Beijing's lively atmosphere enveloped my Toastmasters International group as we gathered in front of our hotel. We were here as Chinese students to represent America, and also revitalize our Chinese heritage. Led by Terry Wang (the President of New World Bilingual Institute and our teacher), we traveled from city to city to teach communication skills at local universities. The students we met along the way welcomed us like we were part of their family—pointing out attractions, escorting us to their favorite restaurants, asking us questions incessantly in their broken English, and all the while whispering and giggling at our foreign accents.
â–º quarter Finalist 2011 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
The highlight of my trip was donating $5,000 RMB ($32,000 USD) to a flooded elementary school in Guiyang (we had accumulated the money by performing dragon dancing, holding fundraisers, and contributing the rest ourselves). When we arrived, the devastating scene that greeted us flushed away all conversation; there were mountains of destruction everywhere, piles of sludge in every corner, and what buildings still left standing were halfway submerged in muddy water. It was like a giant had picked up the buildings one by one, crushed them in his hands, and dropped them in heaps of broken sticks. I stood there unmoving—unable to move, as the scene squeezed the air from my lungs.
The bedraggled students stood watching us, following us with hopeful eyes as we walked past. I wanted to reassure them that we were here to help and everything was going to be all right, but I was afraid to take a step toward them in fear that they would stumble back into their shelters. They’re just children, I thought to myself. They should be enjoying their childhood, yet they already have to look out for themselves. I felt guilty about the school supplies I had brought as a gift, and fervently wished I had brought something more. I felt the urge to talk to each person and give them platefuls of food and bags of toys—anything that would make them laugh or at least crack a smile. I knew that my friends were all sharing the same thoughts.
Upon arriving at the donation ceremony, we were welcomed with warm greetings and hot tea by the school’s representatives. When introductions were made and speeches exchanged, I couldn’t help but marvel at the staff’s optimistic attitudes. Even with their school in ruins and incalculably high repair costs to pay, the staff members were cheerful and generous to us. They told us that we were the first to make a donation, and thanked us repeatedly throughout the ceremony. After a group picture with the large $5,000 RMB check, the staff members treated us to a fantastic dinner where we said our farewells.
Our Toastmasters group traveled from Luoyang to Xi’an, Hanyang, Wuhan, Guilin, Yangshuo, Changsha, and Shanghai, visiting two or three tourist attractions in each city. I had the best time of my life and ate the most delicious foods I’ve ever eaten, but Guiyang Elementary School never left my mind. I realized that I took so much of life for granted, like a house to live in, a school to attend, friends and family, air conditioning, clean food and water, and even comfortable shoes. I suddenly saw my life as someone growing up in China would see it, and there were many things that needed to be fixed. As I sit at my laptop writing this, I’m so thankful that I went on the Toastmasters International hope ambassador mission. It was a life-changing experience that I could never forget.