Last night I had dinner in Beijing with Skyler, a student I taught the first year I moved to Hengyang, China in 2015.
When we first met in 2015 she was 17, and a new freshman at the University of South China. I was 22, a fresh media major graduate and a new university English teacher.
But in a parallel way I felt like a freshman again, too: a freshman to China. Everything was so new to me; the language, the culture, the local Hunan food, and adapting to a small city in China.
Skyler was in oral English class 3, and immediately stood out among her peers because because of her curiosity, friendliness and openness. While some of her classmates were shy around a foreign teacher, she was eager to ask me questions about America, pop culture and TV shows (especially FRIENDS), and what I thought about China.
In return, I was eager to ask her about Chinese culture and learn about Hengyang from her, since it was her hometown.
We would often have activities and meet ups with our students, and Skyler invited me to go on trips around Hengyang to parks, temples, and scenic areas. Here is an excerpt from an old post I wrote in 2015 about one of our trips in Hengyang:
"This weekend I explored Hengyang a little more with two of my students, Skyler and Jenny. Skyler is the most darling little thing. Every time I have her class on Monday afternoon she stands by me and talks to me before class and during the break. She brings me apples and oranges and always hugs me. She’s a local from Hengyang and wanted to hike and show me a small mountain called Hui Yan. It’s the site of several temples and a beautiful park. We took bus 142 by the bookstore a little ways out and then walked the rest of the way there. When we went there were lots of people dancing or doing Tai Ji at the top. I love going places with Chinese girls because they love taking pictures as much as I do. Skyler and Jenny kept asking “do you want a picture here? Let me take your picture!” Skyler also brought along dumplings her grandmother made for us to eat as a snack."
November 22, 2015
(I didn’t know anything about SEO back in 2015, or even write topical titles for my posts, so a lot old blog posts have random titles haha).
Several times, Skyler also invited me to have dinner with her family, who lived locally in Hengyang.
One time I visited a flower field with her, and a local Hunan news team was there and asked to interview me, which was quite funny. She messaged me these photos the next day with the news aired, saying, “You’re on TV Rachel! Haha!”
Skyler quickly became more than a student, she became a friend, and a special person and light to me during my first year in China. I have many fond memories of time with her, her family, and her classmates in Hengyang.
I haven’t seen her since I left Hengyang in 2017, when I I moved to Guangzhou then to Beijing to work in media.
In that time, she was still working on her undergraduate degree with hopes to do post-graduate studies. We haven’t been in touch often, both busy with where the paths of our lives have taken us.
But I got a message from her this week. She was coming to Beijing for a special teacher’s training course, would we be able to meet up? Yes, of course!
We met at one of my favorite Peking duck restaurants in Beijing called Jingzun (if you visit me, I’ll likely take you here). Seeing her face was like a flashback to living in Hengyang in 2015.
It’s been almost 8 years now since we first met. Now she is 25, finished with her post-graduate studies, and teaching at a middle school in Changsha. She’s also the head teacher there!
I’m now 29 (nearly 30!) and working for a China culture media outlet in capital of China. I never imagined in that first year in Hengyang that nearly 8 years later I would still be here – but hey, here we are!
It was so wonderful to reconnect after so long and hear about her life. She told us about how she feels going from being a student to being a teacher, and how she sometimes misses the carefree days of student life but also really enjoys adult life and independence.
She also spoke about how she loves her students and how inspired she is by them. “The next generation of China is so open!” She said. “Even more than our generation. They want to make their own path and follow their own dreams. They are more open to the world.”
We also reminisced about Hengyang, the restaurants and places we missed, the other students we knew and where they are now, and the memories of our time together. She also brought us local Changsha spicy snacks, which was really sweet.
I’m so thankful to have this kind of reunion with her.