Third place in the Fall 2019 Personal Narrative Contest with the Society of Young Inklings.
A summer in rural China teaches the narrator not to take her life for granted
This summer, I was in the Liangshan mountains in rural Sichuan, China, for camp. At first, it seemed like an ordinary place, but those ten days taught me what gratitude is.
Liangshan is a historically poor county. Isolated by mountains, it was the last place in China to banish slavery. High illiteracy rates and AIDS have plagued it for years, keeping its inhabitants in a long cycle of poverty. Most of its population are of Yi descent, a minority ethnic group in China. They earn meager wages as farmers, maids, or janitors.
My camp, BLOOM, consisted of more than 100 kids. It was founded by a charity organization in an effort to offer more educational opportunities to kids in the mountains. Half of the campers are from big cities like New York, Toronto, and Shanghai. The other half are from Liangshan. We were paired up, and the kids from cities tutor the local kids in English for two hours a day. As city kids, we learned about Yi culture, took guitar classes, arts and crafts, softball lessons, and more. Most of the money we paid for the camp went to nearby schools, and the teachers and counselors were all volunteers.
When I first arrived at the high school where the camp was located, I was instantly aware of the cracked tile floors, the dirty windows, and the creaky, flimsy doors. My roommates quickly helped me with my heavy suitcase, set up my sleeping linens, and showed me how to use a mosquito net. The dorms were bright, but the floors were always muddy, no matter how many times we tried mopping them. We were to sleep on wooden planks and shower with ice-cold water in the public bathhouse. Each small room housed seven or eight people. It was uncomfortable, but I was resolved not to complain about any of it. If the Liangshan kids had to live like this all year, I had no excuse for whining.
Over the next few days, my roommates and I quickly developed a collegial closeness that I’ve seldom experienced before. We shared inside jokes, told ghost stories, and talked late into the night every day. I felt like I belonged, even though they sometimes said things that I didn’t understand. Sometimes I couldn’t express myself in Chinese, and they’d all listen as I grasped for the right words, guessing at what I meant. They never seemed annoyed and explained everything with infinite patience. I was shocked to learn that none of my Liangshan friends had seen the ocean or been on a boat or plane. But we complained about homework and getting up early in the morning just like I did with my friends in New York. The kids there were just like me. It was so easy to connect with each other, despite our differences.
On the second night, we had a discussion activity. A few campers, chosen at random, sat in the front of the lecture hall and answered a simple question: “What would you do with 100 yuan (about $15)?” Most kids wished for new clothes, books, or food. When it came to Gujin, a girl from Liangshan, she spoke with confidence and pride.
“My father works as a janitor. It doesn’t pay very well. He comes home very late at night, always exhausted. I know that every cent is the result of his hard work, and I am lucky to have parents who care for me.” She paused. “If I had 100 yuan, I would give it to my dad to take some pressure off his shoulders and to help pay the bills. Thank you.”
Applause erupted from the lecture hall. I knew plenty of people at home who took their parents for granted. To some extent, I realized that I, too, was not fully grateful for all that my parents had done for me. I had never once worried about how I would afford food or lost sleep over the bills. That was all taken care of for me. Many of the kids around me knew what it felt like to go hungry at night, but they didn’t pity themselves. Instead, they seemed even more steadfastly determined and thankful for everything they had. It was rare to find such personalities.
A few days later, I asked my friend Anai about her family. She was a quiet girl who had a habit of speaking softly with a warm accent. “I have four siblings. My mom has to tend to the farm all day. If she has extra time, she finds work doing other people’s laundry,” she said.
“What about your dad?” I asked.
“He passed away two years ago,” she said, suddenly seeming distant. I felt immediate regret for the question, and I bit my lip, not knowing what to say. She just shrugged. “I never really had a connection with him. He didn’t talk to us. When my mom made a little money, she would have to hide it because otherwise my dad would just go out and buy liquor and drink until the money ran out again. I didn’t like him because he never cared about us. But he was still my father.”
“I’m so sorry,” I murmured. She shrugged again, and we sat in silence.
On the sixth day, all the big-city kids went on a trip to a Yi village in the heart of the mountains. It was home to a boy named Geizuo. He went to our camp and was a tall, calm volunteer from the high school we were living in. BLOOM had raised enough money to send Geizuo to a private school in Changshu, a city near Shanghai, and was trying to do the same for many other kids in Liangshan. We boarded the bus around noon, expecting a two-hour drive. Four hours later, we were stuck in a ditch in the middle of the road.
