Adventure Awaits

Selfish, inadequate, and self-serving is probably what most Singaporeans would use to describe any form of overseas involvement projects led by schools. Indeed, due to the rich history of one-off volunteer projects in Singapore, one would not be wrong in assuming so. Yet, in the recent decade, I have grown to realize that this is but a phenomenon of the past – the generation today has learnt to see past the superficiality of volunteerism. Overseas Service Learning (OSL) trips are ideal manifestations of these lessons. Understanding that one cannot hope to right the social wrongs of a community in a single trip, OSLs thus aim to engage students in critical conversations and spark insightful thoughts on these topics instead. By exposing students to the socio-economic situations of diverse communities, OSLs hope to empower students to learn rare lessons through their acts of service.

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CAPTclouds is an OSL that beautifully encompasses both objectives – to serve, and to learn. In this insightful trip, I not only dispelled many of the preconceived notions that I came with, but also left with a few reflections of my own. For one, many of us thought that an OSL in the rural areas of Lijiang, Yunnan, would mean backbreaking work and futile conversations due to the impediment of language. Yet, what ultimately transpired were beautiful moments of us learning of the inner struggles of the kids as we taught them basic ideas of self-care. As many of those who went would describe, the experience was indeed hellish (read: little monsters that would come rushing out at the sound of the bell) initially, but ultimately became a bittersweet experience as we sought to learn more about them. Indeed, to each his own, and therefore the experience that each participant gets out of an OSL (this included) is specific to him, and will always remain their own – thus, I do believe that it is less important to describe my own experience, than to help others shape theirs (and not because I got lazy ok HAHA).

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To all juniors, if you are ever considering taking on an OSL, I warmly invite you to come on this journey with us and take that leap of faith – the experience that you’ll receive is beyond material gifts. I promise that if you open your mind, and your heart, you will receive more than you would ever be able to give. This may not be a life changing experience, but this would definitely be one of the times that you would stumble upon an incident and reflection that you would hold dearly for life.

 

Written By: Teo Wei Yang

Photos by: CAPTClouds 2018 Publicity Team

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Advice for a Future CAPTClouds Member

When asked to reflect on my CAPTClouds experience, I thought, “Well, simple enough! I’ve had so many takeaways from the trip, surely it would be easy to write about it!”. Well… I thought wrong.

The process of putting this experience into writing proved more difficult than I expected. It was too complex to simplify — filled with ups and downs, complete with a full range of emotions, both the negatives and positives, and of course, the lessons I had gained along the way.

Nevertheless, after a long hard think and several weeks of procrastination, here are some things that I’ve gained and experienced in my journey and I hope that it will help you along your own journey, be it with CAPTClouds or anywhere else!.

Purpose, Possibility and Growth

My CAPTClouds journey started long before I had even set foot into China. It started with three simple reasons and away I went. These three aims framed my expectations and provided a direction for what I chose to do as I began working on CAPTClouds.

  1. Purpose

What am I here for? What is my value?

I asked myself these questions and challenged myself to really reflect and consider what it was that I could offer to the team and to the people in Yunnan. What is the value of the repeated trips of students going there…to make a “difference”? What then makes us different?

While I believe that this question can never really be adequately answered (as we eventually find out over our time here in CAPT), my attempt to answer this million-dollar question is this — our value lies in ourselves and the giving of ourselves to the people there.

I knew that in our 2 weeks there, it would be foolishly optimistic to think that we could provide long lasting solutions to any problems and issues. Even to think that we will be able to appropriately and accurately identify “issues” and “problems” is ignorantly two-dimensional and narrow-minded, after all, how can we begin to understand the intricacies of a culture and way of life that has existed for so long? However, despite all that, I believed and still believe, that what we bring there is of ourselves and simply put, the value of the trip lied in whatever we were willing to give of ourselves. I was prepared to enter the community to understand and learn without judgement, knowing fully that I was not in a position to solve anything, but instead to engage and hear from the locals there.

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Having such a perspective in mind, I was then able to better create a program that facilitated interactions between the Singaporean team and the Chinese locals, choosing topics and themes that allowed for deeper conversation and freedom to share about their lives. And this leads me to my next point, how will you lead a team in a direction that you want to go?

