“Perpetual sacrifice. It is an ideology that invades nearly every aspect of our lives. What is being sacrificed? What is the common thread? Most fundamentally, it is a sacrifice of the present for the future.”
The highlight of Humanities I in Action for most students is a four-day, three-night trip to an orphanage in the southern Chinese city of Foshan. For many students, it is a massive reality check, as they step outside of their affluent bubbles and into the lives of children who rarely leave the institution that cares for them. When students return to school, they inevitably feel both gratitude for all that they have and guilt for taking so much for granted. Beauty and shame are a shared experience.
When students return, they write a narrative about their experience. One of my students, Yash, wrote an excellent piece that describes a variation on this “reality check” theme. Even though Yash, as class president and active member in a half dozen extracurricular clubs, is ahead of the stress curve as a first-semester freshmen, anxiety is a defining experience for many adolescents at highly competitive schools like HKIS. Yash’s narrative describes the mental-emotional journey that he had to take over a weekend in order to surrender his pursuit of academic and extracurricular achievements, and thus to be present for the children at the orphanage.
There and Back Again
I still wasn’t there. I was there in body, but my mind, my emotions, my attention were all elsewhere. The effervescence of my peers on the bus was palpable on the way to the orphanage, yet I felt strangely immune to their emotions. I sat quietly at the back, attempting to coerce excitement and enthusiasm out of myself, but not the slightest hint of such emotion betrayed itself. My thoughts were not on the orphanage, no, but rather on the work and stresses of school. I was living not in the moment, but in the seemingly mammoth worries of the future. The tests, the projects, the trips, it never ended. Guilty as it made me, Foshan seemed it would be more a waste of time for me than anything more significant. Amidst all my joyful peers, would I be sulking in a corner, disengaged?
As the bus screeched to a halt outside the orphanage building, I plastered on an eager expression and stepped off the bus. I entered and apprehensively climbed the dimly lit stairwell. We had an option presented to us: we could go to the special needs section on the third floor or take a trip up to the fifth floor with healthy babies; most initially went to the fifth floor, as did I. The fifth floor was colorful and well lit; an animated chatter consumed the air as everyone found “their” baby. I ambled about without aim, watching my classmates grin from ear to ear as they interacted animatedly with the babies. I, on the other hand, was less than fascinated. Even the cutest smiles of the chubbiest babies were not enough to drag my obstinate mind away from the assessments and assignments back in the ordinary world I came from. Unlike a majority of my classmates, I had yet to cross the first threshold into a special world, the tragic world of the orphans in Foshan. A battle raged within me, a battle between the part of me that yearned to make the most of this unique experience, and a part of me that frankly couldn’t care less. I knew I needed to experience something truly different to wean my mind off the problems awaiting me in Hong Kong. I knew that crossing the threshold into the “special world” would require me to go down to the special needs floor.
I plodded down the stairs with some trepidation: I had never interacted with special needs children before. Whenever I saw a special needs child on the street, I simply turned my head, denying reality for the sake of mental peace. I opened the door on the third floor just by a sliver, entering tentatively. A blood-curling wail pierced the stale air as I creeped in. I froze and stumbled back, stealing a glance at the door behind me. Did I really want to continue forward? I wrestled with the question. Then, I made the most important decision of my trip: I stepped forward. I was past the first threshold; I had entered the special world. I was finally in Foshan.
I halted for a moment, soaking myself in the raucous surroundings. To my left a teenage girl spun uncontrollably, looking disconcertingly like a human spinning-top as her eyes following the palm of her outstretched hand. To my right another child was bound by his feet to a wall, hissing in anger as he tried to break loose. With each disturbing sight I felt my mind overwhelmed, confused, lost. I retreated further into the rear of the room, as though hoping the disorienting images and sounds would fade into the air. The challenges of my journey through the special world had begun.
