Halfway through July, I wrote an entry in my journal about climbing to the top floor of the school’s pagoda after dusk, following the sound of a lone zither whose sound echoed through the school courtyard. As I walked up the dark, steep and windy stairs to the third floor balcony and looked out on nighttime Jishou, I realized I never knew what I had expected of this small city in Southern China. Certainly not the illuminant letters atop the “BBG” mall, not the red and white apartment buildings that dominate the horizon, not the river that is jade green on clear days and mud brown on rainy days, and not a group of people, places, sights, sounds and tastes I would come to miss so dearly. Looking back, it’s as if Jishou provided me with a new pair of lens through which I now view China, my relationship with others, and myself.
As I was flying out of Shanghai and gazed out the cabin window, I saw the endless sea of lights below and realized that many of my students may never see this sight. When I asked my students about their future or their dreams, most of them talked of living in big cities and seeing what the “outside world” was like – for them, the “outside world” was the reality I lived every day and sometimes even sought to leave behind by going to a place like Jishou. But why is it, when some of my students are even more determined, hardworking, brilliant, and compassionate than I am, that I am the one who gets to enter their lives for six weeks and then return with ease to a place like Princeton? They’ve taught me there is no better or worse, no superiority or inferiority, simply lives with different opportunities and protagonists who are all trying to make the best of what we’ve been given. We all smile, laugh, cry, struggle for our dreams, and wish for a life where we can be our better selves.
And China is no longer the insular communities I have grown up with in the suburbs of Beijing – it is now the stories of the husbands who wake up at 4am to cook at “7 kuai” or my favorite baozi stand before the bridge, the life-changing “failures” of doing poorly on the college entrance exam so many of my students wrote about in their journals, a thirst for knowledge I have not seen in even many of my Princeton classmates, and the genuine kindness of students who bring us medicine when we are sick and breakfast when we wake up late – stories of people and places that have revealed to me what I have, and inspired me to continue finding and listening to the lives of the multitude of ordinary yet extraordinary human beings around me.
Almost a month after PiJ, I still receive caring messages and updates from my students. There is one student who has sent me a sentence in English every day so I can correct it for her, and another student who wanted me to know how much PiJ has influenced her, because she now finds time every day to study English.
During most of the program, I questioned the kind and amount of impact we would have on our students. Was my goal to teach as much English as possible, or to form deeper and more meaningful relationships with my students, even if it meant we had to have an occasional conversation in Chinese? How well can I come to know a student in six weeks, when our teacher to student ratio is almost 1:10? Especially after receiving extremely thoughtful gifts from many of my students (one student had kept a diary during the program and gave it to me on our last day there), I wondered if it was fair that I had not been able to offer the same emotional investment in return.
In retrospect, however, I shared so many parts of myself with my students that I have never shared with even my closest friends from home. Perhaps friendship is not measured by the amount of time you get to spend with someone, but by the genuine interest and desire to know one another during the short time you do have together. So in spite of my initial worries, I did become friends with many of students. Maybe not the same kind of friends as those at school or at home, not because of the limited time we had together, but because some of them were much more real, and made me feel so much more connected.
During our last Chill Circle, Alex C mentioned how the word for happiness in Chinese (开心) literally translates to “open heart.” I was surprised that I’d never made this connection before – perhaps when you grow up with a language you take words for granted and don’t question why they exist. Yet after experiencing Jishou, I couldn’t think of a better explanation for why I have felt so happy this summer.
The students’ unconditional open-heartedness and full acceptance of who I was allowed me to become truly comfortable with myself, even when I was stepping outside my comfort zones. Leading OA songs in a circle of more than 30 students, belting out-of-tune lyrics at KTV, or rallying people to dance at Prom – these were things I would’ve never even thought of doing back home or at Princeton, yet in Jishou, in the presence of my students, I couldn’t think of moments when I have felt more like myself or at ease with revealing these parts of my personality.
They’ve taught me that to receive happiness, I must trust that others will have open and accepting hearts. They’ve taught me that to provide happiness, I must first open up my own heart, so that others may in turn open theirs. They teased out of me a heartfelt smile that even I was surprised to see in my photos from this summer, and reminded me that understanding, joy, love and compassion for others are what bring us true happiness.