From our perch in the gigantic bus Gao Xin Yi Zhong hired to haul us and our copious luggage to the airport, we waved good-bye to our host families. I saw several sets of wet, red eyes in their upturned faces, and I heard crying in the bus behind me. My own eyes began to well up when I thought about how these families had welcomed us into their homes over the past four months.
The day before, we had packed up the contents of our classroom into boxes and said our good-byes at the high school. In fitting with the mood, it was raining hard, and we dashed across the soaked basketball courts into the classroom building to exchange hugs and gifts with the grade one teachers and students whom we had befriended over the past few months.
One of the saddest good-byes was with our Chinese teachers, the six young women who had gotten to know us so well in the three lessons per day they spent with us. After they helped my students with their speeches for the farewell banquet, we exchanged gifts and cried and promised to stay in touch on WeChat.
The school gave us a fitting send-off with the farewell banquet they prepared for us. Everyone was there: the host families, the coordinators of the exchange program, the head teachers of my students’ immersion classes, and the exchange students who had stayed with my students in Brookline. We thanked them all with speeches, flowers, and gifts, and the school presented us with gifts in return, including adorable teddy bears dressed in the Gao Xin Yi Zhong uniform, miniature terra cotta warriors, and our own Chinese paintings they had mounted for us.
After the banquet, it felt strange to pack away all our books and supplies and shut the door on the now empty classroom where we had spent so much of our time in China. Before we knew it, we were walking out the school gate for the final time, and going home to finish our packing. Each in our separate host family’s home, we stuffed our suitcases with our belongings and our many gifts, then stuffed our stomachs with our final meal in Xi’an.
As we headed to the airport the next morning, I felt sad to leave Xi’an behind, but also so grateful for the memories and relationships we had formed there. My students and I have all learned so much from this exchange. We have improved our Chinese, visited famous sites both in Xi’an and around China, and learned about China’s rich history and beautiful culture. We have learned about ourselves as we have worked to navigate an unfamiliar place. But most of all, we have learned that we can make meaningful connections across our differences. The relationships we have formed are the heart of this exchange. They lead us to new understanding of ourselves and of our world.