Summer Camp through the Eyes of a Boy

This summer, my 11-year-old boy went on a sleep away camp for the first time. This blog is our first writing collaboration in which he narrated to me his experiences at the camp, and I simply put his words down on paper. The exercise has proved to be a fun and exciting experience for me too because I get to access to some of my son’s private thoughts in dealing with his homesickness, gaining self-confidence and thriving at camp on his own terms. Where relevant, I have also included, with his permission, some of the photos he took at the camp. Hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I do. 

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The Drop-Off Day

When my mom and dad first told me that I would be going on a 3-week sleep away camp, I thought I would never survive. As the days before the camp drew nearer and nearer, I began to worry, but at the same time I felt excited because they told me this was one of the best sleep away camps they knew. A friend of my dad’s recommended it to us because his kids all loved there. Earlier this year, my parents invited the camp director to our house. He looked like a very nice guy. He showed us a slide show of the camp in previous years. Watching the slide show made me feel more interested in going but I still couldn’t shake off the fact that I would leave our home for 3 weeks.

In the morning of the day when camp started, I couldn’t help but feeling sad even though I knew the camp was going to be fun. My parents and I drove for 5 hours up to the camp site. Those 5 hours were probably some of the worst hours I had ever had. I couldn’t imagine what I would be like during the next 3 weeks when I was so far from home. I had already missed my pet bunny Ollie.

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When I arrived at the camp, my parents stayed for a short while to take a small tour to see what the camp was like. Then they walked back to the car. Standing there alone and watching them walk up the dirt path and disappear behind the trees was probably the hardest thing for me. I walked down to our cabin with small tears in my eyes. I was sad to see them leave!

Our Daily Routine at Camp

My first day at camp was tough! My mom and dad had just left me the previous night and I was all alone. Not knowing what to do, I followed other campers by watching them and wondered when I would finally catch on. Things eased up a bit on the second day. I started to get the feel of what it felt like being on my own and getting to know other kids. Things were not all bad.

IMG_3381I shared a cabin with 4 other campers (2 were new) and 1 camp counselor. All our cabins were named after the 46 Adirondack mountain peaks. Ours had a cool name; it was called Skylight. There was no electricity in our cabins. We shared 3 shower stalls and 2 bathrooms in a cabin about 20 yards away. If I wanted to go to the bathroom at night, I had to use the flashlight I brought with me from home. It freaked me out a bit at first, but I got used to it soon.

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At camp, we woke up to the sound of the bell ringing at 7:30am. We got out of bed and waited for the next bell to ring which signaled the waiters going up the hill to help get breakfast ready (we took turns to be waiters). Fifteen minutes later, a third bell would ring and we all went up to the lodge to eat. Breakfast, lunch and dinner all followed the same sequence. I have to say, our camp food was pretty good.

Our bedtime was different for different age groups: 9:10pm was the time for our group, the junior section, to go to bed. We were allowed to read in bed for 10 minutes with flashlight until 9:20pm when all lights were out.

Writing Letters Home

At camp, we were not allowed to have electronic devices except for iPod for listening to music. So the only way we communicated with our families and friends was through mail. Every Sunday after lunch we would go back to our cabins to write letters. I loved writing letters to my parents. It was a great way to keep in touch with them and know what was happening at home. My mom and dad had kept their promise and they wrote me almost every day. I always looked forward to receiving their letters. Reading their letters made me feel really happy when I missed them.

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My Nana, aunt and cousin also wrote to me and sent me fun postcards or newspaper clips. I exchanged letters with a friend of mine whose family had just moved down to North Carolina. I even received a letter from a former Lower School teacher of mine who had been here as a camper, a camp counselor and a camp director since 1998 until last year.

When I came back from camp, my parents told me my letter writing has improved quite a bit. They said I wrote with more details, expressed more feelings and used larger vocabularies. Yay!

My Favorite Activities

I loved all my camp activities, but of course, I had a few as my favorites.

My first favorite activity was swimming. Who doesn’t like swimming? But at our camp swimming was very special–we got to swim in Augur Lake. The water was clear, the air was fresh, and the dock was beautiful! There were a few things we could do at swimming. The first was the general swim, the second was the diving board, and the third was a 10-foot high jumping tower.

IMG_3372To be able to jump from the diving board and the tower, we had to take a series of Red Cross level swim tests: we needed to swim from the main dock to the boat dock for 16 laps–each lap was about 40 feet in distance; we needed to put a life jacket on in the water; we needed to swim in our clothes and shoes for 4 laps; and finally, we needed to swim across up to the other side of the lake, about 1,200 feet away. I passed all four tests in my first week and I jumped from the tower into the water in my second week. It was awesome and I was very happy about it.

