On the Banks of the Yalu River

Kaitlin Solimine ’06 discovers she is both lost and found in China.
ByKaitlin Solimine

Two years ago, I stood on the easternmost section of China’s Great Wall looking across a narrow sliver of the Yalu River. There it was: North Korea — an empty landscape of white-capped mountains and snow-covered fields. A border I couldn’t cross. My sole companion on the journey was a middle-aged woman I called Teacher Fang. I had met her days earlier at a lunch with local writers from this frontier city — Dandong, China. I had come here to rectify a long-lost love: China wasn’t what I’d known her to be nearly two decades earlier. She’d changed. We’d grown apart.

As if hearing my thoughts, Teacher Fang placed a gloved hand atop mine and said: “It looks like the world in its natural state, before mankind arrived and ruined it.”

The first time I visited China I was 16. The year was 1996. Beijing was in the throes of a prepubescent industrialization but the city still clung to its older roots. There was only one skyscraper (China World Trade Center Number One) and the streets were full of bicycles. Cars were reserved only for the very wealthy or elite. Families were still deeply rooted, sharing communal one-story courtyard homes.

Without the Internet or mobile phones, living in China then felt as distant from my life in the United States as the moon. Having grown up in rural New England, there was something deeply appealing about immersing myself in such a foreign, far-off culture.

So I studied as much as I could about China, taking language, culture and history courses in high school and then college. I traveled alone throughout northeast China for a summer when I was 18, researching and writing for the travel guide Let’s Go: China in a pre-Google age when travelers actually had to go to a place to know if the hotel was still in existence.

I visited Dandong that summer, stood on the Yalu’s shores and looked across at the same border I would revisit a decade later. Safe within China’s borders, there was something fascinatingly appealing about North Korea: a forbidden country. It was a place I knew so little about, so closed off from the rapid modernization occurring just a stone’s throw from its shores.

A few years later, when I enrolled in the master’s program in East Asian area studies at USC, all I knew was that I was still obsessed with all things China. Some people call us “China hands” (中国通). I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my knowledge. At USC, I took classes in everything from Chinese political theory and urban design to Taoist literature. The brilliant thing about a degree like East Asian area studies is you can learn the foundations of several different disciplinary approaches to a topic as complex and amorphous as “China.”

Professor Stanley Rosen schooled me with his perfectly fluent Mandarin and knowledge of every Chinese film produced; Professor Gene Cooper pressed me to examine the veracity of my ethnographic sources. Everyone in the program supported my pursuits, even if this meant I’d write a master’s thesis on the failures of Chinese baseball and soon leave academia and the East Asian studies world behind.

As China had grown up, so had I. No longer were my flights to Beijing via four stopovers, but non-stops. When I landed, familiar faces greeted me. My WeChat filled with messages. I Skyped with friends and family back home. The gap between East and West was rapidly narrowing — where did that place me?

“Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” Henry David Thoreau writes in Walden.

Despite China feeling so much closer to home, I was more lost in the country than I had ever been. I couldn’t do anything but write about the experience of losing a home that was never technically mine to begin with. So that’s what I did.

Based in Singapore, Kaitlin Solimine splits her time between running the online academic magazine Hippo Reads and finishing her first novel based on the history of the host family she lived with in Beijing during her high school years. Solimine earned her master’s in East Asian area studies from USC Dornsife in 2006.