A Lifetime Of Sage Advice Gleaned From One Semester Abroad at SYA China

Kaitlin Solimine CN'97
Phillips Exeter Academy
Harvard University (A.B.)
University of Southern California (MA)
UC-San Diego (MFA)

A Lifetime Of Sage Advice Gleaned From One Semester Abroad at SYA China

Kaitlin Solimine has considered China her second home since 1996. She never thought about living abroad until Ming Fontaine, her high school Mandarin teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy, suggested the idea after seeing how much she enjoyed her Chinese language classes. She reflects on the day that she was accepted to SYA China as an exciting one: "I couldn't stop jumping up and down; screaming as if I'd won the lottery."

Stepping Back in Time to Witness China's Recent Industrialization

Her experience in China was unlike anything she'd ever known. Her host family lived in a traditional Beijing apartment where most things were shared, including the bathroom and the very hard wooden bed she slept on with her host sister, Chenxi. Despite how little her host family owned materially, they were full of love and support for her. Solimine notes that there has been no experience in her life as life changing and impactful as SYA China.

SYA China was a semester program then. There wasn't internet or iPhones or Facebook. Solimine was surprised by her class's ability to live and thrive in an industrializing China. "In fact," she said, "China felt just about as far away as one could from the U.S. Yet we found our way — making friends with our fellow Chinese classmates and siblings, playing basketball with locals, taking local transport (which at that time were mianbaoche — 'breadbox taxis'— that didn't have seats, just wooden benches!), volunteering to help local homeless kids learn to read, and traveling to areas of China where no one had seen a foreigner. I remember one old woman repeatedly running her hands through my hair as she'd never before touched blonde hair."

College Student Turned China Guidebook Writer and Now Debut Author

After returning to the U.S., she studied East Asian Studies at Harvard University and was a Harvard-Yenching Scholar where she wrote and edited Let's Go: China, a comprehensive travel guide to the country. Her studies led her to becoming a U.S. Department of State Fulbright Creative Arts Fellow in China where she conducted research based on the history of her host family and began work on her debut novel, Empire of Glass, a story based in part on her SYA experience.

Life Lessons from Another Mother

However, Solimine notes that her biggest achievement in life is not her novel, but becoming a mother. She defers to her Chinese mother, māma, for teaching her lasting lessons in regards to what it means to be a good parent to her daughter in this increasingly-challenging world. The most important of those lessons is simple: to be present and let your children know how little it takes materially to be truly happy in life. Her māma always said, "As long as I have a roof over my head, food on my table, and a healthy family around me, I am happy." Solimine comments that she has yet to meet another person that dwelled in the moment as well as māma.

Family Ties That Bind

Solimine attributes many of her greatest life lessons to her experiences with her Chinese family. A year after leaving SYA, just six months before she would next return to China, her māma passed away. When Solimine went to visit māma's grave with her host father, bàba, for the first time, he spoke to her māma and said "Don't worry, Kate is here and she'll help take care of Chenxi." That small moment made Solimine realize how deeply the bond between her and her Chinese family had grown during her semester in China and that she was now responsible as a member of their family.

The World Is Calling You — Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

The most valuable message Solimine would pass along to students in today's world is something many current SYA students can attest to: "Get out of your comfort zone. Turn off the virtual world and live in the real one. Connect with people you'd never come across during your normal daily activities. Listen to their stories. Heed their advice."

Watch Solimine and her Chinese sister, Chenxi, talk about the importance of the host family relationship.


Empire of Glass

An excerpt from her forthcoming novel, Empire of Glass, won the 2012 Dzanc Books/Disquiet International Literary Program award. Her fiction and non-fiction has been published in National Geographic News, The Wall Street Journal, Guernica Magazine, Kartika Review, The Huffington Post, The World of Chinese Magazine, China Daily, and numerous anthologies. Solimine is co-founder of HIPPO Reads, a magazine and network connecting academic insights and scholars to the wider public. Solimine lives in San Francisco with her husband and daughter, where she is a 2016 SF Grotto Writing Fellow.

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