A personal goal for me when taking up CAPTClouds was to learn how to lead and mentor a team. It was important to me to learn how to guide a team in moving towards a common goal which everyone believed in, as well as to support and help others grow to where they wanted to be. With the communication of a clearly defined purpose and direction, it was thus easier to move together in the same direction, as everyone had an idea of where they wanted to be.

In the end, the bottom line is just really simple: When you embark on your journey, know where you want to go.

 

  1. Possibility

Even with a purpose, make sure to leave room for possibility and freedom to allow yourself to wander and enjoy the views along the way. It’s really important to keep an open mind, knowing that there’s so much to learn that you probably didn’t even think about in the first place!

As far as plans went, I would say that for CAPTClouds’18, our plans pretty much flew out of the window the moment we reached Yunnan. For example, we initially intended to have our programmes held at an after-school centre for migrant children, however, we ended up traveling to a church (that was almost four to five hours away) for the last few days of our programmes there! It was really through these crazy unexpected moments where really thought about how best to cater how programmes and what we had to the children that we met there, helping us to really reflect on and consider their environments and how our programmes could better enhance and facilitate learning for both the team and children, creating an even more powerful experience. Being flexible and readily adapting to changes along the way gives you the freedom and mental preparation to accept change and improvements along the way.

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Beyond the learnings I took away from the trip, I had also gained treasured friendships. The beauty of CAPTClouds was not just in the gorgeous scenery but also in shared experiences and you might even find your closest friends and the kindest hearts along the way!

So give yourself the chance to find fulfillment and meaning in what you do, take those opportunities to explore and uncover something you’ve never expected to find.

 

3. Growth

Sometimes when the road is long and winding, you might lose your way in the process. Fatigue, doubt and insecurities cloud your vision, making the road ahead seem hazy.

As the programmes head and just generally a Top Class Over-Thinker, I could not help but feel personally responsible for the execution of the activities and consequently, whether the children and team had fun while carrying it out. However, it was not as smooth sailing as I hoped that it would be, fraught with doubts and insecurity when it came to leading the team and in our programmes.

It was unnerving and unsettling at first and stressful to handle as I felt inadequate and unable to cope with the amount of work ahead of me and sometimes it felt as if I was trudging along on autopilot, just finishing what’s in front of me. However, it was during these seasons of trials and discouragement where I felt as if I grew the most. I learnt that it was only by putting myself out there and daring to make mistakes (and inevitably making mistakes) where I was able to learn about myself and hone my skills.

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We’re always going to have lots insecurities and make mistakes along the way, but I believe that the most important part is to learn how to get up and carry on from our stumbles and know that growth comes through trials too!

It’s okay to feel lost and tired, but every flower must grow through dirt, so don’t give up, your breakthrough might just be around the corner!

So that’s about it, I hope that what I’ve learnt can help you prepare for your journey ahead!

 

With much love and wishing you all the best ahead,

Genevieve!!

Photos By: CAPTClouds 2018 Publicity Team

Reflections Beyond the Trip

I started my first CAPTClouds trip highly sceptical of what OSL can offer and the actual impact that we provide to the community. After two trips to Yunnan (CAPTClouds 2017), I still felt that there was more we can learn and uncover about Yunnan – its people, their stories and their struggles. It was with this mindset that myself and Glenda (my Co-PD) framed CAPTClouds 2018. I hope this post would help future batches appreciate the thought behind the previous iterations of CAPTClouds, and continue to plan meaningful and memorable OSL for future batches of CAPTains.

 

Behind the name ‘CAPTClouds’

It was with the help of Dr Tan Lai Yong that we can engage with certain partners at Yunnan. He was a medical missionary there training farmers in medical and dental care to run clinics for villagers for close to 15 years. As a resident fellow of CAPT, he offers opportunities for CAPTains to head to Yunnan to engage and learn from the community there. After the end of every iteration of CAPTClouds, he would ask ‘so should we carry on Yunnan for the next year or not?’ The agency always was with CAPTains themselves. As the trip was fully comprised of CAPTains and fully student led, it is obvious to include CAPT in ‘CAPTClouds’. The ‘Clouds’ part in CAPTClouds comes from the nature of the places in which we conduct our activities. Most of the time, the places we visited in Yunnan were at least 2000m above sea level – where clouds form. The air therefore does get thin at times and when it rains, distant clouds can be seen floating at the same level of our residence.

