Back to Tianjin: a reflection on study abroad friendships


"Life’s most special moments often imprint in our memories like Chinese calligraphy ink on rice paper."  

Life’s most special moments often imprint in our memories like Chinese calligraphy ink on rice paper. The past few days, much ink flowed as I re-discovered memories of the past at Tianjin University of Technology (TUT), the place I spent the summer of my twentieth birthday. In 2015, I was one of seven University of Iowa (UI) students who were hosted in TUT for two months as part of a ten-year language exchange program. Two years later, as I am now back to China to study abroad for a year, the stories written that summer are still fresh in my mind, precisely drawn in black on the white book of my memory. The past few days, taking a break from Hangzhou, I revisited places and people which reminded me how difficult friendships tied abroad can be, but also how much joy they bring when, defying both our expectations and the passage of time, they survive effortlessly.

Three days ago, after a six-hour high-speed train trip, nostalgia filled my chest when I once again held Tianjin Subway Station’s green tickets in my hand and stepped into familiar, shiny white hallways. Memories of my UI friends and I searching our way in the spacious station filled my mind, and I couldn’t help sending a Wechat voice message describing my emotion to Nadege, my closest international friend currently still studying in TUT.

Two summers ago, Nadege and I bonded over our similar personalities and use of French, the national language of our home countries, the Ivory Coast and French Polynesia. Despite our nine-year age difference, we had become close friends. Nadege also introduced me to Seth, a tall, athletic Ivorian student earning his Master’s. The three of us had become a happy trio by the end of the summer.

The entrance of TUT’s College of Chinese Language and Culture with its numerous country flags
The entrance of TUT’s College of Chinese Language and Culture with its numerous country flags

Upon my arrival to TUT’s International Student Hotel this weekend, I excitedly hugged Nadege and found her unchanged, her heart as young as ever, and her smile as bright as in my memories. As I sat in her room, identical to the one I occupied in 2015, we picked up our conversation as naturally as we would have done it a year and a half ago. Because we had rarely talked over the past months, the ease of our conversation amazed me. One’s heart does not forget special friends.

Soon, Seth also came into the room, and my heart smiled once again: his nonchalant way of walking, the habitual calm in his voice, and the kind happiness in his eyes took me back to those warm summer days when he placidly cracked jokes in the cafeteria of the school. Our trio was back together again. The three of us spent our first evening catching up in Nadege’s room, describing how life had both fulfilled and challenged us over the past months. The International Student Hotel’s characteristic smell of new paint reminded me of the evenings I spent writing Chinese characters in the coolness of my room’s aircon, two summers ago.

The following day, Nadege and I excitedly cheered at Seth during his graduation ceremony, both knowing graduation meant separation. I had never thought deeply enough about the cruelty of studying abroad: tying meaningful relationships and eventually watching friends leave for unknown countries, without the promise of seeing them again. Splitting apart is always harder for the ones who stay. As I was clapping, I suddenly apprehended the selflessness of my native Chinese friends: they were always the ones watching me leave, without the certainty I would come back.

Seth in his graduation gown with Nadege
Seth in his graduation gown with Nadege

Because of my reflection on my Chinese friendships, I was twice as grateful to meet again with my friend LongSheng after the graduation ceremony. When our UI group was at TUT, Longsheng taught us the basics of calligraphy during his student organization’s weekly sessions. We became friends, linked by our shared interest in meditation. Since the first day I had met him, a deep respect for each other had characterized our friendship and I was grateful for it. As Longsheng walked towards me in the late afternoon accompanied by Shitou, his friend whom I met for the first time, he was “smiling with his whole face,” as Nadege describes it. I felt happiness fill my heart and noticed he had matured into a solid man, quite different from the frail boy I remembered. “Time changes us all,” I thought. That evening, LongSheng, Shitou, and I went to admire the lights of the Eye of Tianjin and its multiple bridges, talking together as if time had forgotten us.

With Longsheng (left) and Shitou (right) in front of the Eye of Tianjin.
With Longsheng (left) and Shitou (right) in front of the Eye of Tianjin.

The following days, more joy felt my heart as I met with my previous TUT professors. Two summers ago, the flow of our conversations was still choppy, but with further practice, my listening and speaking skills had improved. Now in 2017, I could eventually have smooth discussions with them. Dayton, a student from our 2015 UI group, was still studying in TUT; talking with him and our professors together almost felt like the summer of my twentieth birthday again, had the rest of the group not been missing. Nostalgia came, once again, and I savored this second opportunity I had to come to Tianjin a little longer. Too soon, I left for Hangzhou, promising I would come back in June when the group from UI would be at TUT.

With my TUT professors and Dayton from the 2015 TUT-UI Program Group.
With my TUT professors and Dayton from the 2015 TUT-UI Program Group.

The couple days spent in Tianjin allowed me to reflect on the nature of friendships made abroad. Nadege texted me the following quotation upon my return to Hangzhou and left me thinking: “Time decides who you meet in your life. Heart decides who you want in your life. And your behavior decides who will stay in your life.” Interestingly, I had not talked as much as I had hoped with Nadege, Seth, and Longsheng since I had left Tianjin, but upon seeing them again, the invisible bonds between our hearts appeared as strong as before. I realized that keeping friendships made abroad does not always require tremendous effort, just like keeping Chinese ink intact on rice paper does not demand extensive maintenance. The power of the memories made in China often allows friends to stay close regardless of distance and frequency of conversation, giving each get-together-again the preciousness of China’s finest calligraphies.

*Astrid Montuclard is a guest blogger studying Chinese and Pre-medicine at the University of Iowa. An international student born in France and raised in Tahiti, she came to the UI to run track. As a Senator for Student Government last year,  she spearheaded the new mental health awareness campaign True@TheU, launched this fall on campus.

Student blog entries posted to this International Accents page may not reflect the opinions and recommendations of UI Study Abroad and International Programs. The blog is intended to give students a forum for free expression of thoughts and experiences abroad in a respectful space.

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