大家好 (Hi everyone)! I’ve been home for about five weeks since the conclusion of my nine-month study abroad program in Beijing, and I sometimes still don’t feel adjusted to life in London. Some aspects of my time in China are better forgotten, such as the ill-fitting blue and white tracksuit I had to wear to school every day and the pigs’ ears I once unwittingly ate for dinner. Other memories are more pleasant to recall, like the days I spent with the host family I lived with during my stay in Beijing.
My host family consisted of my fourteen-year-old sister Pingping, my parents, and my grandmother. As is usual in China, however, I also had a lot of contact with my extended family. My father’s sister lived downstairs with her husband and daughter, and relatives frequently came to visit from different parts of Beijing. After I met some distant cousins from Henan province who were in Beijing for Chinese New Year, my family added me to the Gu family Beijing-Henan group on WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging app. Since my return to London, it’s mostly through this group that we’ve been able to keep in touch.
Life with a host family wasn’t all fun and big family dinners, though. The standard day began at 6 a.m., when my sister and I would start getting ready for school while our mother put breakfast on the table—usually some combination of fruit, hard-boiled eggs, noodles, and red bean buns, with warm milk to drink. At around 6:30, our father would get up to drive us to school. After dropping Pingping off at Middle School No. 5, we would drive along one of the main roads in Beijing to get to High School No. 2, trying to beat the rush hour traffic. I usually arrived around 7:15, leaving me just enough time to study for the two Chinese quizzes I had every day. Classes started at 8:00 and ended at 3:30, but I almost always stayed at school with some of my American classmates until about 5:00. That way, I could get a head start on some of my homework—preferably work for one of my Chinese classes, so that I could leave my 500-page textbook in my locker instead of carrying it around the Beijing subway system. I’d get home around 6:00 and have dinner at my aunt’s apartment, since my host parents both worked late on most weeknights, before going upstairs to do the rest of my homework. On most school days, I didn’t see much of my host family at all, except on the rare occasions that Pingping didn’t have a tutoring session and was home early enough to do homework with me.
Despite this, I really enjoyed my time with my host family, and I have plenty to remember them by. On my last day in Beijing, my parents surprised me with a photo album of all the places we had visited together, as well as a traditional wax charm to keep me safe while traveling. The thing I appreciate the most, though, is the name they gave me at the beginning of the year: 谷诗燕 (Gu Shiyan). It’s made up of 谷, their surname, which means “grain” or “valley,” 诗, a middle name meaning “poem” that I share with my sister, as is normal among siblings in China, and 燕, my personal name, which comes from the word for “swallow” (the bird). Even though I’ve been back in London for more than a month, I still write that name next to my Western one on the inside covers of books. To me, it’s like a second identity that represents my experience in China, and that’s something I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.