A picture of Andrea (on left) at Xiqiao Mountain during the China Orphanage Trip.
Every year in the Humanities I in Action class I take students to two nearby orphanages in southern China for an experience with taking care of children for a long weekend. For many students the trip dissolves the psychological boundary that they have built between their generally positive lives in Hong Kong and the suffering that occurs at the periphery of their consciousness – a disfigured beggar on a walkway in Central, breaking news stories with natural disaster scenes, disparaging commentary issuing from overhead TV monitors.
By being out of Hong Kong as a community solely focused on being with children for a weekend, all of us experience the orphanages with those filters removed. Instead we are forced to deal with elemental issues in our lives that students and teachers in an affluent international school do not usually need to concern themselves with. Yet to study effectively about the human condition, the fundamental aim of the first semester of Humanities I in Action, requires a direct experience with life in all its rawness.
Upon our return, I ask student to write a personal narrative about their weekend experience. I share Andrea’s paper as an example of the kind of wrestling that confronting the pain of another creates in students and in all of us. Enjoy Andrea’s re-telling of one scenario from her weekend.
“Saving Starfish” by Andrea Sum
Once upon a time, a boy was on the beach throwing starfish* back into the ocean to save them from dying in the sun. A man approached him and said: “There’s too many starfish on this beach, you couldn’t possibly make a difference.” The boy picked up a starfish, threw it back into the ocean, then said: “I made a difference to that one.” I laughed silently to myself as I recapitulated my priceless Foshan memories.
As I ran around aimlessly pushing an orphan’s wheelchair, I thought to myself: is this service? Am I making a difference to all these starfish marooned on the beach? The putrid scent wafting from who-knows-where forcefully blasted me back in the face after every stride I took. In front of me, I pushed a wheelchair with a young handicapped orphan dressed in a thick, pink fleece. Drops of saliva that escaped from the corner of his cracked lips skidded along side his flushed cheeks as I raced around on the plastic flooring. Though seemingly uncomfortable from the sudden jerky turns, he laughed as if he hadn’t laughed for the longest time. This joyous melody overpowered the toxic air and brought tints of colour to my pale, nauseous face. His emotions were generated and manipulated upon simplistic, miniscule conditions. Just by increasing the speed of this orphan’s daily movements made him giddy with excitement.
Is this service? Am I making a difference? Yet, I’m here running in the cold. Is this what it’s like to make a difference in someone’s life?
Earlier that day, I stood outside of Foshan’s unforgettable secured, metal alloy prison door as high pitched shrieks of anticipation seeped out from the small gaps surrounding the door. The anxiety raged within me, resulting in relentless fidgeting. What could I possibly do for these kids that would make difference in their lives, all of them? Before I could think, a sounding beep from the door’s machinery released a wave of kids that flooded out to greet us. I don’t even know what came first, the kids, or the distinguished, vile odor that scorched the air and burnt my nostrils: the scent of urine.
Amidst all the fumbling and the racket, I spotted an outcast of the group. He frantically spun the wheels of his wheelchair, trying to find a small gap between the barricade the orphans had formed with their bodies. But with no luck, he was rejected from the rest of the community. With a slight pang of guilt due to previous experience from being outcasted, I waddled my way through the clinging children and grasped onto his wheelchair handles. What now? I contemplated a way to make use of our time together. As a test, I slowly pushed his wheelchair. I quickly stopped, listening closely for any signs of hesitation. No whimpering, instead, his head lolled back and he looked up at me, as if to say, “Keep going, I like it!” Still uncertain, I pushed a little faster, then continued to gain speed until I was full-on running around and around the great, dank, empty space of the third floor.
The wistful scenery around me came to a blur as I ran, but it was clear enough to see the once-hidden truth, the realities of this world that burnt pitiful images into my mind. In one corner of the room, there were three boys, each squatting on their own pathetic plastic potties. At the back of the third floor, there was a small cell, containing an orphan with contorted limbs and flaky, untended skin, subjected there until he dies. In the rooms to the right of the entrance, there were rows upon rows of metal beds, resembling a prison. Some of the beds had children chained to the bedpost, exactly like a prison. No matter how hard I tried to look away, I’d always spot a fatigued face just waiting for their days to dissipate. I’ve never seen so much suffering in my life. All of it was sloppily packaged in such a small, drab area. I began to sink deeper and deeper into my cruel, inner thoughts, phrases I wouldn’t dare say out loud. There’s no hope, there’s absolutely no hope. There’s only one of me and too many of them. I can’t help this many people, I just can’t. I felt torn; torn between one orphan, the one I’d begin to devote my time to, and all the other orphans at the orphanage.
I first pondered whether I was doing service or not, whether I was making a difference or not, just binary questions. I thought I wasn’t, afterall, I was only running. One glance at the boy in the wheelchair and my question was answered. Moments before, he was rolling around on his wheelchair in a room where no light shone through, simply slaughtering time. When I first laid eyes on him, there was no twinkle in his eyes, there was only an endless abyss of hopelessness. Yet, he’s now grinning from ear to ear, squealing like a piglet, and looking lively. I synced emotions with him, minus the squealing, as I realized that though obscure, I was truly making a difference, a small one in general, but a substantial difference to that one orphan.
“I made a difference to that one,” the clever boy once replied. Well I made a difference too, not a remarkable one, but I made a difference to the orphan that I pushed around. He was the starfish I threw back into the ocean. I made a difference to that one.
*This is from an anecdote from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley.
Teaching Andrea’s Essay
A couple of weeks after the orphanage trip we were talking about how to find satisfaction in our lives. Every experience, it seems, can be deemed positive or negative with regard to whether it is genuinely fulfilling, and this questioning can be extrapolated to the whole of our lives. Every yes involves a no to so many other things; how does one live without regret?
I then asked if we had made a difference on the trip. The first 3 kids said yes and I listed their reasoning on the board, so I thought maybe all the kids felt that way. Then I asked for argument’s sake what might be the other side. We then listed quite a few counterarguments. Then I asked which side was more convincing. To my surprise, the whole class said the counterargument was more convincing. Quite a downer, it seemed.
That’s when I brought up the Wisdom Tradition’s teaching about the Law of Three which is apparent in every human action. I talked about how our lives are full of the first two forces in the Law of Three, affirming and denying. We want to reach out to orphans, but our minds worry about getting sick, or we find it difficult to be close to a child that has bad breath from either rotting teeth or poor digestion. This is our moment-by-moment experience. According to the Law of 3, the body center is the affirming force – always wanting to reach out – and the mind center is the denying force – always questioning. What reconciles? Only the heart, that organ of spiritual perception, can bring into harmony the complex approach and avoid mechanism that occurs within us when we confront suffering. How does that magical reconciling 3rd force appear?
Then I read Andrea’s essay to them. Look how she sets it up so well, I explained, speaking of the “binary,” what the Law of Three would call the struggle between affirming and denying. Then she brilliantly describes how that invisible reconciling force of the heart emerged. When she synced her emotions with the child in the wheelchair, she understood she was truly making a small but real difference for one – and in that moment there was an experience of satisfaction. As the Wisdom Tradition teaches, only the heart, that gathered inner place of discernment, can reconcile things that can always be questioned.
Andrea’s essay is a beautiful demonstration of why I have brought my students to southern China since 1995. They are forced to wrestle with the big questions life, and perhaps the biggest of all for my students is dealing with the suffering of others beyond their own concerns, seeking to reconcile their lives with those fleeting images that they sense are out there but are not part of their lived reality. This is the process of truly educating, of bringing wholeness out of the fragmentation of every day life; this is the power that service learning can potentially bring to students.