During our three days visiting the Foshan orphanage, we take students on one afternoon excursion to visit a towering Kuan Yin statue, the Chinese Goddess of Compassion, to learn more about this most essential quality of our weekend experience. Nikki Kwan, pictured in the middle of her friends above, wrote the following narrative about her journey into compassion during her time caring for the children at the orphanage.
Nikki was in my 9th grade Humanities I in Action course last year, and in early November our class spent three days at an orphanage in the southern city of Foshan, just outside of Guangzhou. Following our weekend experience, which affects many of our students deeply, I asked the class to write a 3-5 page personal narrative about their experience. Nikki recently revised her piece from last year and has now entered it in a writing contest. After re-reading her essay, I asked her if I could put it on my blog, for it is a fine example how the Foshan experience challenges students, as guest speaker Cynthia Bourgeault explained to our class, to “upgrade one’s operating system.” I can attest to the fact that Nikki is still processing her Foshan experience and the class materials we studied last year, and that she is consciously seeking to realize that “upgrade” in her own life. I wish her the very best in the contest as well as in the larger goal of maintaining a new operating system!
Kanyini in a Chinese Orphanage
by Nikki Kwan
Kanyini* describes the fundamental Australian Aboriginal belief of interconnection between humans and all things. I first learned the definition of this word in a ninth grade classroom, but it was not until our teacher, Dr. Schmidt, brought the class to an orphanage in Foshan, China, that I felt the meaning of the word.
I had been chasing this kid around the fifth floor for almost twenty minutes, playing the part of a monster. He just refused to be downed, this boy. Every time he tripped and tumbled to the floor, he would just get back up, shrieking with laugher, and continue running. Following one of the instances in which my extremely good-humored baby fell, the strangest thing happened. We had been running down the corridor, getting faster and faster. Just as we made the U-turn to head back down to the far end, the little tyke tripped over his own feet and fell again. I knelt down to check and see if he would start crying this time. He didn’t, but as I looked up from his already smiling face, I saw over the top of his black hair, a scene straight off the silver screen. At the end of the hallway, a figure was framed in the sunlight pouring in from a wide window. In his arms was a baby, cocooned in a swath of clothes. I could see and even feel the care with which the silhouette rocked the delicate child. The bent head, crowned in a halo of radiant hair, watching intently with a certain intensity as the baby burbled in its sleep. Something clicked, a veil lifted, and for an instant I saw a father, and not a silly, immature boy. The golden scene had a peace about it that I hadn’t felt in a long time. The rest of the world bustled about. A baby cried, a toddler shrieked, a bottle clattered to the floor, wheels rumbled and the eternal drone of chatter permeated under it all, but this one scene was preserved. My heart nearly stopped. I wanted more than anything to take a photo, but unfortunately the only thing I could do was to take a mental picture to immortalize as words.
The moment had been so perfect and right, one of those moments that makes it all worthwhile. That baby had someone who loved it, a parent who would take care of it, if only for a short time. In return, the baby had been able to touch the boy deep inside, reminding us that even though we may seem worlds apart, we are all human, and in this we are eternally bound together. How can we not see another human being and feel a primal compassion and feeling of connection? How can we not feel an overwhelming love deeper than that of lovers? How is it that we can tear each other apart and remain whole ourselves?
In that one moment, I felt the illusion of separateness lift. I felt kanyini. I wondered why we live as if we were a single being amongst strangers? Are we not all interdependent on each other? Are we not all brothers and sisters? Perhaps if we demolished the walls of mist that imprisons us in this Illusion…
A Lego Piece
As I made what seemed like our hundredth pass down to the far end of the hallway with my child superman-style, I noticed another baby, sitting all by himself. Apparently so did my kid, because he motioned for me to bend down so he could give the other baby his own drooley, chewed-up Lego piece by jamming it into his mouth. Not understanding that it was an act of kindness, the smaller baby started wailing, it’s large dark eyes shining as they filmed over with tears. Feeling a tinge of guilt, but no hesitation, I put my own kid down and picked up the poor upset baby to try and calm him. Though I didn’t want to just abandon my own child, I knew this baby needed me more. I think my kid understood and agreed too, because as I straightened, he looked up at me with a mirthful, satisfied smile and then wandered off to play with someone else.
I wondered at that kid. He was willing to let me go because he knew that the other baby needed me more. This little kid was able to show generous compassion in the simplest way possible, something that our adult society has been lacking. We ignore the beggars as we dash by on our way to Wall Street. We leave the homeless on the streets as we drive back from work to our cozy apartments. We eat and eat and eat as much food as we want, not because we are hungry, but because we just like to eat, while the poor starve, wrapped in newspapers and cardboard. We have so much, which is why we have forgotten how to share. This little kid who has next to nothing—even the clothes on his back are not his to call his own—is able to show this basic human capacity for love. What if we were to strip away all the materialism in this world, redistribute our hoards of stuff, unfairly concentrated within the elite? If everyone possessed the same, could we and would we be a more compassionate and generous society?
A Sweetly Sad Song
After finally calming the poor baby down, I held him for what seemed like eternity… until he started crying again. A nurse came over and took him away, sniffling. I wondered what I was going to do now. Looking around, I realized I was outside the sick rooms, where all the “ill” babies were kept quarantined.