How did camp counselors keep track of us in and out of water? We used double-sided tags on a board. Each time we went swimming, we would flip the tag to the red side to indicate we were out in the water. When we finished swimming, we would flip the tag back to the white side. So nobody got lost. That was super important.

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At camp we had an awesome wood shop where we could create and make all our arts and crafts. In the wood shop, all the tools were man powered, like saws, drills, hammers, screw drivers, wood chisels, and a lot more. I got to use them all. I made a wooden boat which I named “the Dragon Boat,” two bridges for my train layout using Popsicle sticks, a ring holder for my mom and a bookshelf for my dad. The coolest part was I got to design them from scratch, make and glue them together all by myself. I had a fantastic experience at our camp’s wood shop.

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During my weeks at our camp, we had the option of going on many different types of overnight trips. Each cabin would go on its own cabin overnights, which meant that we would canoe across the lake into two spots, Cubs Point or Pirates Cove. Our cabin went to Pirates Cove; it was a bit farther than Cubs Point in a hidden area on the other side of the lake behind a large cliff.

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We would load up canoes with camping gear, paddle across the lake to Cubs Point during lunch time, and continue on to Pirates Cove. When we arrived we would pitch a couple of tents and put our gear in. We then went swimming in a small beach area, cooked on a large campfire for dinner, hung around and explored the area. In the morning we would go down to the campfire, cook and eat breakfast, and paddle back to our main campsite. I learned some basic survival skills in the wilderness. My dad said these were important skills to have.

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Another of my favorite activity was hiking. There are 46 main high peaks in the Adirondack park area. To be a high peak, the mountain we were climbing had to be over 4,000 feet. Many campers have tried to get their 46ers over the years, which means we have to climb all 46 peaks.

This summer I climbed 2 of the high peaks, Cascade and Porter, plus 2 lesser peaks, Rooster Comb and Hurricane, which were below 4,000 feet.

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I had never climbed up that high in the past and this was a whole new experience for me. When I reached the peak of Cascade and looked around at the landscape in front of me, it was just like I could see the whole world. The view was amazing! I couldn’t believe I was that high up. Looking down at the valley, I could see small towns and ski jumps and bob sledge courses at the Lake Placid Olympics. The small cars were like little ants running around along the road. I reached the top and touched the summit marker knowing that I had climbed up the mountain and I could finally relax my legs. I had conquered my first High Peak. It was an amazing experience.

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Perhaps my most favorite activity this summer was archery. It was my first formal experience in this sport. Somehow I connected to it naturally. At camp our instructors told us in order to do well in archery, we needed four things: be physically strong, have a firm footing, a good aim and a strong focus. For me archery was really fun and exciting.

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For safety reasons, at the archery range, we were not allowed to cross the line unless permitted. When we wanted to shoot, we were instructed with four commands: pick up your bow, knock your arrow, fire at will, and retrieve your arrows.

At our camp there were three major ranks: Tracker, Path Finder and Guide. Tracker being the lowest was the easiest to earn, and Guide was the hardest to earn. In every activity there were also their own made up ranks. In archery, for example, there were altogether 18 ranks. To get each of the three major ranks, we had to be able to shoot at 15, 20 and 30 yards and got points from 60 to 160, depending on which rank we were going for. The archery tracking system was recorded on a chart on the door of the shed at the range. As we received a rank, we would color the square in red.

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I started at the first level of 15 yards. Looking back now, that was so easy, but it was not easy back then as a first time archer. When I got my first rank, the Tracker, which was 15 yards and 60 points, I felt really pleased with myself. I then set myself a goal for this summer: to get the highest official camp rank in archery, the Guide. On my third to the last day at camp, I finally got it. That was one of my happiest moments at camp! I have received 11 out of the 18 ranks in archery this summer. Way to go, Ben, I said to myself!

That’s all I have to say about my summer camp. I was worried about going to camp at first. But when these three weeks were over, I was ready to go back next year!

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When my son finished the last line of his enthusastic story, my heart was bursting with joy. He had fun, he was happy and he had an awesome time. He is growing into a confident outdoor adventurer. Just what we had hoped for at the beginning of the summer. I am so proud of him!

I have to say, his amazing camp experience is just as valuable to him as it is to me. I am gaining new perspectives because of this. A year ago I couldn’t imgaine myself sending him away for 1 week, let alone 3 weeks, but just like him, after this summer, I am ready for a longer session next year. I’ve learned to trust his judgment and let go of my fear. 

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An Unlikely Friendship: Three People, Two Cultures and a Single Bond

In the summer of 1994, after four years of studying and living in the US, I invited my parents to visit me for the first time. First time for my Mom to come out of China; first time for my Dad to come to this side of the hemisphere—he had only taken business trips to Japan in the past. Before they arrived, I had prepped them with a few “Don’ts,” things that Americans were typically uncomfortable talking about but we Chinese never shied away from.

