I hopped off the motorcycle, pulled off my shades, pretended I had a weapon and did my best Bond impersonation as I approached the holy lake Yihun Lhatso, nestled in a mountain range in rural Tibet. In the thick of winter, the lake was frozen solid. The sun played games on the ice, its rays bouncing onto the mountains, snow tossed over their brownish slopes like frosting on a cake. It was beautiful. I took off my sunglasses. It was breathtaking.
A breeze tickled my chin as I walked towards the bank. I passed a Buddhist monument—holy words were engraved on the bottom, which supported a statue of a meditating god. In its simplicity, the monument seemed as natural as the trees around it. As I stood before the bank, the ice wandering ahead for a mile, the religious meaning was lost on me. But the magic was not.
I turned around to see Greg strolling toward the lake, his neck straining in five directions at once. Our Tibetan friends—who insisted we use their English names, Jack and Bob, even though neither really speaks English—had brought us here on their motorcycles, and trailed closely behind Greg. “We don’t usually come here during winter,” Jack told me in Mandarin, the only language we had in common. “It’s not the tourist season now, and most people like it better during the summer.”
“But it’s beautiful.” I said. Jack took a deep breath and whistled.
“Yes sir, it is beautiful.” He said.
After testing the ice with his foot, Jack confirmed that the surface could support us. I had taken ten steps before my bottom and the ice became acquainted for the first of many times. Jack, Bob, and Greg pointed and laughed. But as Bob opened his mouth to mock me, he befell a similar fate. Greg and Jack survived the longest, holding out about another 15 seconds. For maybe a minute, lying on the ice, we sat in silence, our eyes on clear blue above.
Soon after we noticed tracks on a section of the surface that had a light layer of snow. Bob and Jack began explaining which prints belonged to which animals. “Those are goats,” said Jack. “And these look like they came from a yak.” Jack paused. “And those…” he turned to Bob and spoke to him in Tibetan.
“Actually, those are motorcycle tracks,” said Jack. “Which means people motorcycled across this lake.” The four of us exchanged glances. Our eyes bolted towards to the motorcycles parked close to the bank.
And for the next two hours, as the wind picked up, nearly knocked off my shades, and forced a few more meetings between ice and bottom, I looked around from the backseat of Jack’s motorcycle, hands clutching the backseat so tight my knuckles ached, and marveled at the frosty mountains, stretching up into the sky. It felt wonderful to be alive.
If in February of my senior year you asked me where I would be on the same date in 2011, my first guess would not have been riding on a motorcycle in rural Tibet. Maybe not even my second.
In my graduating class at Regis, no other students took a gap year. The decision process was tough. I made lists, drew charts, read blogs, and talked with professionals, teachers, friends, parents, myself, and the lamp in the driveway. Apart from the lamp, all the advice I received pointed to the gap year.
But then why the stress, the difficulty, the emails to Amherst asking for a time extension on my decision? Because questions stayed with me, circled through my head day and night. At home, I had projects, friends and family. I had an identity. I belonged. If I went to China, wouldn’t I have to start from scratch? When I came back, would my place be there? And how would it have changed?
My decision became clear when I saw the source of my questions: fear. Fear of a new place. Fear of a new language. Fear of coming back and feeling abandoned. I confronted these doubts with thinking and reason, time and time again. Eventually, I overcame them, took a deep breath, and committed myself to a year abroad.
I have not been disappointed. When I first arrived in China, my Mandarin needed a little work. When I tried to tell my teacher that I had “eaten enough” for lunch, I said that I had “eaten a dog” (though, for cultural reasons, she didn’t think it odd.) I once meant to tell a receptionist that I would come back “immediately,” but instead I told her I would return “on a horse.”
After more than five months here, in addition to no longer lying about riding large animals into small buildings, I can even understand taxi drivers: a feat I once thought impossible. If, this coming April, I pass the HSK exam—administered by the Chinese government to test the language proficiency of foreigners—I will be certified to attend university classes in Mandarin.
In my semester at Tsinghua University in Beijing, I studied with students from Gabon, Thailand, Colombia, the Netherlands, and everywhere in between. My teachers, from all different parts of China, exposed us to a slice of the Chinese education system. Outside the classroom, I met local college students, played pick-up soccer games, and spent time hanging around with Chinese friends in local coffee shops and restaurants.
On weekends, I volunteered as an English teacher for children of migrant workers. The survival English skills the kids learn help them find work and lift their families from poverty. Their stories, ambitions, and smiles made waking up at 6:50 on Saturday mornings the easiest part of my week.
At the end of the semester, I took some time off to travel, which has allowed me to see another part of China. While backpacking through Tibetan areas of Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan, I saw poverty and Buddhist spirituality firsthand. For the first time in my life, I spent cold nights without heating, electricity, running water, or bathrooms, listening to wild dogs howling outside. Poor monks took photos with me, opened their doors for me, fed me, and told me about their hopes for the future.
My time here has been an adventure. I’ve endured falls, walked on thin ice, taken sharp turns, and seen more than my eyes could fully comprehend. But I’m still on that motorcycle, and it still feels wonderful to be alive.