Filling in the Blanks: An illustrated narrative


Jenn Lin ‘20 is the 2020-2022 Fellow to Shanxi Agricultural University. This is her first year narrative. 

I wasn’t sure where to begin when I started writing down my reflections of this past semester. It felt like my Shansi experience had been incomplete. In March of 2020, I exited college abruptly and found myself back where I started. Even now, I’m still writing this report out of my childhood bedroom in New York. While I appreciated being at home and felt relieved that my loved ones were safe, the situation felt completely different from what I had envisioned. I worried that the experiences I would be sharing would sound unfulfilled or disingenuous. I hadn’t grown in the ways I had expected. I hadn’t been able to travel or interact with new people and places. However, I realized that although my experiences were incomplete, I had still been able to make the connections that had been so important to me when I first applied for this position.

Over the semester, I received so many pictures, chat messages, videos, and voice recordings from my students. On their own, these virtual interactions felt fragmentary. For my report, I wanted to gather these pieces and fashion them into something more tangible. The act of drawing my experiences on paper felt like I could transcend the physical boundaries that had made my Shansi experience so challenging. I think illustrating and re-imaging this past semester onto paper has really helped me appreciate the relationships I’ve built with others in a time when everything seemed so unsure.



By the time September rolled around, I still wasn’t really sure what to expect. It felt like I had been in limbo. Things seemed to be constantly shifting and moving around me. COVID-19 cases were rising everywhere and people’s lives were constantly uprooted. It wasn’t a guarantee you’d find toilet paper, masks, or other essentials at the grocery store. It wasn’t a guarantee that I could secure a work visa or a flight to China. The only thing that seemed certain was that I would be teaching soon. I had just received my rosters and I felt nervous just looking at the names. Would we get along? Would I do a good job? Would I get to Taigu by the end of the semester?

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At first, teaching was difficult. It was a huge adjustment from working in a smaller and more intimate environment (like in an Oberlin classroom) to just teaching indirectly on a screen. There were definitely moments where I felt lost, flustered, and out of place.

Still, my students were all really supportive and eager to share their daily lives with me. It really helped me feel more grounded in my work and my classes. One student regularly sent me pictures of the cows and sheep that he worked with for his research. They were so adorable!

Another student sent me pictures of a breakfast she shared with her roommate. Many students sent me pictures of the stray cats that they would feed on their way to class. Although I wasn’t able to see their faces in class each week, I still felt connected to each of them.

For their midterms, I asked them to record a 5-7 minute video that was based on a topic that we learned in class. One of the prompts was to film themselves hosting a cooking show (we had a lesson about food earlier in the semester). One group of students decorated their entire dorm room and dressed up as chefs complete with hats and aprons. They even gathered real cooking supplies and a cameraman (who I assumed was another roommate). They were smiling and laughing the whole time. I couldn’t help but smile too.

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There were so many times where I also felt a disconnect between me and my students. The time difference between Taigu and New York is almost half a day. Sometimes, it would be hard to communicate with students in real-time. I would receive messages from students right when I woke up or just before I was going to bed. It made answering questions difficult and chatting more fragmented.

One morning, I woke up to several messages from a student. Opening WeChat, I realized that she had sent me pictures of the first snow in Taigu. There was one picture of students walking across snowy streets. Another picture was a close up of a tree branch heaped with snow. The white was contrasted by clusters of bright red berries. The last picture was of an elegant snow-covered building tucked behind some bamboo. She said that she had wanted to send me pictures of the campus covered in snow and that she hoped that I could see it in person one day. She also asked if it was snowing where I was.

I checked outside my window, but there wasn’t any snow in sight. I remember taking in the crooked mailbox outside my house and the familiar cracks in my driveway. The pictures that she had sent me seemed so far away from what I was seeing with my own eyes. I texted her back and promised her that I would send her pictures of NY when it finally snowed.

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For their final project, I asked my students to teach me about something important to them. Some people chose to talk to me about their favorite Chinese movies and novels. Others taught me about dishes they would make for themselves at home or special dishes they would make around the holidays. However, most people talked to me about their hometowns. They listed all the different sights I could visit and the different foods I could taste when I could finally. One thing that they all had in common was that they’d always end their recordings with: “If you ever visit, I’ll take you around. You’re welcome anytime.” One student even said, “I remember that you like spicy food. I’ll take you to try these famous spicy noodles someday.”

Even if I physically couldn’t be with them in person, my heart warmed at how much effort they put into getting to know me and how much they’ve been willing to open up to me in return. I can’t wait until I’m able to spend time with them in person!

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