Out of sheer curiosity because I knew nothing about it, I went to China in 1988. It changed my life. It changed my career to teaching English since this was an excellent way to get to know Chinese people without knowing how to speak Chinese. It was a time machine into the Third World. It was a very personal introduction to a very different culture. It gave me a large number of Chinese friends, and it made me grandmother to 7 Chinese children in 6 families. And now it has given me a way to preserve forever some of China's recent history.
I moved to other Asian countries (Taiwan, Macau, Bali, Korea) after 1988, but returned 16 times to China. With no option for e-mail in those early days, I nurtured the relationships with many letters. They replied with many letters, describing what they were doing, what they were thinking, what they were dreaming about, where they were going, how they were coping with the fast paced changes in China during the past quarter century. I was middle-aged when we met. Now, they are middle-aged, living lives none of them (or probably anyone) would have predicted in 1988.
Since letters have always been precious to me, I saved them. Now that I've reached the age where I need to decide what to do with what I have saved, I worried about their fate. I knew that the personal histories written through their often poetic and intimate words were stories that deserved a broader audience.
The word, "archive," had never meant much to me except perhaps for an image of a dark, far-off place for little-known storage. And then another author who had done extensive research for her books told me about archives used for research, often housed in libraries at universities. A librarian at a local university recognized immediately that mine was a unique collection for modern Chinese history. She referred me to Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
The Hoover Institution at Stanford wants them and is now waiting for my carefully saved letters to arrive. Along with the letters will go an English print copy of my book published in 2006, "Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird," a digital copy of the book translated into Chinese, and photos of the letter writers I've saved over the years I've been visiting China. They also welcome any letters from me that my Chinese friends might have saved and would like to add to the archive.
I'm learning more about archives now — the acid free environment where the letters will be kept, the fact that I am donating the letters but still retain ownership of the collection, the protection that will be provided for the proper use of the letters by researchers.
I can't think of a better place for the letters to me from the friendships I nurtured to remain important and useful long after I'm gone. In fact, it's rather fun to speculate who will be reading these letters and books and what they will make of them.