By: Charlene Tran

Dear Madhu,

I was sitting in my room alone, looking through the photos I had printed out earlier, and trying to discover the critical factor from this trip that has made me incredibly happy and relaxed during the past two weeks that I have been back at Christchurch School. After a whole day organizing my thoughts and my journal, I recognized that the lesson you had taught me has been helping me most since we’ve been back – it was the lesson of acceptance and being positive.

When I first met you in Agora in 2018, I was shy and afraid of everything. It was my first time going on an International Trip where none of the members shared the same first language as me. I had only been at Christchurch School for almost a month back then and I was struggling with the lack of similarities between me and the other students. It felt like we had nothing in common: not the style of fashion, not the taste of food, not religious beliefs, not the knowledge of the world’s historical background, not the ideas of our own utopia, not the way we received information and adapted to another culture, nothing. I felt insecure. Every time I raised my voice or spoke up, I could feel my face burning like it was the fried omelet on my mom’s Lock & Lock pan. Last year in India, I overthought every possible situation and the only solution I found for myself was keeping silent. No talking meant no dumb mistakes. That was why all I could communicate with you last year was saying “Namaste!”, “Chai?”, and “Maggie noodles?”. I was too shy to even do a head bob. You were, same as me, introverted, seemingly different and from somewhere very different than Christchurch School. Yet, your dazzling smile and your lavish hospitality at your house lightened the heaviness in my heart and helped me break through.

Coming back to India this year, I was surprised by how confident and outgoing you had become throughout the entire two weeks wandering around Northern India with us. You were shy at first, and you were experiencing a new and different place from your home. But, after two days, you turned into a completely different person. You memorized everyone’s name; you walked faster; you spoke to more people; you teased more; and soon, I was convinced that you were one of us, a member of the group, not just Mr. Alter’s guest. We got closer and closer, and when you started calling me “stupid”, I can not help but be excited that you and I had actually become friends, close friends! You helped organize my art workshop in Kuflon Basics as if it had been yours. You stayed on the empty mountain road below Kuflon for more than an hour just waiting for the children from Uttarkashi. You always had your phone in your hand so that every time Suman called and updated information, you never missed it and were always ready to solve unexpected problems. You participated in the activities with the kids to make them feel more comfortable. You completely immersed yourself into what we were doing, and I was sincerely touched. It meant a lot to me seeing you drawing portraits, writing letters, putting on makeup, nail polish, and posing in front of the camera. Thank you.

I kept wondering how you became one of us so fast while that is something I still am trying to figure out at Christchurch. But through watching you on the trip, I think I have finally found out the answer. It is all about accepting others, despite where they come from, what God they believe in, or whether they are vegetarians or not. You accepted us, a group of weird people from the other half of the world with barely any similarities with you. You decided to love us, care for us, and help us have the best experience every year. You always maintained a positive, loving and caring mindset. You even tried to keep in touch with us by getting everyone’s number and email written in your little journal. I was inspired by your exuberance and fell in love with Agora, a place full of my biggest fears and hatreds: smoke, bugs, dogs, hiking, poop, vegetables, no meat, and no wifi. More than anything, I learned this year from both you and our group that the key to being accepted is first accepting others.

Every time I showed up in the morning during the trip, Mr. Alter always said “Good Morning, Charlene” with the intonation of “Charlene” nowhere near my name and asked how I was feeling that day. Every time I encountered Ms. Brumfield on the trip, no, even after when I came back to Christchurch School, she always sang my name instead of “Jolene” in the song “Jolene” by Dolly Parton. Through being in Agora this year, I realized people had been accepting me a long time ago, even when I had not recognized that myself. On the trip this year, Mr. Cola said: “You should not only be yourself but also create the self that you hope to be.” I want to be a person who is confident, friendly, and has empathy for others. I should be aware of my own existence and define who I am first, then be open-minded and try to get to know others, not only Asians but also people from all around the world. Eventually, isn’t that the whole point of studying abroad: to discover and analyze different cultures and religious beliefs in the gigantic world? And most importantly, I want to be more like you.

This is my favorite picture of you. I love how the highlight glowed on your cheeks softly when the sunlight gleamed on your face; I love how the lipstick was applied to your lips perfectly, not too harsh, but enough to make you look more cheerful; and I love how you tied your hair up but still left some of the baby hair out so your face won’t appear too big on the photo. But above all, I love how you looked into the camera like you were looking at one of your best friends and implying wittily: “I am pretty, aren’t I?”.

Madhu, I wrote my blog post as a letter to you because you have been a very special friend to me. One who has taught me a life-changing lesson of friendship, acceptance, and confidence. Thank you. I look forward to seeing you again soon.


Charlene Tran

6 responses to “A Letter to Madhu”

  1. Robin Avatar

    Okay! This time you made me cry. Tears of joy, pride and gratitude that you, Charlene are getting just what your mother wants for you in your studies and travels. Beautifully written, and inspires me to meet Madhu one day, and to be accepting and positive, just as you say.

    1. lydothu Avatar

      I cried. Am so proud of you! Acceptance will make you happy in any conditions .
      Love you much.

  2. Betsy Schaefer Avatar
    Betsy Schaefer

    Wow, Charlene. What a masterpiece of love and friendship and deep life learning. Thank you for this. Thank you for sharing your friend with us. Thank you for sharing this powerful experience. This is Real life… Wherever we go. And a way to always know Home.

  3. jbyersccs Avatar

    What a beautiful post and wonderful photos. Charlene, you have been a Seahorse since the first day you arrived, and now, I think, you feel it. You are part of the family and part of the world. You have so much to offer. Your appreciation for Madhu is powerful and loving. ‘Lavish hospitality” “Acceptance” “Being Positive”–these open many doors and you have not only experienced it, but taken it into your own life way of thinking. Well done. By the way, all the American adults remember “Jolene” and can sing it from memory. Just take it as a compliment!

  4. Dave's Mom Avatar
    Dave’s Mom

    Absolutely beautiful, Marlene! I hope you are able to make sure Madhu receives your letter and tribute to her. You travelled far and have a treasured friend/experience to hold close to your heart forever!

  5. Tran Duc Lan Avatar
    Tran Duc Lan

    This is a touching letter… we are proud of you, Charlene

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