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This may seem contrary to all the crying that happened, but my last week in China was an incredibly happy one. Nothing in my daily routine was really out of the ordinary, but knowing that I was going to be in America in a week prompted me to see everything with more grateful eyes.  I tried to make my days last longer, even though they were moving faster than ever. Before I knew it, it was the day of the final performance. Game Day. Please please PLEASE don’t rain during the show day. Or as my students liked to put it, “Fighting Day”. I woke up to messages from my students saying “we won’t let you down this evening” and “we will do our best”, and that was enough to start the waterworks that have followed me all the way to New York.

My team spent the day rehearsing, running through the songs/dances/scenes/skits/dialogues, checking the sound system, guessing how we would control the light system before we even had it set up, struggling to communicate what we needed in Chinese, fixing costumes, and making sure to give each other pep talks throughout all the hustling and bustling. In the little gaps in between, I would also have moments of realization that my time with my students, team, and host family was coming to an end.

Irene and I had a sound check at 5:00, which really started at 5:30 because of some miscommunication with the sound system (a leader at the school called our sound system manager and told him that we needed to turn down the volume, basically defeating the purpose of the sound check). The students kept singing, even with the chaos of the nonfunctioning microphones, and I was very appreciative of their patience and perseverance. Irene and I were more than a bit stressed during this, because we couldn’t be sure that the audience would be able to hear our students singing during the performance. Thankfully, David, our site coordinator, helped us work things out and got us back on track. We ended up finishing a little past 6:00, just in time for the students to squeeze in some dinner before getting ready for the show.

It was 7:00 finally, and the audience was already starting to crowd with students and families. Irene- my lovely co-teacher in singing- and I got our students into our preparatory “dream room” (where our singing students would sit until it was time for their performance) earlier on in the day. The N.9 students started forming lines to take pictures with all the Duke students as soon as we met with them before the show, partly because it was one of the last times they would see us and partly because they weren’t used to seeing us with makeup. One by one, they would come up to me and Irene with gifts and parting letters. I felt that same overwhelming feeling in my chest that I felt during the welcoming ceremony on my first day visiting the school.

By 7:30, Nadia and Phyllis were ready to introduce the final performance as emcees. I went towards the stage to help out, and I was thrilled to see that my host family was able to get seats in the front. I couldn’t wait for them to see Echo’s solo in her K-pop dance performance and the choir’s renditions of You’re Beautiful/What Makes You Beautiful (mashup), All of Me, and See You Again (what seems to be a timeless favorite). Seeing them there made this already significant final show even more meaningful to me.

It was time for us to perform our first two songs. Irene and I gathered our students, told them for the 567th time how proud we were of them, reminded them to move on stage and have fun, and thanked them for all their hard work. We all cheered, and Irene and I had them line up beside the stage as we helped set up the microphones and piano. Eventually the curtains opened to reveal 40-50 students who were admittedly nervous, but ready to sing with full hearts. No matter what happened, I knew I would have a smile on my face.

Even though I would probably get freaked out if the soundtrack and singing were off-tempo with each other any other day, it didn’t bother me this night. Our students weren’t fazed at all- they continued singing and moving with the most excitement I’ve ever seen from them. The rest of the performances were going well, and, it was already almost time for our class to sing the final song of the show, See You Again. Irene was on stage, about to perform an arrangement of the original instrumental string piece called Libertango with Daniel, Caroline (the arranger), and Megan. I ran to our dream room to round up the students and have our final pep talk. I couldn’t get in a full sentence before I started bawling in front of them. They got the point though- I loved them and couldn’t wait to sing with them for one last time. I forced myself to gain my composure, at least for the next 10 minutes until after our performance, and we lined up again after some dozen hugs later.

The rest of the night was a blur, quite literally. During See You Again, all I can really remember clearly is spotting my host family and singing to them during my solo (my host mom later said she cried at that moment, which of course then made me cry). After we finished the song, my class had a humongous group hug until the students were all rushed off stage so that the Duke students and some teachers could perform Mambo N. 5 (or as we liked to call it, Mambo N.9). I cried throughout the group dance, Zhuhai on That Beat (we decided to close the show by dancing the juju with our host siblings and students), and all the pictures, hugs, and goodbyes that followed.

Sunday came around, and the Duke students, host families, teachers, and even some other students met at the school for the final goodbyes. My students kept telling me to stop crying, even as they were crying, because they wanted to remember me happy and smiling. I tried to explain that I was happy beyond belief for the friendships and relationships I had made, and that crying naturally tends to be my go-to way of expressing and letting go of emotions. Whether I’m happy, angry, frustrated, sad, excited, etc., I cry whenever something has a strong impact on me.

When I think about these past two months, I end up focusing on subtle, smaller parts of my life in China. Here are some of the thoughts that run through my mind when I think of Duke Engage Zhuhai, Summer 2017:

I miss the gatekeeper in my neighborhood, who always left his booth just to open the gate and have a little conversation with me, if you can call rapid hand-motioning and laughter from mutual confusion a “conversation”.