 

Behind the scenes

While what is often featured is the actual trip itself, the journey of CAPTClouds is a year-long affair from when the PDs are selected. The CAPTClouds 2018 team have put hours and hours of meetings to plan for the many activities to be conducted in Yunnan (our programmes booklet was over 100 pages long with translation) and of course, a lot of precious bonding time together – some even went overseas before the actual trip itself.

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One thing I always tell my team is to be prepared for multiple changes at Yunnan – whether it be changes to programme timings or programme itineraries. This year, we had quite the scare when 5 of our members had their airplane tickets not being recorded in the flight carriers’ system. Which is why I’m thoroughly thankful for my team to patiently bear through all the changes knowing some of their efforts have been wasted.

 

Behind the façade

Yunnan – especially Lijiang would probably be one of the prettiest places you can find in China. Especially during summer (the time of your trip), where all the crops bloom and everywhere you look around you is natural greenery. The low levels of light pollution uncover many stars at night. However, underneath the physical beauty of the area also lies stories of struggle amongst the rural villagers. Examples include the difficulties faced by the ethnic minorities in China when they migrate out of the hometown to work – like those faced by migrant workers in Singapore. Stories of poverty and how it drives some of the primary school kids to steal food for example, to feed themselves. The rural primary schools are also many years behind the city schools in terms of the stage of development (as mentioned by the Principal) and even more years behind that of Singapore’s education system. Behind the rowdiness the primary school students in Yunnan, also lie issues such as a lack of mental wellness/emotional awareness courses in Yunnan so easily taken for granted in our primary schools – in which the Principal attributes it to one of the underlying reasons for the rowdy behaviour of the primary school children in Yunnan.

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Behind the numbers – What we can learn from the Yunnan community

If we were to chart out the amount of wage the rural farmers earn compared to the average Singaporean, they may fall very much behind. But before we label them as ‘third world’ or ‘backward’ one should also take note of just how self-sustainable they are as individuals. These people pretty much grow their own food sustained by an endless water supply from the mountains. They also form something like a village community or kampong where everyone knows each other, and they live off one another’s livestock. The primary school kids for example could easily find the place where we stay – running to our accommodation after school has in hopes of seeing some of their 哥哥和姐姐 (brothers and sisters).

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Talking to our partner in Yunnan, whether it be the pastor running a church for a minority ethnic group, or the school principal, teacher and even – and they will tell you the efforts in hopes to provide a better life for the community. Indeed, these people from Yunnan are no different from us despite the difference in lifestyle and citizenship in terms of what we term a ‘good life’ and with a twist of fate, we would’ve been born to their community too. The irony is the more we look outwards, to explore different communities, different lifestyles – the more similarities we can draw between the communities there and ourselves as well as the problems we face. Simply put, if we have the means to solve certain problems back here in our hometown, we can do so elsewhere too, where there is a need. After all, it is with this knowledge that drove Dr Tan to Yunnan in the first place.

Surprisingly, I still feel many of the experiences in CAPTClouds 2018 were fresh and new – even though this was my 4th time to Yunnan. May the conversation continue in future batches as to how best to conduct this overseas learning trip, even through this blog. Wishing future batches all the best, indeed – There is no cloud is too difficult to reach.

 

Written By: Leon Chua

Photos by: CAPTClouds 2018 Publicity Team

Connections

“Only connect,” E.M Forster remarked in a novel, a phrase that I find generally encompasses the principle behind the CAPTclouds Overseas Service Learning trip: to connect beyond preconceived notions or prejudices. Nearly a month since I came back from Yunnan, I’m still mulling and sorting through my thoughts from everything I’ve learnt on the journey, thoughts that I cannot fathom into constellations, and all that.

