Letters from Sichuan

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Photo by Madeleine Witt.

“There’s a letter here for you, Aaron,” said my mother as I lugged my third suitcase into my freshman dorm.

“For me? We just got here!”

“See? For you.” She handed me a folded piece of paper with torn edges. The outside was, in fact, marked “For You.”

It’s strange to think of Danting Li writing her first message — long since lost to time and clutter — with only an impersonal “you” in mind. It seemed, at the time, natural that her words wound up on my windowsill. Having spent the last 18 years in an average suburb, I assumed I’d need an early start here to catch up on the excitement and mystery of my classmates’ lives. What better oddity than a message in a bottle (minus the bottle) from a Chinese high-schooler inquisitive enough to end her time at a Yale summer camp by reaching out to an unknown college student? Nevertheless, her English wasn’t great and my expectations weren’t high — if she responded at all, it would be at best a minor story to tell the friends I hoped to make at some point. Assuming we’d learn a few facts about one another and share a moment of serendipity, I dashed off a reply “to the person who slept in my bed.”

A week passed. I had almost forgotten Danting in the blur of Camp Yale, but Saturday morning, I woke to find a message in my email inbox: “Hello Aaron! I read your letter just now, and I’m too exciting to sleep if I don’t reply! I wrote the note just before I left Yale, and I was not sure if you can see it, I worried about cleaner may throw it (so I hid it behind your bed) or you can’t find it. But you found it and wrote to me!! This feeling is amazing!”

Sixty thousand words followed those first replies, and despite my early attempts to sound like The Most Interesting Freshman in the World, Danting eventually learned more about the real Aaron than anyone besides my journal and maybe my mother ever had — mostly because no one else had ever asked. As long as she fired off her questions and requests, there wasn’t much I wouldn’t send her; I realized this one moment in March when I hit “record” on an iPhone voice memo, confirmed the emptiness of my floor’s bathroom, and started to sing. When she said she wanted to hear my voice, I offered her Young MC, or perhaps Les Miserables, but she insisted on Justin Bieber’s “Eenie Meenie.” She sent back a song of her own (her voice is much better than mine), and called my singing “more eloquent” than Bieber’s (nope). Reading her reply, I rushed to play back the recordings I had made, trying to hear myself as Danting had.

Emailing back and forth with Danting — her English now close to fluent — has been like hearing from my prefrosh a year in advance. She wanted to know about Yale: the classes, the students, the parties (I’m keeping Toad’s a surprise for when she gets here). She wanted to know about America, and I’ve struggled to present a balanced picture: much of her knowledge outside her summer program comes from “Gossip Girl” and “The Big Bang Theory.” She wanted to know about my adventures, and somehow my daily life became an adventure whenever I wrote to her.

We might be separated by seven thousand miles and a seven-percent admissions rate, but week after week, message after message, we came to realize we share personality traits, high-school experiences, and a mission: get Danting into Yale. Her application will read much like that of any American girl — tutoring in disadvantaged schools, Model UN, interest in psychology and economics — but she’ll have to deal with problems few Americans might imagine. What if the only English-speaking teacher you have is a racist and you have to translate the only praise your closest mentor could give? How will you compete with classmates who transfer to high schools built around test prep and outsourced essay-writing? Why haven’t you seen a single one of these SAT vocabulary words before?

Danting hated to focus on school alone, so our conversations soon moved beyond grades — expanding from kung-fu movies to political commentary. She gave me the chance to rethink the views I’d developed during a decade of Western media exposure, about her country and my own. I saw Communist Party propaganda, Chinese civics classes, and our countries’ respective educational philosophies filtered through the mind of a clever teenager who hadn’t often had the chance to question her culture. Danting once mentioned a student famous in Chengdu (population: seven million) for his perfect SAT score, then asked for my numbers. When I replied, she remarked: “Your high school must be proud of you. Did they make a poster about you and put it next to the gate of the school to advertise?” I laughed so hard I nearly fell off my chair, but then I began to wonder what I’d have been like if I had been born into an average Chinese family, studying for hours so my name could top the public lists. Suddenly, I no longer regretted coasting through my American schools, even if they never plastered my face on a billboard, and Yale’s comfortable grade inflation seemed all the sweeter.

Beyond grades, I shared with Danting — at her request — early crushes, in language hopeful enough to induce rueful chuckles upon later readings. Her conservative upbringing made hookup culture at Yale tricky to explain, and I sometimes worried about being the strangest pen pal in the history of epistolary communication. Danting told me not to fear: “Talking about creepy things with a person on the other side of Earth is cool!” And she was right — the world would be much more relaxed if every person with a computer could dictate their lives and opinions to someone they might never see. Especially if every pen pal loved stories that fell flat when told in local company, and every pen pal thought of you as a cool, witty observer of the social scene. Actually, if Danting does get into Yale, I fear that the real me won’t impress her.

In the meantime, though, the knowledge that there’s someone else looking forward to tales of my life has actually emboldened me. My quiet room on the third floor of TD had kept me from appreciating Yale’s nightlife, but when Danting regretfully spoke of “never joining a real party,” I realized I was passing up on opportunities to build my social skills, something we’d promised each other to do after bonding over stories of our shared shyness. A Saturday night I’d once have spent on news or a novel turned into my first stab at a frat party (I need more practice) and even a few sips of sake at Miya’s (sour, spicy; should’ve stuck with sobriety). I packed the highs and lows into my next email, alongside a strategy to fare better next weekend.

When Danting wrote of her struggles to engage fellow members of the Red Cross club in a donation campaign, I’d never led a volunteer group in my life, but I found myself engaged in my first consulting project. “Talk to freshmen,” I told her, remembering my own eagerness to join clubs. “And give out prizes, so people will want to do well.” In the hands of Danting the businesswoman, my ideas took shape, and when she reported a successful fundraising drive, I was thrilled enough to imagine some future business partnership of ours spawning a Sino- American corporate empire. Since then, I’ve attended my first Bridgewater info session and taken a summer job with a private firm. It wasn’t all Danting’s doing, but she’s pretty sure I’ll either be rich or be president someday, and who am I to doubt her?

Actually, chances are that we’ll both enjoy modest success at ordinary jobs — as will most of the people around me, even at Yale, among the most exciting places on Earth. Comparing my first to my most recent messages, I see that I’ve become a creature of habit; enough club meetings and late nights hunched over a desk, and any place can lose its early thrills. Maybe life is best lived through others; two weeks’ activity best recapped in five minutes. In her third letter, Danting startled me with the words “I think I’ve figured out what kind of person you are now.” I’ve known me all my life and I’m still not quite sure about myself, so at first I marveled at her personal insight and my own expressive powers. But “now” was the word that mattered. Looking more closely at my old messages, I feel disembodied — someone kind of like myself wrote the first, but then someone a little closer to me wrote the second, and so on down the chain of Aarons until one reaches my present. Now I’m a creature who August Aaron might barely have recognized, to say nothing of Aaron 2010 and Aaron 2000. Why seek the exotic in other countries when, with enough documentation, you can unveil a never-ending stock of novelty in the form of your own future? That’s enough reason to tell your stories and write letters, to anyone at all.

Comments

  • scyale

    This was really well written, and it’s an unbelievable story.

  • Danting

    I’m really touched Aaron! You changed me a lot in many ways, but I never know that I have such influence in your life. It’s incredible to read our story on the website. And you are really a great writer, I have to say!

  • CarlaB

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! It was incredible and made even more interesting by the manner in which it was written.

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