our faces overcoming the language barrier that usually prevented us from communicating much.
The next day at dinner, after she spent the day picking mushrooms in the mountains, I noticed that she was wearing a hat. It was a faded white and looked hardened by hours under the sun and méilǐxuěshān (梅里雪山). Across the top, it said “Because I’m Happy”. Somehow, that phrase seemed to encapsulate how I felt in my homestay to that point. I could not understand what my family said at dinner (or communicate to most of them because they only spoke Tibetan), but, if I just smiled and laughed when they did, I could still enjoy being with them. Likewise, I could not understand most of what my Aiyi said, but, if I just smiled and said zhēndéma (真的吗? – wow, really?), we could still form a connection.
Now returned to Kunming, this approach to learning and cultivating meaningful connections continues to guide me. When Luke and I were on the bus yesterday, a woman in front of us starting talking to us. She wore a pink peacoat, had her hair pulled back into a tight low-pony, and peered through circular, gold-rimmed glasses. She spoke really quickly, as though the energy of the city made pushed her into overdrive, but I was able to discern a few things of what she said. She was from Ānqìng, a city in the east, was a freshman, and was studying medicine at Kunming Medical University (昆明医科大学). We had a short conversation then had to get off the bus, but I still felt like I was able to form a connection in that time. We won’t meet again, but I still feel closer to this city and this country from our interaction. What I attribute it to: just smiling and going along with it – simply because I was happy.