When I moved back to the U.S. from China in December 2010, I felt rootless.
Growing up in a small township in western Pennsylvania and having graduated from a college of 1,600, I was fortunate to have had my formative years shaped by tight-knit communities. While I found a similar sense of support teaching at a Chinese public school after graduating from Kenyon College, that feeling of community eluded me the following year.
In 2010, I spent the year travelling from Chinese tea village to Chinese tea village, researching the environmental impact of China’s rapid modernization on its tea industry as a Fulbright fellow. My research took me to Wuyishan in Fujian Province, the home of neo-Confucianism, where wild orchids grow between tea trees on the sides of jagged limestone cliffs. I spent a month in the jungle of Yunnan Province, learning how to process tea leaves from trees that were centuries and sometimes millennia old. And I spent many afternoons in the Longjing (dragon well) tea mountains outside of Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province, drinking tea with men who had witnessed the terrible atrocities of the cultural revolution and could live only by forgiving the violent transgressions of their country’s past.
But all this time, I was a traveler. I was never home. And just as I began to form friendships and understand a place, I was on to the next mountain village in some other far corner of China.
On a brief vacation in India, I remember sitting in the middle of a bookshop in Kolkatta reading the U.S. Constitution. It was then that I realized just how much I wanted to return to the United States. As my fellowship came to an end, my fiancée and I decided it was time to return home.
For home, we chose Vermont, where she was born and raised, and I grew up spending summers swimming, hiking and biking. When she was offered a position teaching Chinese at Middlebury College, we chose Middlebury as the place to turn to our next page.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a plan. I always knew I wanted to graduate from college, and when I graduated, I had two successive jobs and a fellowship lined up. But this time my future was open, and I liked that. I only had two main objectives: I wanted to be part of a community and I wanted to improve my writing.
In January of 2011, I worked as a legal contractor while weighing different job options, from farm work to work as a paralegal. Around that time, I picked up my first copy of a local newspaper that I fell in love with. That was the Addison County Independent.
Excited that a small paper in a rural area could have such high-quality writing, I became an instant fan. Admittedly, I was fanatical about all forms of independent media at that time, as I had lived in a country with extreme government censorship for almost two years.
But the Independent was different. Crafted by experienced writers, it offered balanced news coverage about the issues people in its communities could feel the most. It was and still is a much better paper than the small town publication I grew up with.
It just so happened that in one of my first copies of the Independent, I learned that the publication was looking for a reporter. I immediately sent in my application and met with Editor Angelo Lynn a week later. We had a very candid discussion, and I told him what I was looking for: a chance to improve my writing and a yearning to be part of a close-knit community.
“You’ll get that here,” he told me. And so I have.
A week later, he gave me my start in journalism, and since then, I haven’t looked back — until now.
I remember my first week on the job, when I didn’t have a car. After meeting with a group of teachers and students at Mount Abe, I walked along the snow-covered baseball diamond to the Bristol municipal offices, crunching along the way.
At the edge of the town recreation field, I stopped to breathe in the crisp mountain air and take in my surroundings. Birds of prey circled over downtown, just below the high mountain tops that lead to two of the steepest mountain gaps in the state. Follow those lines down and there is one of the cleanest trout and swimming streams in the state. And then there, at the foot of it all, with the Green Mountains at its back and the Champlain Valley before it, is Bristol.
What I didn’t realize then is that the people who live in and around the gateway to the Green Mountains come together to create something even more impressive than the beautiful landscape they call home.
In the past year and a half, I’ve seen communities rally around families with fallen fathers. I’ve watched as teachers dedicate countless hours of their personal time to ensure that underprivileged families stay warm. And I’ve been reassured by active, democratic citizens and receptive public officials that democracy can still thrive in this country.
All of this recollection comes in my last full week working at the Independent. Next month I’m heading over those same Green Mountains to Montpelier, where I’ll begin reporting on energy and health care developments for VTDigger.org.
Although I’m excited to report on two of Vermont’s most pressing and dynamic matters, I’m also leaving behind a community that I feel deeply attached to and a publication that feels more like a family than it does a business.
I’m extremely fortunate to have worked alongside veteran reporters, like John Flowers and Andy Kirkaldy, who helped me hone my reporting skills and gave me the tough love I needed to improve my writing. I’m thankful beyond words for the consistent guidance news editor John McCright has offered me since my first day on the job. I’ll miss working alongside digital media whiz Andrea Suozzo. And I can’t thank Angelo Lynn enough for all of the lessons he’s taught me and for bringing an inexperienced journalist on board the publication he revived and built into one of the finest examples of journalism in all of New England.
While the newsroom is a crucial part of any newspaper, the Independent is much more than just the reporters and editors. It is comprised of talented graphic designers and newspaper layout artists, like Sue Leggett, Brian King, Sue Miller and Jennifer Sabourin. It’s home to the best photographer I’ve ever met: Trent Campbell. It has an advertising team that cares as much about the vitality of the businesses it’s working for as it does generating revenue for a publication it believes in. And it is talented professionals — like Anna Osborne, Jessie Raymond, Vicki Nolette, Laurie Wedge and Kelly O’Keefe — who form the backbone of this paper so that it can do everything it does.
Most importantly, the Independent exists because of its incredible readership, which is comprised of some of the most engaged, caring and intelligent citizens of democracy in the world. It is the readers the Independent’s staff truly works for, and it’s the readers who make reporting here one of the most edifying jobs a person could have.
The Independent is a great paper because it is the product of a great community.
As I move up north later this month, I will carry the stories of this county in my heart. And every Monday and Thursday, I’ll make sure to read Vermont’s one and only twice-weekly paper.