Two weeks without air-conditioning — without Internet — without triple-layered, triple chocolate brownies.
I traveled to Sichuan, China, with a program called “Building Bridges” hoping to expand my world view and make friends with international students who shared my vision. Instead, we gained much more wisdom and experience than we had anticipated. We landed in a place where many inhabitants were still living in tents, a result of the 2008 earthquake. The moment I arrived, I saw that this wasn’t the regular summer camp advertised in a newspaper clipping that my mother cut out. This was so much more.
Honorable Mention 2009 FTF Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
The first day was a blur of meeting people and endeavoring to understand the rapid Chinese I heard. On the second I met Fred, a 10-year-old boy who had lost an ear after being crushed under a building that had fallen from the earthquake. Later, I met Ella who had lost her parents in the earthquake and now lived with her baby brother at her friend Carly’s house.
Throughout the week, I taught English and computer skills to the students, and shared fun group activities during the lunch break and after-dinner hours. Every day my students and I walked in the blistering heat to buy cheap popsicles and to window shop. On the rare occasion that I was interested in buying something, Ella and Carly came to my rescue by bargaining intensely with shopkeepers for me. As we walked back to the school, we were enveloped by the aroma from hot pots and observed families eating spicy vegetables and rice at little wooden tables, heard shopkeepers yelling out newly-reduced prices, and watched hungry stray dogs hunting for meager fallen crumbs.
After an afternoon of classes, we took our daily shower at a ramshackle public shower. When the weather was nice, I played badminton with Fred, and always got trounced by the pint-sized boy. On other days, we sat inside and watched as the boys performed card tricks while the girls folded intricate origami that only their nimble little fingers could master.
Thoughts of our last day together fill my heart with joy—and reopen a ragged tear. Some students climbed into our luggage racks and others formed a line at the gate, attempting to stop our departure. I was an emotional wreck: I didn’t want to leave, but at the same time our program leader ordered us to find some way to get the hiding children out from between our suitcases. I didn’t know what action to take, I didn’t know how to say goodbye; my emotions were raw and stretched to the limit.
Two weeks earlier I would have been appalled if my friends ever saw me in tattered clothes, knotted hair, and tears running down my face. But at that moment, I wasn’t thinking about the humidity, or the lack of sanitation, or even my appearance. I thought of how lucky I was to have my parents, my little sisters, my grandparents. No matter how far away I am, across the sea or across town, I know they are there for me. I desperately wanted the same for my students. They had close to nothing, yet they were the happiest kids in the world, content with what they had: their friends, and what remained of their family. Material things were unimportant to them. I taught them a few phrases and songs in English and how to use Microsoft Word, but they taught me much more: I learned the meaning of true happiness from them.
And true happiness does not necessarily include air-conditioning, Internet, or triple-layered, triple-chocolate brownies.
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