From Madrigal to Mandarin

Photo Courtesy Of Kaela Garvin Kaela Garvin of Mountain View and her buddy, Mr. Wang, develop communication skills on a 15-hour train trip through China. Here

Kaela Garvin, 20, a 2008 graduate of Mountain View High School, parlayed her performances in the Madrigal Choir and the Spartan plays into matriculation to New York University’s Tisch Studio. This semester, she is studying with NYU’s Shanghai program. Below she shares her experiences.

I’ve been Shanghai’d

I felt lost in New York City, a place where I knew the language, the people and the customs. Shanghai is a whole other beast. But I don’t feel as lost as I did when I first moved to New York. Maybe that has more to do with where I am in life than the city.

Wo shi mei guo ren means “I am a beautiful nation person.” Or, perhaps less literally, “I am an American.” I use this sentence in place of “I don’t know how to answer what you just said.” I usually know what people are saying to me, I just don’t know how to respond in Chinese. Sometimes the answers come to me in French, in Spanish, anything but Mandarin. Hopefully, my Mandarin class will help.

I rode a camel, Seabiscuit, in Gansu in the Gobi Desert. My trusty steed and I braved the dunes together as he carried me safely over sand and rock for more than three hours.

In the evening, a friend and I climbed a sand dune. Everything was illuminated. The moon was out and you could see for miles. The world was as still as I have ever heard it. I saw shooting stars, which made the night even more incredible. I never imagined sitting hundreds of feet in the air on a sand dune thousands of miles from my home.

You can make awesome friends on trains, such as my good buddy, Mr. Wang, who is 5 years old. I met him traveling from Lanzhou to Dunhuang during a 15-hour trip. After saying, ni hao (hello) to each other, we developed a conversation exchanging animal noises followed by the word in our respective languages. Example: “Meow! Meow!” “Mao!” “Cat!” Very high-level conversation. He corrected my tones quite frequently and we shared songs. He sang something complicated. I sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” He was smart and chatty and very nice, despite my mei guo een (strange) pronunciation.

After visiting a Tibetan monastery, we bussed to the grasslands of Western China. Dozens of yaks, tied hoof to hoof, stomped outside a hut. We entered, removed our shoes and sat on blankets around a table. A Tibetan woman lit a metal stove, threw in cow dung (yum!) and topped it off with a copper kettle. She put a bowl of sugar and a plate of yak’s milk in the center of the table, then passed around cups. Soon our yak’s milk tea was hot and ready to drink.

I’d never had yak’s anything before, and I was pleasantly surprised. It was delicious, warm and filling, and comforting after the long day walking in the cold.

We rode horses. A young Tibetan cowboy led my horse for a few paces, then with little warning mounted the horse behind me, grabbed my reins and off we went! We galloped over the grasslands, passing my classmates. I had been nearly the last to mount a horse, but we were the first to the end of the path by a long shot.

While my guide tied the horses to a nearby fence, I asked if he spoke English. He shrugged. I asked if he spoke Chinese. He shrugged again. So I tried my Chinese, and he responded. I asked where his home was. He pointed to a group of tents a little closer than the mud houses.

I realized then how absurd and wonderful my life is. I was thousands of miles away from home and had just ridden a horse with a young man who’d grown up and lived in a tent in the grasslands of China his entire life.

That’s another moment I won’t soon forget – standing at the end of a dirt path with someone from a completely different world – sharing a common language and experience.

Garvin shares her experiences in a blog,, which earned a recommendation from Arthur Frommer’s “Online” magazine.

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