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October 01, 2014 - Image 10

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The Michigan Daily, 2014-10-01

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Wednesday- October 1, 2014 // T Satement 7B
Personal Statement: What she left behind
by Aleah Douglas Khavari

my first time:,studying abroad by ruby wallau

Even from a young age, I have
always romanticized a life spent
abroad. I spent hours mesmerized
by the glossy pages of National Geo-
graphic, my walls were adorned
with maps of other countries and I
have at different times attempted to
learn French, Spanish and Japanese
(with little success). I would listen
to my father's stories of studying
abroad or see my mom jet off to
India with her boyfriend, and tell
myself that my time would come;
one day the collection of travel
books sitting on my shelves would
become useful. Finally, my time did
come when I decided that the sum-
mer before my junior year of col-
lege was the perfect time to study
abroad and that Morocco would
be the perfect location, since I was
studying Arabic.
I was not worried about the trav-
el logistics. I was a frequent flyer
since the age of 11 when I would
lead my younger brother through
airports all across the country to
make our yearly trip to visit our
father in Hawaii. It didn't matter
that I didn't know anyone else in
the Morocco program; I had a taxi

that was
going to pick
me up at the
airport and
I believed
that every-.
thing else
would fall
into place
after that.
All of my life
I was confi-
dent that I
could make
an easy
into a life
spent traips-
ing across
the globe -
which made
the anxiety I ILLUS
felt boarding my flight to Morocco
so surprising and foreign. For the
first time in my life I felt homesick
- even before I got onto my plane.
Upon arriving in Fes, I got into
a taxi and promptly forgot how to
speak any Arabic. The sights I saw
out the window were nothing like
the photos in my travelguides. I was
introduced to
my host father,
who grabbed
IZmy hand and
pulled me into
ongoing traf-
fic to bring
A me to my new
home, where I
realized I was
unable to com-
municate with
any of my new
family. After
a whirlwind
day of travel-
ing, I sat down
on my bed and
realized that
maybe I had
taken too large

of a leap.
My first trip out alone the next
day was met with lost turns, heat
exhaustion and a permanent feel-
ing of being drastically out of place
and alone. The next day I Skyped
my father to tell him that I wasn't
sure I could do seven more weeks.
Through heaving sobs I felt like a
failure - where had that indepen-
dent 11-year-old gone?
Sevenweeks later, after spending
Ramadan with a Moroccan family,
camping overnight in the Sahara
desert, accidentally drinking tea
with the cast of an Anthony Bour-
dain episode, and receiving help
from an orange seller after hav-
ing thrown up from dehydration,
I realized I no longer wanted to
leave the country that hadbecome
my new home. I could have chosen
to study abroad in a country with
my classmates or a country where
I wouldn't have felt so linguisti-
cally and culturally isolated, but
Morocco taught me that I had a
lot more courage than I ever knew,
and perhaps my dreamswere not as
unachievable as I once believed.

