I'm not entirely sure what I'm getting into, but in March Noel Piper and I will be making a trek across China — Shanghai, Wuhan, Chongqing, Chengdu, and smaller cities in the mountains southwest of Chengdu — tracing the footsteps of Esther Nelson, a Swedish immigrant from Minnesota who worked in China from the late 1920's until 1951.
Noel is researching to write a biography of Ms. Nelson, and has enlisted me as her guide, translator, and all-around side-kick. She blogs at Tell Me Where to Pack, and earlier this week explained the purpose of the trip in a post titled Our "Following in the Footsteps" Expedition:
Esther Nelson’s average-looking exterior hid an adventurer’s heart. Who could have foretold that the self-deprecating Swede-turned-Minnesotan would spend her life in China?
Nowadays, some travel to China several times a year. But for Esther to travel to Sichuan from Minneapolis in 1924, 1932, 1939, and 1947 was 15 weeks by train, ferry, ocean liner, river steamer, raft, chair, rickshaw, foot and maybe mule or wheelbarrow. This was true of every traveler from America to China until not so very long ago.
During the epochal years of 1924-1951, Esther lived in Chengdu, Yachow, Suifu, Ya’an, and Huili, working as a nurse and as a teacher of nursing students. Her first post was during the early years of what later became Sichuan University. In addition, her interest in the minority peoples of the Tibetan Plateau sent her trekking to villages as far away as 60 Li.
This was an era of warlords, civil war, invasion and liberation. In 1927, she evacuated to Shanghai because of anti-foreign activities. In 1935, the Chengdu hospital was flooded with casualties from the Long March nearby. In 1940, she stayed in Suifu despite Japanese bombs. In 1945, she evacuated to America due to Japanese invasion, returning to China in 1947. In 1951, she had to flee, even without an exit visa. This was a grueling trek, during which a young mother died near Hanyuan, leaving 4 children. Esther cared for the motherless infant through the rest of the journey. Perhaps we will find the monument to the lost mother still there.
I am 63. In the end, Esther was 61. It seems propitious to follow now in the footsteps of this remarkable woman, along with Joann Pittman, another woman who has made China home and brings almost three decades of language and cultural experience to the venture.
Through visiting places Esther lived and following routes she traveled—in particular that last journey wrenching her from her beloved land and people—we want to understand her life, place and people from a perspective closer to her experience. As she wrote: “I cannot explain how happy I am to be going up this river once again. There is something takes a hold of me, thrills me, as I go inward. It cannot be explained, it can only be experienced.”
Esther Nelson’s story rests now in her letters waiting to be told, a story that is intimately interwoven with China’s. A story that both Chinese and others need to hear and see to understand better those historic years and their own place in history and to appreciate those who have gone before and to see what it’s like now in comparison.
Our digitalized albums of Esther’s pictures will be conversation starters and might connect us with a child or grandchild of one of her students or neighbors. Our photography as we travel will give a glimpse of China today through the immediacy of blogging, as we are able. Later a biographical travelogue book will grow from this venture, with photos of then and now.
We go in the spirit of Esther Nelson, leaving the USA: “Fare thee well my dear, dear church. Farewell Minneapolis. Farewell, Minnesota, state of 10,000 lakes, and farewell USA. As I leave you waving farewell, I turn and on the other side there is the waving and beckoning of welcome—my chosen people.”
We'd love to have you go along with us as virtual fellow travellers, which you can do by subscribing to this blog and Noel's blog.
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