I miss how my little sister Echo would ask me questions in English that she prepared in her notebook before seeing me.

I miss my littler sister Icey asking me to watch TV with her after dinner every day, pulling or
“decorating” my hair, jumping on my bed, and waking me up in the mornings whenever she wanted to play.

I miss my host dad’s bright smile and how he would always tell me he was the luckiest man in the world for having his family by his side.

I miss the conversations I had with my host mom about Chinese culture, the differences in the academic climate between China and America, and her dreams of studying dance.

I miss the little bowls of fruit my host parents (and occasionally Icey) would bring to my room after dinner.

I miss my daily walks to the school, where I would listen to music and try to memorize the details of the neighborhood’s layout so I would never forget it.

I miss passing by the busy shops and markets across from the school every morning.

I miss my students’ hugs and charmingly wrong-worded WeChat messages- though they will hopefully continue 🙂

I miss watching Tasty videos and listening to Lu Han’s music with my sisters before bed.

I miss the way my English students would always listen with an eagerness to learn, even if that wasn’t always reflected in their eagerness to participate.

I miss how some students stayed after our extracurricular singing class late in the day just to sing a few songs to me and Irene.

I miss the messy refuge that was our Duke Engage office, where all the brainstorming magic and unplanned team bonding took place.

I miss the weekends filled with action movies, embarrassing nights of karaoke (with solid blackmail material that I will present at my team members’ weddings one day), and grocery shopping with my host family.

I miss the songs my host sisters would sing to in the car (Echo made sure to send me links to a few of my favorites).

*I especially miss Icey’s thrilling rendition of “My Heart Will Go On”.

I miss holding the gate doors open for people in my neighborhood and low-key being proud of myself when I could respond “Bié kèqì” to their “Xièxiè”.

I miss the massages my host mom and I would get together, even if I ended up with a fully bruised back afterwards.

I miss drinking tea instead of water, and yogurt with a straw instead of a spoon.

I miss having limited access to wifi for most of my days, which made the world that was currently around me feel so much more accessible.

I miss going to sleep truly tired every night from the seemingly endless activities of every day.

I miss exploring the cities, mountains, bubble tea shops, lakes, temples, national relics, schools, and other beauties of China with some of my new best friends.

I miss going to our favorite noodle shop for lunch and not having to even tell the shop owner what we wanted to eat, because he already knew we wanted Tan Tan Mian from the other 20 times we had been there.

I miss coming home to Icey screaming “THEEEENA” and tugging my hand towards my room, where all her toys were conveniently placed.

I miss eating dinner every day with my host family, especially since I rarely had that experience growing up.

I miss being thrown in situations with little to no preparation and trying to make the most out of them.

I miss Aditya’s consideration for others and incredibly spot-on puns, Caroline’s nature to always keep it real and her unexpected soft side (tickling is key), Daniel’s adorable mess-ups (except that one time in Mafia, we all hated you then) and ability to make us all laugh, David’s warm smile and unbelievable patience for our antics, Hsiao-mei’s priceless guidance and stories that always introduced a new perspective to our lives, Irene’s incredibly comforting composure and straight up phenomenal talent and teaching skills, Jonah’s outgoing/fun personality that came along with clever jokes that went a tiny bit too far, Megan’s willingness to be up for anything and her newfound fearlessness that inspired all, Nadia’s never-ending bright smile, lightheartedness, and love of life, Pam’s open heart and mind that feeds into her determination for greatness, Phyllis’s fierce presence and much appreciated leadership, and Sara’s consistent care, grace, and genuine generosity (she brings new meaning to “thoughtfulness”). Best. Team. Ever.

These are not just pieces of my past- they will forever shape the way I see my world, meet new people, approach problems, and consider the depth behind everyone’s lives. As Hsiao-mei mentioned to us, these memories bring life to our education and give it meaning. They can’t exactly explain the moments when I felt overwhelmed with appreciation, excitement, and love, when my chest felt heavy with confusing, bittersweet emotions of simultaneous happiness and heartbreak, or when my tears fell because my smile wasn’t big enough to convey how touched I felt. But every small detail of this adventure makes up the impossible-to-describe, bigger picture that I would love to share with anyone that wants to take a peek at it.  Thank you to the millionth power to Hsiao-mei, David, Zhuhai N.9 Middle School faculty and students, and the rest of my team for all the time, energy, and love you poured into the most eye-opening, memorable experience of my life.


<3 Athina

@Dairy Queen the night before fighting day 🙂
Our beloved Tan Tan Mian!
A classic evening watching Tasty videos with Icey
Nadia loves her watermelon
The sole 4 boys in our singing class <3
Echo+ friends right before the show started!
Can you tell I’m crying?

My host family+ me during breakfast tea on our final day in Zhuhai

Beaaaaannn!!! The best co-teacher I could have asked for <3
My first English class ever at N.9 🙂
Leo was always a leader in our singing class!!
Happy Bean+ singing students 🙂
Saying goodbye to our families and friends from the windows of our bus

End of show hugs