I grew up in Central Arkansas—born and raised, in fact. I know all my southern pleasantries—yes ma’am and no sir. I can “Bless Your Heart”, catch lightening bugs, and drink sweet tea with the best of them. I was a true southerner—I’d never traveled north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and I swore I’d never live more than two hours away from my mama. But then along came China.
China was a surprise to me and my family. It wasn’t in our plan, and it was never a dream destination. But it was hands-down the best decision we ever made.
When we arrived (two years ago now), we received a warm welcome that would rival Southern hospitality. Weeks before coming, teachers reached out to me and my family via WeChat. They sent videos and text messages welcoming me and advising me on what items to bring or leave at home. A few of the foreign teachers even had their children send welcome videos to my son. So when we walked in the door at Peter Hall and were greeted by a sea of faces, it was nice to be able to pick a few out from the crowd. Honestly, it felt like I was leaving my family at home behind, only to be welcomed into another. It left me feeling hopeful and at peace about the whole situation.
I wish I could say every year I’ve returned I’ve had this same feeling. But living abroad comes with its own set of challenges. Peter Hall is often referred to as a revolving door, meaning that each spring we must say goodbye to close friends and members of our ex-pat family, and each fall, we welcome new members in.
This process becomes increasingly more difficult each year, and of course, there is a time period of adjustment. For me, this period seems to last for the first four to six weeks of the fall semester. During this time, I can’t help but look around the cafeteria, somewhat startled to see all the new faces sitting where Megan used to sit or a new sign on the door where Bri used to live. I feel a little heartsick. I feel a little lost, and I need time to grieve those friends who won’t be knocking on my door multiple times per week as they had in the past. But I honestly think that is okay.
I’m learning through my time abroad that grief is something that must be worked through. One cannot simply ignore it, or stuff it down with sweet breads and milk teas. Grief will always come back up. So I take my time. I grieve my losses and reach out to the friends that I miss. But then, I get off my couch and leave my apartment. I go out and seek the people who may feel a little lost themselves, who maybe had never lived outside of their home state before either or who are dealing with culture shock. I show them my favorite restaurants and tea shops. I take them on walks to help them get more familiar with the campus, and we share our stories.
It’s difficult to open yourself up to new people year after year, all the while knowing that half of these people you welcome into your home and heart will not return. But then, I remember that first year I came to Sias. I think about how I felt to be received in such a way, and I remember all the Southern hospitality the great Southern women in my life taught me—and I think, how can I not?
Meet the author
Kayla Dean is an Arkansas native who moved to China with her husband and son in 2017. Kayla graduated from Arkansas State University in 2011 with her M.A. in English, and she currently teaches English Composition for Fort Hays State University at Sias. In her free time, Kayla enjoys singing, reading post-apocalyptic novels, writing some poetry or fiction of her own, and spending time with her growing family in the great outdoors.
*Author photo credit to FHSU.