In 1937, at age 25, my grandmoth-
er fled Peiping, China after the Jap-
anese Invasion, escaping by foot, ox
cart, boat and train, through cities
in lockdown and bombed-out coun-
tryside, spurred by the fear of never
reaching her final destination:
Kansu district, China. She had left
her career as curator of Oriental Art
at the University of Michigan and
traveled by ship to Peiping to study
Chinese textiles. Nine months after
her arrival, when the Japanese
attacked China, she ignored the
United States Embassy's evacuation
orders and traveled instead to the
Kansu district in the innermost
part of the country to discover
its rare ancient tapestries. What
she hoped would be a explora-
tion of art and culture became a
brutal three-month journey that
shaped the rest of her life. Whens
she returned to Ann Arbor, using
journal entries and her still-
sharp memories of China's land-=
scape, she drafted a non-fiction
manuscript. "The Height of a
Mountain," her 450-page finalZ
draft, won the 1939 Hopwood
Award for non-fiction. Preserved
in the Special Collections Library
at the Hatcher Graduate Library,
it has outlived my grandmother and
exists to tell the story she cannot.
I sit at a desk in the Special Col-
lections reading room, waiting for
the librarian to return from their
archives with my grandmother's
manuscript. Sunlight pools on the
empty desks that surround me.
Here on the eighth floor, I can see
all of campus, my home of three
years, the tips of brick University
buildings, the top of the bell tower,
the expanse of the Michigan stadi-
um, declaring its spirit with a large
block 'M.' After a few minutes, the
librarian approaches my desk and
sets a silver-bound manuscript in
front of me. I take a breath and open
to the first page. I read and re-read
the words stamped on the page. The
Height ofa Mountain by Barbara W.
Tinker. Seeing my grandmother's
name in crisp ink, I feel as if we are
meeting for the first time.
My grandmother died when I
was two. Everything I know of her,
I know from stories. When I was
younger, I learned that she, a white
woman, married my grandfather,
a Black man, at a time when inter-
racial marriage was illegal in 27
states. They met in a library and

connected over their love of poet-
ry. They were determined to stay
together, despite the intolerance
and violence that targeted interra-
cial couples. From my father's sto-
ries, I knew my grandmother taught
English to highschoolersby day and
crafted works of fiction by night.
She demonstrated unfailing kind-
ness to most, saving a fierce tongue
for racists and silent bystanders.
She struggled with money manage-
ment. She took her children to the
library every week. I knew that she
turned a blind eye to my grandfa-

the way. Other days, s
tered hundreds upon r
Chinese citizens, wait
and bus stations in an
flee to safer cities. The t
followed her everywhe
Twice she was interrog
police. Her travel comp
low scholar, was kidi
tortured by Chinese ii
who assumed him to be
Countless times, in
ies, my grandmother ai
panion were told that ti
were set to bomb the lc

ther's alcoholism and raised the
children her daughter had out of
wedlock. From photographs, I had
memorized the curl of her dark
hair, turned white with age, swept
in a chignon at the nape of her neck.
Her lips, always pressed together,
the corners barely lifted in a smile.
Her thin nose. Translucent skin.
And her eyes - my eyes - hazel,
rimmed by a band of dark green.
These images flood my mind as
I flip to the second page. Here, she
has typed a Chinese proverb:
"You can never know the height
of a mountain until you have
climbed it."
With that in mind, I turn to the
first chapter and begin to read.
Her tale began with a choice:
faced with the invasion of the
Japanese army and a mandatory
evacuation notice, my grandmother
elected to disobey the warning and
escape to the interior of China to
pursue her studies. Her 1,500-mile
journey took her through rural vil-
lages and cities in danger, hiking
up mountains and rowing across
rivers in tin canoes. Some days, she
walked for miles on end, finding no
friendly faces or food to eat along

LAND were in, that tf
gone on lockdown an:
would probably not a
Yet she stayed, de:
from other European
can travelers to help he
country. When asked w
putting her life at ris
that she was in searchc
"Old Cloth-with a weft
and warp of magic that
me thirteen hundredn
land and sea, war and I
unravel its secrets." He
understand this art fort
her, blinded her perhaps
she would face. But thei
in this statement. What
kept her in the country?
I think back to my o
At age 17, I had left my
Michigan upbringing fo
in northern Belize to v
an empowerment progr
dren. Upon my arrival, I
not just tropical blue
coconut trees, but also s
with garbage, men wi
eyes who catcalled meor
and a home with no run
Even after my naive e
shattered, I stayed and c

