As I glanced around the huge table at dinner, my heart felt both excitement and unease. While there were a few faces I knew well- some even better now that we’d spent weeks traversing Asia together- I was also surrounded by many I didn’t, all members of the new Duke Engage Zhuhai team. My shyness kicked in and I spent most of the meal eating mutely, too timid to strike up conversation with the people around me. But one of the things I wanted to take away from this program 2 years ago was to find comfort in discomfort, so experiencing that again was almost nostalgic. I spent most of the next few days basking in that feeling, constantly caught between past and present.
My name is Vanessa Wu and I was a participant during Duke Engage Zhuhai 2015. It’s been two years since I was a rising Junior who spent her summer in Zhuhai with a team that began as mostly strangers. These past few months I graduated from Duke and travelled Asia with 5 of my fellow teammates from 2015. For the last leg of our trip we returned to the place that brought us all together and were lucky enough to spend a fleeting 3 days here again.
The main idea that’s been occupying my mind these past few days is the passage of time. Students that were quiet and timid are now serene and so confident in themselves. The school uniform has changed. Children have grown tall. Grade 7 became Grade 9, and they all graduated with a beautiful celebration with singing and speeches that I honestly enjoyed more than my own graduation. More often than not when seeing old students it would take me several moments just to recognize them, including my own host sister. So much has changed.
But at the same time, some things have not changed at all. My host family is as warm and welcoming as ever and their dog is still fluffy and cute. As I walked through the street immediately adjacent to No. 9 with Sharon we marveled at how many stores we still knew. My favorite bubble tea shop is still there and still tastes amazing. My absolute favorite place to go for lunch, the stone pot noodle store, is still open and I was so excited that I went there twice in the span of two days. As I stirred the noodles around in the big black pot, in my head I heard my teammate Cindy complaining about how oily it was, so clearly it almost felt as if her voice had slipped through the years to reach me.
Two years ago we talked about how our lives were like Venn Diagrams that would only get the chance to intersect that one ephemeral summer. Our brief stay reminded me of that conversation again. When I first arrived I found myself constantly wishing that all my teammates could be there with me, but I also understood that wasn’t what I really wanted. Even if we could all come together again in this city things still wouldn’t feel quite the same. Everyone has grown and changed too much, even if this city has not. What I really wished was to be transported back in time so I could experience that summer (ups, downs, sweltering heat and all) again. But of course, that can’t happen- and even if it could, would these memories and relationships still be as special to me then?
Two years ago I left this city in tears, full of regrets and promises to return. This time, saying goodbye to 九中 at the same time as my students, I feel closure and happiness. This time there were no tears from the students, only celebration and joy. As Dennis and Tim said as we made our last exit through the gates of the school, the ceremony was the essence of bittersweet. My heart is full of so much pride and love for this school, my students, my teammates, the people who have helped us along the way and welcomed us so warmly back. There’s no way for my wish to ever be granted, nor do I particularly want it to, but we are all moving on to new chapters of our lives together. 我爱九中，我爱珠海。