As I took a halting step into the rear section of the special needs floor, a rancid odor inundated my nostrils and I was overcome by a surge of nausea. Repulsed, I staggered backward. My foot again hovered over the invisible boundary with indecision, the invisible boundary dividing the realm of my comfort from a dark, unknown reality. This was a test. The other side was dingy and cheerless; even the warmest rays of the afternoon sun could not penetrate the hanging gloom. Seated around on dull plastic potties were emaciated, catatonic figures, mere ghosts of children. Occasionally, a weak moan escaped from the lips of a desperate child seeking freedom from their confines. Yet I was intent on clearing the test, and took a tentative step over the boundary. Lifeless eyes followed me as I entered, the faintest glimmer of eagerness smothered by years of pain, solitude and decay.
I solemnly walked toward the rear wall of the room, the gravity of the situation weighing on me. My eyes fell on a particular child lying on one of the beds. The skin on his face was flaking off, crumbling away like paint on a neglected facade. As I approached, the tiniest wisp of a smile escaped from his thin lips, and his head tilted slowly in my direction. The boy’s limbs were severely contorted and splayed over the bed, his position appearing anatomically impossible. His body was wasted and shriveled, his skin stretched taut over his bones. He made a futile attempt to twist himself in my direction, and even from that smallest of exertions I saw a glistening bead of sweat trickle down his forehead. His eyes keenly followed me as I knelt beside him; they were bright eyes, happy eyes with a certain vitality behind them, one I couldn’t discern in the looks of the others. He attempted to speak to me, but only an inaudible hoarse whisper emanated from his mouth. This bright-eyed boy struggled so immensely with the very simplest of tasks: moving, speaking, even turning his head. He was a prisoner to his own body. Yet there I was, arrogant and haughty, thinking that my petty little problems mattered on an existential global scale. There I was, beside an abandoned child from an impoverished family, yet only bothered about a neat row of As on my grade book. There I was, too busy caught up in my own future to empathize with the current suffering of this boy and the millions others like him whose problems far dwarfed mine. I was so self-centered. I felt the hard floor push against my knees; the cold, gray room envelope me; the barred windows glare at me. I was plummeting into the abyss, the ordeal. Tears of guilt rose and created little pools in my eyes. At that moment, as I sat down beside the boy, the bright light of reality finally shone in my mind. After months of blind and relentless work and study in the hopes of a promising future for myself, a new perspective had dawned on me and given me sight. A notion that my thoughts must not always live in the future but must also live in the present and with those experiencing true suffering. In this view lay the elixir, the genuine reward from the Foshan trip. An elixir to bring back home and keep with me forever.
Foshan is but a memory now. The tests, the grades, the competition, it’s all back. Yet amidst all the worries I find room for some compassion, some compassion for all those who suffer alone daily, helpless and trapped within the confines of their own bodies. Will Foshan make a lasting difference? That is yet to be seen, but the trip has given me something I sorely needed: a reality check. A reality check to show me that there is so much more to this world than just me, my grades, my future. Foshan took me on the Hero’s Journey there and back again, through all the challenges and ordeals, but finally leaving me an invaluable elixir to return with, an elixir that will leave its imprint on my mind for a while to come.
Yash’s story retells a personal moment of awakening that I expect he will not soon forget. However, the real question now is how to sustain that “room for some compassion” that has opened up within him once he has returned to his normal cycle of high achievement. As a teacher at the same school, it is my question as well.
Recently Aleta Miller, executive director of the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre, came to speak to my senior-level students about her life experience. She started the talk by saying that what she aimed to find in her life was congruence, a term that struck many of my students as an apt description of what we need in our lives. What Yash’s essay points out is that our scatteredness isn’t simply a by-product of the frenetic pace at which we live our lives; it also involves a whole future-oriented mindset that robs us of living in the present. Congruence isn’t only about making sure that values are aligned between work and family commitments, or having a deep sense of calling. It is also about finding an ability to be fully present – to uncover appreciation and empathy in the ordinariness of life. This seems a worthy question to contemplate during the Christmas season. As the traditional carol implores, “Let every heart prepare him room.”