“Do not ask people how much they make.”

“Do not ask woman how old they are.”

“Do not ask people whether they are married or not.”

I told them. “Do not describe people as ‘fat’ but use ‘big’ instead,” I also warned them, “because unlike in China where ‘fat’ is a neutral word, in America it is a bad word; it borders on moral judgment like ‘stupid’.” For whatever reasons, Chinese had been intrigued and even fascinated by why Americans often looked taller, larger and stronger. We were so convinced that it was the cheese eating that did it. I thought if they knew these unspoken social norms, they would ultimately avoid unnecessary awkward situations with my friends, my professors or people they might meet. After all, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

I lived in a small house, one of the few house-turned dorms for graduate students on a quiet street in downtown Princeton. The University owned them all. Each house had three floors, and each floor 3-4 rooms. The students shared three bathrooms and one kitchen in each house. My room was on the top floor, like an attic, enough to fit a single bed, a desk and a chair. Small but cozy.

We had a janitor take care of the common areas of our house. His name was James, a tall black man with very dark skin complexion, a bit on the heavy side, maybe in late 30’s or early 40’s. Gentle and friendly. Every morning around 7 o’clock he would pull up his beaten-up Pontiac into the driveway promptly and stayed until 6 in the evening. During the day, he would go around the houses cleaning the kitchen, hallway and bathrooms, mopping the floor, mowing the lawn and taking away the trash. He would also do some light repairs for our rooms. When he walked around, a long string of keys dangled from his hip would give away the clicking sound as if to announce his arrival. Sometimes he would heat up the lunch he usually brought with him in the microwave and eat with us: white rice and black beans. Same food. Every day.

My communication with James was quite minimal. As with every graduate student, I went about with my crazy schedules, rushing in and out of my room like lightning. I would cook up simple meals quickly and return to the library. But whenever I saw him in the hallway, on the street or around the house, I would politely greet him, sometimes cracking a couple jokes here and there. That was about it.

Then my parents’ arrival changed everything.

During their visit in the summer, my parents stayed with me in my cozy little attic. I shared a bed with my Mom, and my Dad slept on a mattress on the floor. Don’t ask me how we did it, but we did it. My parents were early birds. They got up before 6 o’clock every day and went about with their morning exercise routine, often doing Tai Chi, walking and strolling around the blocks. My Dad, being a quintessential extrovert, was charismatic, outgoing, curious and not afraid of making mistakes (I am anything but that unfortunately). He could read some English but did not speak much of it. Nonetheless, he often carried conversation with people he met with his halting English. My Mom on the other hand, an introvert and observer, was more on the quiet side. She did not speak or read English.

At the beginning, as with any new acquaintances, James and my parents were friendly and cordial with each other: they would wave, smile and nod whenever they met. But within a few days, quite remarkably, my Dad and James had become like old pals, often laughing and talking with manly handshakes and bear hugs. To help him better communicate with James, my Dad often brought with him an English-Chinese dictionary to look up for words and expressions that he might not fully understand. My Mom on the other hand, was not so quick to embrace such warm gestures. She continued to smile and nod at James but kept a healthy distance from him.

One time after greeting my Dad with a bear hug, James tried to give my Mom a hug, too. Visibly uncomfortable and guarded, my Mom had quickly pulled herself away even before he pulled her closer. Unfazed by the moment of awkwardness, James hugged my Mom anyway. I watched them on the side, part embarrassed and part amused, but I was not surprised. Apart from her personality as an introvert, cultural inhibition was also a key in my Mom’s reaction. Like many Chinese of her age, she had never known a single person whose skin color was different than hers, let alone stood so close to one. Besides, she was only 5 feet and 110 pounds, and James 6 feet and over 200 pounds. I could imagine what went through her mind, but I knew all this would change with time.

One evening after dinner my Dad casually said to me: “James is a good man. He works really hard.” He continued, “You know, he didn’t have a father growing up. He lived with his mother and grandmother as a child, and now lives alone in Trenton. Is that the place we accidentally ran into the other day?” I knew exactly what he talked about. A few days earlier on our way back from Longwood Garden, while looking for a gas station, I accidentally made a wrong turn into, shall I say, a not-so-desirable neighborhood. It was the first encounter of urban poverty for us, a family from the other side of the world. Though my parents had been through a lot in their own lives under China’s Communist regime, this experience was still quite dramatic for them. I remember we sat quietly the entire time afterwards until we reached Princeton. If I were to guess what was on their mind, it was the despair in people’s blank stare that shocked them the most. It was also the sharp contrast from the beauty, grace and affluence of Princeton, the not-so-far-away picturesque town they were first introduced to. In their mind, hunger and poverty should be rare in this country.

