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Photo by Parker Pflaum, Summer 2014

Hello from Nina!

Dear Students, Families, and Teachers at Haverford,

Hello from beautiful Asheville, NC!  I’m Nina LaFerla, and it’s my great honor to serve as your instructor and guide for our journey this summer.  I work as a teacher of history at Carolina Day School, and today I am breathing a sigh of relief now that all of my final exams are graded and put away. Even if you are 39 years old like I am, there’s still nothing like the feeling you get when you wake up on that first day of summer vacation and realize: it’s summer! It’s really here!  It’s time to turn my heart and my mind towards all the infinite, delicious possibilities of the months ahead  — and I’d like to invite you to do the same, my dear Haverford travelin’ family.  What do you want to do in China?  What do you hope to achieve?  What do you want to be able to brag to family and friends about when you return home?  How do you want to change your innermost self, the part that only you know, deep down? Although we may have different goals and dreams, when we unite in June, anything is possible…

A summer just unfolding; a journey about to begin.  This summer, we will unite as strangers but return home as family.  Our days together will be filled with amazing adventures, new friends, mind-boggling landscapes and many plates of delicious food, and each day will be a journey towards a common goal: deepening our understanding of China, and of ourselves.  As we travel from glittering Beijing, to a stay with the Yi people in rural Yunnan Province, to the growing metropolis of Kunming, you will deepen your understanding on the daily as you immerse into Chinese culture and daily life.  Deepening your understanding  can also mean becoming more fluid, less shallow in your perspective on life, as you learn to flow gracefully beyond your own cultural boundaries and see the world and yourself in a whole new way.  On a trip like ours, deepening your understanding means more than visiting a famous tourist spot or eating a fancy meal.  It means undergoing challenges, it means being tested. By pushing your boundaries far into the unfamiliar, you can gain an understanding of yourself that you can use to confidently to embrace any situation, any challenge.  This summer we will journey together towards a deep understanding of China and of ourselves that will give you the confidence to operate successfully not only in China, but wherever you may be in the world.

Journeys are my specialty, after all.  When you travel with me, you’ll be journeying through both space and time.  I’m a history teacher.  When we go to China together I will use my time travelling skills to bring you back in time — and maybe even forward.  Together, we will deepen our understanding of China as we explore Chinese culture from its ancient roots to its amazing modern evolution.   I’m an experienced time traveler … I mean Chinese historian… and I welcome you to join me in seeing  China as few people ever see it – not just in space but in time, and genuinely in-depth. This summer, we’ll have four millennia of astonishing art, philosophy, warfare, religion, and technology to play with – where would you like to go?

I’m quite good at travelling in space, too.  This is my 7th time leading for Dragons. I’ve been to 20 countries and counting.  I’ve raced horses with Tibetan nomads (and won).  I’ve crossed the Arctic Circle and the Equator.  My first visit to China was in 1994 when I was 14 years old.  Ever since then I’ve loved China, and like many of you now, I dreamed of becoming fluent in Chinese and understanding Chinese culture on another level.  In 2001 I moved to China to live, and stayed there for about six years total.  I lived mainly in Sichuan and Shanghai, studying Chinese and teaching English.  From 2001 to now, I’ve covered a lot of  ground in China — 21 out of 34 provinces —  and much of my travel has been solo.   I’m especially interested in Chinese traditional philosophy and religion, so I spent a lot of time toiling up sacred mountains and getting to know the people up there.  (And burning a LOT of incense along the way.)  One big thing I learned from these travels was:  the hard climbs are always worth it.

The China that I know and love so much has  been the place of both my greatest challenges and my greatest triumphs.  Becoming fluent in Chinese is still my proudest achievement in life.  (Second is teaching a class of Chinese 5-year-olds to do the robot on command.) My time in China has taught me that I am capable of anything I put my mind to, and I carry that precious awareness with me every day, no matter where I am.  This self-awareness that gives me the confidence and courage to navigate any challenge  was not easy to come by, though.  I can’tpromise you that our time in China will always be completely comfortable.   You will deal with new and unfamiliar things each and every day: from different hygiene standards to communication problems in your homestay, from the food you eat to learning how to function as a group, our journey will challenge you and smash through boundaries you didn’t even know you had put up.  I can promise you that I and my incredible co-instructor, Gong Jiaju, will work to keep you safe, healthy, and learning every step of the journey.  If you can be ready to meet us halfway, and be ready to be patient, adaptive, tough, and open-minded, then by the time you leave for home, you will have earned deep wisdom about China, about the world, and about yourself.  You will be able to flow between worlds and perspectives as gracefully as water, fluent and confident —  no matter where you happen to be.

Our journey together is going to challenging, it’s going to be uncomfortable, and most of all it’s going to be awesome. Gong and I cannot wait to meet you in June!  If you have any questions, you can post them to the board and I will answer them as best I can, or you can email me at [email protected].  See you soon, Haverford!