Geizuo’s mother and a few other village adults filed into the clearing, carrying bamboo baskets filled with rice, wooden basins of vegetable stew, and platters of beef.
I had never seen anything like it. I knew the roads were old and some parts had crumbled away, but here it was: a big, two-meter-wide pothole where the asphalt had weathered away, creating a deep ditch in the road. After twenty minutes of pushing the bus and filling the ditch, we were finally on our way again. An hour later, we were stuck yet again, this time because the road was too narrow and winding. Two people had thrown up because of motion sickness, and I wondered how many times Geizuo had traveled over these mountain roads to his home. The “public bus” he rode was usually a tractor with people and other cargo loaded onto it. How many Liangshan kids had to go through this every time they wanted to see their family? All of the local campers went to boarding school, so they didn’t go home very often. In contrast, I rode a school bus for about ten minutes every day to school.
We had to walk the rest of the way after the bus couldn’t go on, and when we arrived, there was yet another surprise. The village consisted of wooden fences and mud huts. I saw no traces of electricity or running water. Pigs, goats, and cows stood in wooden pens while little dogs barked at us. I had seen places like these on TV, but seeing it wasn’t quite the same as being there. The smell of woody fire and savory food wafted around us, and the pebbles on the dirt paths crunched beneath my feet. The place was alive with chatter, and the friendly villagers were already at the entrance, waiting for us and cheering as we arrived. An old man rushed to greet me, clasping my hands in his and grinning from ear to ear. He thanked me over and over for visiting them.
“It’s been no trouble, sir,” I replied respectfully. The first thing I noticed about him was his clothing—like the Yi outfits I’d seen at camp cultural night. Thick black fabric wrapped around their torsos, bright hand-embroidery swirling across their chests. Their long, flowing skirts floated an inch above the ground, swishing around their legs as they went. It seemed that most of the villagers wore these outfits every day.
My friend Kunling was there with me, and we distributed a bag of milk candies among the kids in the village. We also distributed the six small flashlights Kunling had brought for them. Some other kids toted crates of bottled water for the villagers, and the counselors had prepared BLOOM backpacks for the kids there.
We toured the place, looking inside the neat little mud huts and petting the horses and donkeys. The huts generally had no windows and were incredibly dim inside. The villagers slept on straw and sleeping rolls. I didn’t see much furniture or extra clothes.
For dinner, Geizuo’s mother and a few other village adults filed into the clearing, carrying bamboo baskets filled with rice, wooden basins of vegetable stew, and platters of beef. For a village of families that each make an annual income of about 10,000 yuan per person (about $1,500 USD), it was an unparalleled act of welcome. They had no dining table, so the food was set on the ground. The meat didn’t taste like anything I’ve tasted before. It was tough and full of lean muscle, unlike the tender, fatty cows we eat at home. The fragrant flavor of beef was pure on my tongue, with no fancy seasoning. It tasted whole.
We all gathered for a Yi performance where everyone danced and sang with big torches. When the torches were whisked away and extinguished, the old man who had welcomed me earlier came forward with a flat, iron rod that was so hot it glowed red in the deepening twilight. He licked it. We all gasped, but he just laughed. He blew water onto the metal, and it sizzled and evaporated in a cloud of vapor. He did it again and again, and I could see that his tongue had turned white with burn scars over the years. The villagers explained that the performance was a Yi tradition usually performed at the Yi New Year, weddings, and other special occasions. I thought about all the times I’d been burned and couldn’t imagine how painful that must be.
As we hiked back to the bus, the sun was setting behind a mountain, and the skies were streaked with orange and pink. The undulating mountainsides extended beyond the horizons, and the embryonic greens of summer seemed to cover it like a fuzzy carpet. Terraced fields and organized crops surrounded the little village. The trip hadn’t been flawless, but it was unforgettable. I used to sympathize with the villagers—almost pity them for their financial problems and the strenuous physical labor needed to tend their fields, but I realized that they were mostly happy and content with what they had.
I had so much at my disposal compared to most kids here. For the first time in my life, I acknowledged how fortunate I was. Many villagers couldn’t afford two sets of clothes, nevermind piano lessons or ice-skating classes. Things I took for granted at home were luxuries to most children on this mountain. I was suddenly resolved to work harder than I ever had before, and to make a difference.
As my friends and I walked down that mountain path, singing our favorite songs at the top of our lungs, I felt free, like I could fly into the clouds and never come back.
Gratitude is not a saying. It’s an emotion, felt with more than the heart and expressed with more than words. The world had given me a gift, and in turn, I’m bound to a promise.