I told him: “Yes. It’s the same Trenton.” My Dad then said: “Well, since I have nothing else to do, maybe I can give him a hand. What do you think?” Having known my Dad all my life, I knew even if I said “No” to him he would offer his help anyway, and I said: “Sure, but don’t overdo it.” Just like that, my Dad started a self-appointed pro bono job as a janitor’s helper in a country thousands of miles away from home. Initially he helped clean the kitchen mess, like wiping the table, washing the stove, and gradually, he started taking away the trash and sweeping the floor. The two men’s friendship had also deepened. My Dad even picked up a few slang terms from James. Don’t ever “get high” was one I still remember vividly.

I bumped into James on campus one afternoon. He was very complimentary about my parents, saying how lucky I was to have them. Then he said, “I have been thinking about this. It must be uncomfortable for your Dad to sleep on the floor. There is an empty room on the same floor as yours and no one is going to move in until in the Fall. If you are OK with it, I will unlock the room before I leave in the evening and your Dad can go sleeping in there. Lock it back on in the morning.” Wow, that was a very generous offer and would be of tremendous help to us, I thought. But I said: “It is so very kind of you, but I don’t want to cause any trouble to you.” “No trouble at all.” He said, “The room is empty this summer anyway.” With that, my parents were finally able to have a couple months of comfortable living arrangements during their short visit. What a wonderful gift from James!

As with international students studying in this country, one common thread we all shared was our constant homesickness. The smell of a familiar dish sometimes could quickly trigger a mysterious and overwhelming nostalgia. So, it was quite a treat for me to have my parents’ company in the summer that year. My Mom was a great cook who could whip up some delicious hearty meals in authentic Sichuan style that I had not had for a long time. I felt like a princess. Every day. There were two other Chinese students living in the same house at the time. Knowing how I missed homemade meals, my parents often invited them to join us when we made dumplings, steamed buns and other delicious dishes together to share. Always a happy occasion.

James was curious about Chinese food and often watched my Mom cook. She would patiently explain to him through my Dad what ingredients were needed and why they were needed. Gradually they had built a nice rapport. Each time she made some delicious dishes for me, she would save some for James. One day she said to me: “James seems to eat the same food everyday for lunch—rice and bean. How awful. Maybe you can ask him if he wants to join us for lunch.” Ever since then James had become a frequent guest at our lunch table during the summer. My parents were very happy to have him eat with us. To use my Mom’s words, it was just “a matter of adding an extra pair of chopsticks.”

Three months flew by quickly, and by the time my parents were about to go home, they had become a big fan of James. My Dad not only continued his pro bono janitorial work, but he also appointed himself as a house inspector, frequently reminding my housemates to clean after themselves. The two men continued to exchange laughs, jokes, hugs, and even fist bumps. My Dad’s English seemed to improve quite a bit, often chatting with my housemates on subjects like politics or China and US relations. Perhaps the biggest transformation was from my Mom. Though she was still on the quiet side, she had completely let her guard down. She was more receptive to James’ bear hugs, and on occasion, she would reach out to James with handshakes. She even started to greet strangers on the street. From time to time she would invite James to come with us to the Chinese grocery store, so that she could show him a few Chinese dish ingredients that he might be interested in later.

On the day when my parents were heading out to the airport going home, James gave them a card. I forget the entirety of what he wrote, but one thing has stuck in my mind all these years. He told my Dad that he was like a father to him that he had never had. The two men stood there holding each other’s hands for a long time, their eyes welled with tears. An unforgettable scene.

In 1998 when my parents came to see me again, I had already graduated from the University but still lived in an apartment in Princeton. When they knew James still worked in the same houses, they asked me to invite him over for a re-union dinner. We made dumplings together. Just like the first time they met, my Dad and James carried a lively conversation with the help of an English-Chinese dictionary, and my Mom listened quietly, smiling and occasionally pitching in. Just like that, three people of different ages, different races, different cultures, different languages, and different skin colors, shared a single thread—a beautiful friendship across continents.

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When I write this blog, my mind travels far back to these hot summer days, with a mixed emotion of nostalgia and sadness. Now my Mom is gone, my Dad is slowly finding solace in the loss of his lifelong partner and I lost contact with James quite some time ago. And yet the thought of their unlikely friendship has brought heart-felt warmth to me. I marvel at how people transform in the process of building a friendship, moving away from the place of fear to the place of bond.

In Yoga practice, we believe in the teaching and spreading of kindness, non-judgment and mindfulness. Indeed, we don’t have to be the same to be human to each other; we can be different but still be human. The fun of human interactions is to celebrate and relish the differences. We let our guard down, we embrace the unknown, we open up to endless possibilities, and then we find a common thread. The friendship between my parents and James reminds me the importance of celebrating what bonds us rather than what divides us.