he encoun- Belize and its people, especially the
hundreds of children, with their fruit-stained
ing in train fingers tangling in mine, giggling
attempt to and whispering "I love you" when I
hreat of war walked them home from class.
re she went. Perhaps my grandmother felt the
gated by the same sense of love for the Chinese
anion, a fel- land and people. The way she wrote
sapped and about the land revealed her awe and
aterrogators attraction to it: "We started across
a spy. the valley following the highway as
various cit- it rose to a ledge above a rocky can-
nd her com- yon. The sun came out and sparkled
he Japanese at us from the waterfalls tumbling
)cation they through the pines to the brook that
raced at the foot of the cliffs." Later
she wrote that "wild flowers in
a profusion of colors lifted
eager heads to the warm
light. Even the weeds
N, blossomed into gay life."
o And her descriptions of
the people she encoun-
tered, written with
such poignancy and
honesty, expound
on the genuine friend-
ships she formed and the
kindness she found in many
who crossed her path. When I
flip back to the first pages of the
manuscript, I can retrace her deci-
he city had sion to travel to Kansu, how she
d that they claims it was to find these rare fab-
nake it out rics. But this beautiful, old cloth is
only mentioned in certain chap-
spite offers ters of the manuscript, whereas
and Ameri- the descriptions of the land and
er leave the people infuse every page. It wasn't
vhy she was just the interlacing gold and scarlet
k, she said threads or stoic visages of emperors
of old cloth: that kept my grandmother there. In
of romance the art, she found-reflections of the
could draw country she had grown to love.
piles across Hours pass, and I immerse
hardship, to myself further into the manuscript.
er desire to Page by page, I resurrect my grand-
s entranced mother anew, reshaping the stories
s to the toils I knew of her. The tone of worship
re's coyness in her pen as she wrote of Chinese
, in this art, art takes me to stories my father
told of how she decorated the walls
iwn travels. of their living rooms with prints cut
small-town out from art history books. No mat-
r village life ter where they lived, she created a
'olunteer in miniature art museum for her fam-
am for chil- ily. You have to know that art was the
discovered center of her heart, my father often
waters and said. Because of his mother, he was
treets filled never for a moment without art.
th invasive And because of that, neither was I.
n the streets But at what cost? With her inter-
:ning water. racial marriage and family and
xpectations subsequent social isolation, my
ame to love grandmother sacrificed the career

in art that brought her to China. She
clung to art, brought it into her chil-
dren's lives - but never in the same
immersive way as she experienced
in China.
She also sacrificed China itself.
Her love of China, its people and art
inspires every word I now read. I
think back to her last apartment in
Detroit, the place she lived before
she died. The apartment overlooked
the Detroit River, and I was told
that she loved to watch the boats
passing by and imagine where they
were going.I think it reminded her of
the boat journey to China, my father '
had told me. She wanted nothing
more than to return.
Did she live with the regret of
not returning, to China or to art?
Or did family fill this loss? Curios-
ity inflates me, but I'm not without
resources for further investigation.
My grandmother wrote almost
every day of her life. This manu-
script is only the beginning of what
remains. In the belly of our base-
ment, in a plastic bin, my father has
stored hundreds, even thousands of
her hand-typed pages. When I told
him that I was coming here to read
her manuscript, he encouraged me
to take these otherworks.
"The whole box is yours." He
said to me over the phone as I
walked down the cascade of steps
from Angell Hall. I pressed the
phone tighter to my ear, careful not
to lose control of my feet. "You can
read the stories yourself. Maybe
someday you can edit, even publish
I stopped at the bottom of the
steps. "Really?" Iasked.
He paused andcleared his throat.
Maybe I'll never truly know the
complete picture of my grandmoth-
er, the joys that shaped her and sor-
row she keptburied.ButIcanrevisit
the stories of her life anyways, the
way I read favorite books, relishing
the same details while discover-
ing new ones. Even as I finish "The
Height of the Mountain," there is so
much more to imagine, recreate and
build upon from her life and work.
And I'll have my entire life for that.
A fiery sunset gleams in the win-
dow as I leave my desk and present
the manuscript to the librarian.
"Shall-we re-archive this material,
or leave it on hold for you?"
"Leave it on hold, please," I say.
"I'll be back."


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