Aja S. is currently a junior at SYA China and a blogger for the Campus Reporter program. She comes to SYA from Aspen High School in Colorado.

Within the first few days of meeting my host family, I was called into the kitchen by my host mom who had flour coating her hands, circular dough in a pile, and a big bowl of Jiaozi filling. She had already filled up a large wooden plate of perfectly made dumplings, and she invited me to make the rest with her. Maybe it was the nerves about making a good impression or just the fact that I’m bad at cooking, but every Jiaozi I made looked like someone had accidentally sat on it and then stood up, only to sit back down again. My host mom laughed lightheartedly at my handiwork while I struggled to understand what the magic touch was. In the end, I finished making as many Jiaozi as my frustrated hands could, which was not many, and then retreated to my room in shame.

The next few weeks passed in a blur of twenty Chinese vocabulary words a night, enlightening English classes, and socializing with new people.I felt myself start to feel overwhelmed. I had a lot to mentally keep track of, such as, ‘When do I have to meet my host sister (Doris) after school?’ ‘Where’s my bike??’ and ‘What homework do I have and when will I do it?’ It’s stereotypical to say, but I felt that indescribable feeling of slowly drowning and not knowing how to swim upwards. Socializing was exhausting, and while I enjoyed my new friends and host family, I just needed to lay down and take a break. I dragged my feet through the 798 District the first time I went. Doris and I had both brought friends with us and we explored the graffiti walls and small shops. My eyelids were heavy and I felt like I was walking through silly putty. The bright lights and neon paint shocked me like a live wire when I got a glimpse through the sleepy haze. The only thing on my mind was sleep and the mountain of Chinese homework I had waiting for me on my desk back home. I left 798 feeling particularly unsatisfied and more exhausted than ever, but 798 helped me understand that balance is a necessary part of life. I went home. I slept. I didn’t study for my dictation the next day, but I studied that night, aced the next dictation and started to do my homework as soon as I got home.

Over the next few days, I fell into a good routine that let me sleep by 10:30. The other night, I walked into my host family’s house to find Jiaozi materials on the dining table. My host grandmother and I sat at the table for twenty minutes, holding a conversation in broken Chinese about what life is like in America. My fingers folded clumsily over the floury dough and yet I somehow managed to produce about twenty plump Jiaozi to be put onto the big wooden plate.The Jiaozi reappeared that night in my small bowl of vinegar and, while they were slightly longer and more misshapen than the others, they were still technically Jiaozi. I ate dinner with a smile on my face.I ended up returning to 798 last Thursday. It was night time and I explored the already explored streets. The graffiti, the cafes, the shops, everything has its own niche. Bright lights and neon paint jumped out at me through the shadows. I ended up outside a restaurant eating an American style grilled cheese, saying to my friend, “this was made with magic.”

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