I had gone in the day before and come back out within a matter of minutes, as I hadn’t known what to do. There was one baby with an abnormally flat head, like someone had gone at it with a steamroller, and another that was pale as paper and had puss coming out of her eyes. I was scared of all these babies and I hadn’t known what I could do to comfort them, so, being the coward that I am, I left. Now that I was thoroughly disgusted with myself for my initial reaction, I steeled myself to try again. There were already several people in there, including Mr. Ferrin, another teacher as well as an extremely talented guitarist. He was just settling down to play some music for the children, particularly one boy who would not stop jumping up and down noisily on top of his mattress.
I walked into the room and found myself next to a crib in which there was a boy who lay very quietly, hiding his face beneath his covers. Not knowing if I could hold him, I put my hand over his while he gripped his blanket as if to let go meant unbearable pain. I tried to coax him to come out of his cocoon, but he was completely unresponsive. The only detectable movement was his darting, bright black eyes, just above the line of the blanket. Looking down at him in the crib, I towered over him. I felt like I was belittling him unintentionally, as some rich benefactor who pities the poor. I needed to humble myself in some way, so I adjusted my hand to sit on the floor. I watched him from between the bars of the crib and just sat there.
Then, the music started and an inexplicable thing occurred. It was a sweetly sad, nostalgic piece, reminiscent of time long gone and probably written by some obscure Spanish composer. It was absolutely beautiful. Chills climbed my spine just listening to it because it simply but completely tied everything together. The music set the tone in a way similar to opening the cap of a thoroughly shaken bottle of Coke. I found myself thinking about the life these orphans are forced to live by no fault of their own. They have to endure the monotony of that miserable place day in and day out. If I were either nurse or orphan, I would have gone crazy living there for a week, and many of these kids have to endure years and years on end. With these thoughts I could feel my eyes watering and my vision distort. The first tear slid down my cheek, shortly followed by the next, and the next. Soon enough I had lost all control of my breathing and was sobbing without restraint.
Never in my life had I cried as much as I did in that room with all the people watching. Never before had I felt such utter hopelessness. It is very hard to make me cry, but when it hits home, it hits hard.
I later learned that the child whose hand I was holding was in that room not because he was sick or mentally ill, but because he was something of a “devil child.” The nurses speculated that his life on the streets before coming to the orphanage must have been some hell. Even though he was in the orphanage now, he had already learned the mentality that kept him alive on the streets and now had no one to help him unlearn it. Once, he even tried suffocating a child with a blanket when the nurses ignored him.
He should have had parents to teach him better I thought. He should have had a father to teach him right from wrong. He should have had a mother to protect him from all the evils that have tempered him this way. All these children and babies should have had parents. How could the world be so unfair? Why is it that I have a home, a family, and so much more, when these kids have nothing?
Ben saw that I was crying and came over to sit down next to me—Ben whom I had never even had a conversation with before. The restraints of social norms suddenly seemed infinitely insignificant—even silly—in light of this bombshell of a revelation. He hugged me while the boy in the crib watched with an inquisitive but detached stare. Thoughts swished around in my head like a bucket of water poised to tip its contents, my heart thumping loudly. I don’t know how long we sat like that but Ben eventually got up after one last reassuring hug. Suddenly, I was aware that the music had changed. It was the kind of uplifting music that carries the spirit higher and higher until you know everything’s going to come out all right. I looked up and saw the boy tied to the bed enthusiastically jumping up and down in what he thought was in time with the music. A smile crept across my thoroughly wet face.
“At least he is having fun,” remarked Mr. Ferrin. I wished I was able to do what Dr. Schmidt and Mr. Ferrin do, and come back year after year to bring beauty into the lives of these orphans, and to touch them. To give them something that could bring life to them. If the music was able to touch those kids the way it touched me, then I wish to all the gods that I could be able to do that, to be able to make a difference.
Then I saw my baby again, running down the hall with his inflatable red ball and laughter, someone else playing with him. I remembered the golden silhouette I had seen at the end of the hall and the love and care he had shown to the baby. And finally, I heard Mr. Ferrin’s song. Dr. Schmidt had walked in too with a baby of his own, and he started humming along to the music. Not a word was uttered, but the familiar lyrics written by John Newton echoed in my head… Amazing Grace, how sweet the song… and I looked at the quiet boy in the crib again. Nothing had changed, not even his mischievous, twinkling black eyes. There was hope in that.
As I left the orphanage for the last time with my fellow classmates I wondered: What am I going to do when I grow up, what am I going to do with my life? Am I going to be a lawyer? An accountant? A business woman? Before my experience in Foshan, I was honestly clueless. But now… I know that I want to do something that will directly help people, whether they are young, old, or middle-aged. With the realization that we are infinitely connected by the simple fact that we are all human and that the Aborigines were right, I knew that it is my responsibility, and that of everyone, to help.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
* “Kanyini” is also the title of a documentary shown in class by Dr. Schmidt, in which a modern Aboriginal man and elder of the Pitjantjatjara tribe in Australia, Bob Randall, discusses the beliefs and lifestyle of the Aborigines and their struggle in the modern world.
Nikki meditating on the field.