Taking in a Stray
I arrived at the Kunming Airport in Yunnan Province, China without so much as a hotel reservation and with a very limited command of Mandarin. I was 22 and it was my first time traveling as a solo female to such a different place. My plan, as usual, was to wing it.
I grabbed the first taxi I saw, hauled my luggage and fieldwork equipment into the trunk, and gave them a handwritten address to a hotel a colleague had mentioned. It was the summer after my first year in graduate school and I was in Yunnan to conduct research on the beautiful mountain shrub, rhododendron. I arrived a few weeks before my mandated orientation, explored, tried to make connections at the botanical institution, and traveled elsewhere in Yunnan to visit some colleagues.
I felt like a stray kitten being taken in, but in a good way.
After a few weeks of this, I returned to Kunming and checked back into the very basic hotel I had initially stayed in. One day, Yahan, the coordinator for my orientation, a young woman only slightly older than me, met me for dinner. She was also a botany student and wanted to make sure that my first time in China was enjoyable. At dinner, she asked where I was staying and I answered with the name of a hotel around the corner. She was alarmed that I was still staying in a hotel, and she decided to take me home with her, saying that I could stay in her spare room. I felt like a stray kitten being taken in, but in a good way.
After dinner, we went to my hotel, threw everything in my bags, and I checked out. We grabbed a cab and took the 30-minute ride to the edge of the city. The apartment was located on the campus of the botanical institution and botanical gardens. There were a cluster of apartments grouped together and the one we went to was the furthest from the road. We walked the four flights up to the apartment, lugging my hurriedly packed luggage behind us like sherpas. Upon our arrival to the apartment, we were greeted by her two roommates. I was not expecting that!
Yahan introduced me to her best friend Jing, whose English name is Piggy, and Piggy’s husband Jiang Cong, whose nickname is Onion. My first thought was, ‘Oh boy, I now have three roommates,’ quickly followed by ‘Piggy and Onion speak great English, so why do they use these English nicknames?’ There is a reason, I swear, but I didn’t learn it until much, much later. Go with the flow seemed to be the theme for the day. Little did I know that these three people would be where my experiences, cultural exchange, work success, and love for China began!
When meeting new people, I’m generally pretty quiet, so that first introduction didn’t include a ton of conversation on my part. Luckily, it was pretty late and we all had to work the next day, so shortly after my arrival, we retired to our rooms. I spent the next few days in the apartment settling in, recording field notes, and trying without success and with much frustration to find a collaborator.
Without this warm welcome and their kindness, I’m not sure that I would be who I am today.
One day, not soon after my moving in, the trio came home for lunch, and Piggy made us all a bowl of small pot rice noodles. Over lunch we chatted about our research and I regaled them with my difficultly finding a professor to sponsor my research. Immediately, they all offered to help by introducing me around. Without this warm welcome and their kindness, I’m not sure that I would be who I am today.
While staying with Yahan, Piggy, and Onion I made some incredible memories including joining their family for their PhD graduation celebration, where I helped to do their hair, and tried a thousand year egg for the first time. I remember a trip to Fu Xian Lake, the third deepest lake in China, that took us three hired drivers (we didn’t have a car), several hours, and lots of laughs to reach. Upon our arrival, Onion, who made it his mission for me to taste every local specialty, made sure to bring me to each street stand and restaurant so that I could try different dishes. I cherish this and every other memory we made together that summer.
I returned to China numerous times throughout graduate school (and still do now, years later). and though our jobs, lives, and living situations have changed drastically over the years, we remain the closest of friends. In fact, I still stay in their spare room while in Kunming. Little did I know that when Yahan took me in I would make three lifelong friends. Now I just hope that one day I can share my spare room with them.
Photo credit: Miltos Gikas