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China to Paris-December 21-27, 2006

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Thursday, 21 December 2006

I am finally on a plane from Beijing to Paris, after a day full of travel fiascos and emotional goodbyes. Students came to my room starting after dinner last night, to say goodbye, ask me again why I had to go and what time I would leave in the morning, when I would come back… It’s hard to think that I might never see them again. I ended up with bags full of cards, drawings, and origami creations to remember them by. And again this morning, starting at 6 am, I got their little knocks on my door, and their heartbreaking tears of farewell.

When Jack and I finally got in the car to leave, it took 30 minutes just to get up the hill to leave the school, as it was covered in black ice and his car’s tires spun in futility as we endlessly reversed and tried again. We finally made it out, and then half way to the airport we hit a wall of fog and there was suddenly zero percent visibility. When we finally found the airport in the white haze, it was clear that no planes were leaving.

Three hours later, we finally left, the fog obscuring all of Yantai as we took off over my home for the past three months. I was looking forward to seeing the aerial view on my departure, and had anticipated a romanticized vision of watching it disappear as we climbed, but perhaps this barrier to the nostalgia was fitting. Our delay meant I didn’t make my flight from Beijing to Paris, which in turn meant some frustrating negotiation with Air China and Air France to figure out how to get on another flight. But, alas, I’m now finally here, and in about 11 hours, will land in Paris.

I’m trying to get a grasp of some large lesson from my time in China, and though I have such strong moments that are significant to me, I think I’m still too close to the experience to articulate some big take-away. Having just finished a great book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, and being inspired and reflective about it, I regret a little that I didn’t push for my goal of going to do something meaningful in the really underdeveloped and poor rural areas beyond Yantai. But, of course, there are the excuses of being busy with my obligations there as it was already, and not having ready access. And, there will always be more things to do. Hopefully someday I can return to do them.

Goodbye, China.

Sunday, 24 December 2006

Christmas Eve

So many things to celebrate…Christmas Eve, being back in a city that I love, seeing my parents for one of the visiting points of the Fellowship. It is so festive to be here for the holidays, and is almost sensory overload to have transitioned from Yantai to Paris, and on top of that to have Paris decorated as beautifully as it is.

I did not at all anticipate the degree to which I would experience culture shock over these past few days. I knew Paris would be a sharp contrast to Yantai, and even though I was sad to leave and say goodbye to the kids and friends I had made, I was also eager to begin this next stage. Yet the first few days that I was here it was like being in a whole new world, feeling like I was experiencing this city for the first time in spite of my knowing it quite well from past visits and studying abroad here in high school and college. But this time, I was newly astounded by the scenery, the wealth, the pace of life, almost everything. This feeling made me disoriented, and then almost in disbelief that I had left Asia.

The beauty of Parisian architecture is stunning after living in an environment where the residential buildings were minimalist functional shelters, not romantic artistic structures. The absence of the pollution here in Paris further glorifies the environment; the afternoon sun reflects in a glow off the side of stone buildings, rather than exposing layers of gray soot on tin or cinderblock.

In addition to feeling disoriented, I feel nostalgic for China, and also as though returning to the Western world is in some way betraying my experience of the past three months. It forces me to think about the inequities of development. In reference to China, those inequities aren’t just between China and other nations, but within China as a whole.

Part of the challenge of this year is to reconcile sharply contrasting transitions. Trasitioning to the developed world in the middle of my abroad placements heightens that challenge, although it was mostly a result of scheduling. And although going from the US to China was obviously a contextual contrast, I didn’t feel the same inexplicable anxiety and disorientation when I arrived in Yantai that I did these past few days arriving in Europe. I had become relatively comfortable living in China, a much starker environment, and it has been the return to my more familiar surroundings that has shocked me. I wonder if I’ll feel the same when I transition from Africa to the US at the end of the Fellowship year.

In spite of the geographic and emotional whirlwind of the last few days, this Christmas Eve I’m feeling very grateful…for wonderful company on this holiday, the opportunity to see these contrasts and relatively effortlessly travel between them, and the chance to embark on something new and totally different for the next three months.

Wednesday, 27 December 2006

I’m now in Brussels, after enjoying seeing my favorite museums in Paris, eating delicious French food, celebrating Christmas, taking a short trip yesterday outside of the city to Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte, and an easy train ride today from Gare du Nord. Brussels isn’t what I expected; less the picturesque and quaint European city and more architecturally disjointed and linguistically incoherent, which I guess happens in a country with more than one official language. But it too is very festively decorated, and the Grand Place has a beautiful Christmas tree and winter light show in the evening.

Today I visited the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, walked around the city, and enjoyed a delicious warm Belgian waffle from one of the plethora of street vendors. Tomorrow, on to Bruges as I make my way north and eventually to The Hague!