Just two years ago, I joined a summer program, Project Ascent, which sends American students to Sichuan, China, to volunteer in local communities and familiarize Chinese students with American Culture. As one of the twelve participants, our goal was to foster positive perceptions of each other’s civilizations. There, I gained insight about my own life, as well as gave moral and material support to the less fortunate. Project Ascent was a truly formative experience, by far the pinnacle of my search to morally and spiritually improve.
During the first few days, our group stayed in Mianyang, a modern town surrounded by lush, green mountains.
â–º QUARTER FINALIST 2012 TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
The bulk of the volunteer service took place in a ravaged slum where survivors of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake temporarily resided. Many of them lost everything in three minutes’ time. In addition to holding events for orphaned children, our group also shopped for rice at a Walmart in Mianyang, then hand-delivered them to residents. It was intriguing to see a Western corporation in China, and believe me, even here, Walmart lives up to its prices. Yet, to my surprise, we were almost hailed as deities as we made our deliveries. Only later did I realize that one bag of rice was a few days of income.
In addition to volunteering, I also taught American Culture at a high school. Yet, this typical boarding school in Mianyang housed students who lived in what Americans would consider deplorable conditions. Students studied in 90 degree heat and 90% humidity in classrooms of 50 people. Furthermore, they attended class daily from 7 AM to 10 PM without fail, with only a few breaks during the day. To my surprise, when I taught, the classroom was filled by only one voice: mine. Other than that, the room was silent as a grave. I later found out from one of the students, Sabrina, that such a situation was typical, as Chinese teachers expected students to be seen and not heard.
Despite seemingly less than optimal environments, both the earthquake victims and students were still optimistic and supportive of one another. Back in America, I wondered why I was not like them, persevering, progressive, and positive. Slum residents, for example, are deprived of the material possessions that I take for granted. They lack televisions, indoor plumbing, and even adequate amounts of food. There should be no reason why I am dissatisfied, given all the “necessities” I have in this comfortable life. It is not what I have, but how I live, that shapes my attitude for the better, making this experience an influential marker of my own moral compass. With regards to students, I had a chance to reflect on my education in America, which was nothing close to what they had to face. Sabrina taught me to be grateful for air conditioning and lenient school hours, but also thankful for the simple pleasures of an American education: the liberty to speak my mind and even ask questions in the classroom.
Ultimately, through the experience, I developed a sense of humility which allowed me to see myself through a different lens. In comparing, it is human nature to have inward dialogues where we convince ourselves better than others. This superficial way to view myself and the world is real as well as faulty; I am not always superior to others and knowing this is key to my spiritual and moral growth. Delving beyond the superficial, most importantly, I learned there is a better way to gauge my life’s priorities and paths: attitude and self-reflection are the catalysts for living a purposeful existence.
Image: Beichuan, Sichuan, China. The city is very beautiful in the summer: the flowers are in full bloom and the city looks peaceful. Yet, looks can be deceiving. Behind the tree line are ruins of apartments and businesses. The blue sign alerts drivers of the elementary school nearby, which was destroyed in the quake. The city is a graveyard for more than 100,000 people; many have never been found.
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