Dear Bridge Year China students,
大家好！A warm hello from the foggy Snoqualmie Valley (outside of Seattle, Washington) where I have been working on an organic farm all summer. Weeding pumpkins, digging up onions, and eating fruits right off the tree, I notice that my time here is not so different from the time I’ve spent in rural China. I’ve tilled farm beds and spread compost with my host grandpa in Nanyao village, Lijiang. I’ve picked peppers, papayas, and tea leaves with families in Jinuo Mountain, Xishuangbanna. I can recognize potato plants above the ground because they’re one of the few vegetables that grows on the rugged, frosty Tibetan plateau. The peppers here aren’t as spicy as those in China and these potatoes won’t be steamed into momos over a yak dung fire, but overall I find the similarities comforting and hopeful—they remind me how interconnected our world can be despite the so-called “barriers” of language, culture, and nation. Many people see travel as seeking out the new and unfamiliar, but my greatest joys have been finding familiarity, connection, and belonging in unlikely places.
My name is Madeleine Colvin (in Chinese, 颜西樱 Yán Xīyīng) and I will be one of your instructors for the first six weeks of your time in China. I am grateful and excited to be a part of your Bridge Year experience, and to work alongside my friends Ling and Jesse.
I have spent the past few years in China, but I grew up in the Seattle area under drizzly, textured skies and tall, mossy trees. My mom is from Taiwan and my dad is from Texas, so I was raised across cultures, celebrating the Lunar New Year at home while also learning to shoot rifles at summer camp in rural Texas. Perhaps because of the different places and cultures that colored my upbringing, I chose to study International Relations at Pomona College. While there, I spent a semester studying abroad at Yunnan University and wrote a senior thesis about settler colonialism, gender, and ethnic tourism in China and the United States. Upon graduating, I returned to Yunnan province on a Fulbright fellowship to research tourism development on China’s ethnic borders with Myanmar and Laos.
The year I spent living in Jinuo and Dai villages in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region made me completely rethink my notions of what it means to be an “ethnic minority” and a “rural villager” in today’s China. I had never been so inspired by community or cried so much at the kindness of strangers. Though most people ask either about my research conclusions or about the “wild” and “exotic” things I saw and ate, my fondest memories are the most mundane moments—sitting outside and chatting with my family each night after dinner, joking about tourists with my favorite village grandmas, relishing the delicious sound of torrential rain on a tin roof. Catching and eating giant spiders is not profound, nor is presenting research at a conference; feeling at home halfway across the world is.
I hope that during your year in China, you can also experience this feeling of being at home so far away from home. For me, it’s why I travel and why I spent years struggling to master the Chinese language. There are few things more beautiful than making a friend in a new language, whether that friend is a curious ten-year-old in Bapo Village, Xishuangbanna or a street vendor selling erkuai outside your apartment complex in Kunming.
I came upon Where There Be Dragons through a chance encounter in Kunming back in 2016 and soon began helping instructors organize village homestays in one of my host communities. Living in tourist villages had left me quite cynical about tourism, but I was so impressed by the respectful, reciprocal cultural exchange that I witnessed while coordinating Dragons homestays that I applied to become an instructor myself. Since then, I have led summer and semester courses in China and, most recently, a semester course traveling along the Mekong River through China, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia.
Living and traveling together in China will be inspiring, annoying, silly, messy, overwhelming, energizing, and exhausting. You will be pushed and you will be uncomfortable. You will learn independence as well as interdependence. Please come with open hearts and minds, ready to make mistakes and question your assumptions. In preparing for this year, I encourage you to pack lightly and think deeply about what you want out of this experience. This is your year—what will you make of it? What do you want to learn? How do you want to grow?
Thank you for your courage in choosing to spend a year in China, and to everyone who supports you in this endeavor. I can’t wait to share some pu’er tea with you all soon!