Kunming, China

Since July 13, 2001, the day the International Olympic Committee elected Beijing as the home of 2008 Games, Olympics-mania ensued for Chinese people everywhere. “Beijing 2008” became an icon, symbolizing change and hope. Suddenly, for people in China, there was no escape from Olympics paraphernalia; every commercial, every song, every billboard and statue was created in name of the Olympic Games. Even the most irrelevant products carried a “Beijing 2008” stamp as a badge of honor. However, despite all the hype, the biggest event in my 2008 China trip turned out to take place outside the five-ring road setup of Beijing. Though I was in China for the duration of the Olympics, I only stayed in Beijing for the first few days of the Olympics—just long enough to catch one preliminary soccer game. For the rest of my five weeks in China, I stayed in Yunnan, home to beautiful mountains and the rich culture from 25 of the 56 recognized ethnic groups in China. The capital of Yunnan, Kunming, is also home to most of my maternal relatives and recently became a temporary home to about 500 children displaced by the tragic Sichuan earthquake in May. After a 23-hour train ride and countless medical tests, the 500 children were assigned nine different elementary schools for boarding while their parents rebuilt their lives. Among those nine schools and 500 kids was Kunming Guan Du District Guan Shang Elementary School No. 2 and the 39 Sichuan students it welcomed, both of which I had the honor and pleasure of working with. My cousin and I, both somewhat fluent in Chinese and English volunteered at the school for almost three weeks as teachers, counselors and companions to the kids. While they were welcoming of us, they were also extremely cautious with the children. It took some persistence and a lot of procedures and paperwork for the administration to allow us to begin work. They don’t usually accept volunteers from outside their faculty. The Assistant Principal said, “You have to understand, especially with the possible chaos of the Olympics right now, we have to be extremely careful with who we let into the school.” The organization, carefulness, compassion and generosity of the school were all truly remarkable. Teachers sacrificed their summer vacations to take turns with 48-hour shifts taking care of the kids aged nine to twelve. But, it was easy to tell that none of them minded the extra face time with the well-behaved kids; each teacher we saw had such sincere fondness for every child. Teachers on duty lived with students in two classrooms-turned-dorm rooms, one for boys and one for girls. One room housed more kids than my whole freshman dorm at Phillips Academy, including prefects and house counselors. For kids who have the freedom of living with friends and without parents around, every child was surprisingly disciplined and polite. According to the faculty, they were not always like that, and the school had taught them well. One teacher said, “It’s good to let go and have fun with the kids, but when it’s time to be strict, we have to be strict—when it comes down to it, we are the teachers and we are responsible for them when their parents aren’t here.” Another added, “When they first came to us, they…took everything for granted. They were nothing like how they are now. Now, when we take field trips with any of the other eight schools [with students from Sichuan], everyone knows that our kids are the most pleasant and well-behaved.” On August 30, 2008, there was another earthquake in Sichuan with 6.1 magnitude which was even felt in Kunming. The younger children were so scared they would not leave their teachers’ sides. The older children were a little more relaxed, some were half-joking, half-making up hypothetical scenarios and making some mental preparations. Yan Ming said, “If there was another earthquake here, I’d figure out some way to take everybody’s Ramen Noodles because that’s all we need to live off of during an earthquake—Ramen Noodles.” Li FengLing said, “[Yan Ming] is too selfish! If there was another earthquake, I’d go into the buildings and save people first. Then, they’d be so thankful to me that they’d give me all their Ramen Noodles!” But no matter how scared or seemingly greedy with their Ramen, we were in awe of their strength, appreciation and kindness. On our last day, we threw a birthday party for three of the students. They were so touched that we would go out and buy a cake for them that they almost all began to cry (the oldest one stopped himself). They said that no one had ever done anything so nice for them and that the school and their families can’t afford to throw a party with a cake. They appreciated it so much that they insisted on cutting the cake themselves, but they gave cake to everyone else in the class, leaving very little for themselves. These children didn’t really have much in terms of material posessions; all they had was what was donated to them. And yet, on our last day, every kid wracked his brains—and bins—for parting gifts to give us. Some of the kids wrote notes, almost all of the kids drew pictures, and a lot of the kids gave stuffed animals, books or anything they thought was remotely presentable. All of these souvenirs seem so much more meaningful than any kind of Olympic paraphernalia, and they are all now on display or put to use in my room. Ma ShuMan drew a picture with a note: “I drew this picture from the bottom of my heart because you’ve worked so hard these passed few days just to make us happy, you put us before yourself…Thank you, and I wish you happiness in America.” Ma Jie gave me his giant stuffed animal that each child received to keep him company. When I told him I couldn’t accept that gift because he needed it he said, “I want you to have it…I don’t need him anymore because I want to give him to you so you won’t forget me. Please just take him back to the U.S. with you.”