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Photo by Kate Gross-Whitaker

When I Forgot my Clothes at Home

We arrived in Kunming on National Day, almost three weeks ago, to a city strung with red anniversary banners. We arrived without much fanfare; there were no fireworks, no long feared security checks, and very few people out on the streets. Our first week in Kunming coincided with a seven-day national holiday, so many people had made the opposite trip, back to the countryside, to visit family.

On our second day, we retrieved our luggage from the program house. I remember how proud I felt when I first packed everything – rolled into tight wads and snugged together like jig saw pieces – into a hiking bag and suitcase. This is everything I need, I thought. Then we left for our first month’s trek; I took only a fraction of that luggage with me.

Now I come back, pleasantly surprised to find the things I left behind. I had already forgotten about my dresses, the black leather loafers that I wore most days of senior year, plus all the chocolate stashed at the bottom of my suitcase.

The process of forgetting is a funny one. It dawns on you like a feather—softly and silently. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I, as an individual, am a composite of all my memories. And so the significance of forgetting my belongings, which I had earlier deemed “essential” enough to take to Kunming in the first place, means that those belongings are in no way essential, in no way defining to me at all.  During our two weeks’ time in rural Bangdong, I found my attention shifting from tangible things (what I wanted to wear tomorrow, my phone, my next cup of boba, etc, etc.) towards the people and places I lived with. I want to share a couple my favorite memories below —

I will remember the mornings spent picking tea with my 姐姐, sister. There, while my hands darkened shade by shade beneath the sun, I talked and listened with my 姐姐. She’s lived in a multitude of places, doing all sorts of jobs. She even spent a few years in Nanjing, the city where my family is from. She tells me all the progress the village has seen in the last four years. There’s construction going on for a highway to Lincang, the closest city, where ten years ago the village only had dirt roads. Almost every family has renovated their house. I tell her that I wonder if my parents would have still immigrated if they lived in China now.

I started by picking five-year-old tea bushes with under 姐姐’s watchful eyes. Then I slowly progressed to picking tea bushes on my own. Then 姐姐 took me to her families’ older tea trees. Finally, on my second to last day, I accompanied her to help pick her relative’s ancient tea trees, hundreds of years old, the oldest in town. As my skill, speed, and confidence grew, so too did 姐姐’s trust and openness.

I remember the night I shared with everyone on the basketball court. Our eyes to the sky, listening to stars’ quiet piles of light. The sky swirled and swirled. I had never seen so many stars in my life. I had never felt as close as I did to the land we lived upon.

Kunming is a return to all the luxuries I am used to. A five minutes’ walk from anywhere results in stationary, fruit, boba, rice noodle, snack and convenience stores. My phone and laptop are an arm’s reach away. As I transition into this new life, I want to remember my experience in Bangdong. There’s a lot more I can experience, if I let myself forget.