It was a glorious trip. Yunnan was starkly, rustically and effortlessly beautiful, with a temperamental weather and the sky so close as if it was within human reach. In Kunming, along the rickety path our bus took, there were tiny figures of farmers silhouetted against the glaring sun and working on irrigated fields. In Lijiang, along our walk towards Liangmei Primary School, gorgeous fields of wheat and maize stretch in neat, winding lines towards cloud-covered hills, gently rustling in the wind. It is difficult to accurately represent Yunnan, but if I may in snapshots: the bright red flash of an abandoned lantern at the roadside; elaborate, brightly-patterned, beaded shirts and skirts; the twilight sky of nebulous red-orange-yellow-blue; flashing neon lights as we made our dash towards the train station; the scent of grass and soil in the sharp, fresh air; conversation and card games and laughter and singing; hazy stars mapped across the inky black sky; rainy days and how they ruined laundry plans; a cramped train cabin rattling along and hurtling towards our destination. I came back with good memories, but frustration, regrets and doubts trail in its wake. In my habitual pessimism, I find myself thinking that my efforts in the OSL amounted to nothing – particularly about what change or impact I actually effected there.

 

Perhaps a better question would be what can we do for the people we are engaging with, in the short span of time we can spend with them. This is a question that I found myself thinking over and over during my time there, and my answers always seemed to fall somewhat short of my idealistic expectations. The Yunnan trip lasted exactly 2 weeks, and we spent half of that time in Kunming, and half in Lijiang. While the time spent with the Miaozu children were by no means less enriching than the time spent with the Liangmei children, I want to focus on my experiences in Liangmei.

The Liangmei children, from when I first met my darling Primary Three class, were demon-spawn terrifying.

These brats, I thought, blanching in the face of hurled insults in Mandarin as we attempted to entreaty them to cooperate with us. (fine, I couldn’t understand them, but it’s hard to misunderstand when 6 kids are screaming and scowling and pointing fingers at you.) Why would she point her middle like that, and should we even correct it? I thought, blinking confusedly at a girl as she yelled in rapid-fire Mandarin, her middle-fingers brandished at us – but upside down. Is correcting it actually teaching them the wrong thing? Is there even a correct way to swear? Can I run away? What is going on? What is going on??? These were the thoughts that circulated my head as I looked at the class of 12 students – wandering in and out of the class, yelling in our ears, clinging onto us, generally giving off the vibes that they cared nothing for these bunch of strangers who spoke strange Mandarin.

It was a terrible first meeting. I hated them at first sight (yes, sue me – I know this is a horrible reaction. But I got better.) Keeping an open mind is an easy thing to say, but an incredibly difficult thing to do. Unless a belief sinks into our bones, that says, oh, this is right, rarely anything can change one’s ingrained opinions. We spent the entirety of two hours trying to get them to settle down, and trying to talk to them, to create connections, but they ignored us like we were nothing more than annoying houseflies. The P3 facilitators went home that first day, dragged down from the high of success in Miaozu, demoralised, and uncertain if anything would work out with them. But the thing is – surprise – it did.

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Over the course of 5 days, our P3 class went from completely uncooperative to vaguely cooperative and interested in what we had to offer them. The class was full of intriguing characters – from the ringleader to her sidekick, to that boisterous girl who pointed her upside down middle finger at us, to a boy who legitimately wanted to be a werewolf – essentially, it was a class bursting with personalities and testing the seams of a healthy, functioning classroom. But the person who made the biggest impression of me was one of them.

It was a girl, a girl so isolated from her entire class that, in retrospect, perhaps should have clued us in. This girl, whom we’ve called “red roses girl”, courtesy of the bright red gaudy top she had on, gave me odd vibes from the first day. She liked to hug our arms against herself, and cling onto the male facilitators. As time went by, it became clear that no one in class liked her. They refused to be in the same group as her for games. They didn’t talk to her. They shunned her. Even beyond the classroom, it seemed that this girl was left entirely on her own to fend for herself. An example: as the school was involved in a singing competition (they sang a patriotic song that happened to be the school bell as well. We dubbed it the zombie apocalypse song, because every time it played the children would run screaming out of their classrooms to find their new, exotic playthings, aka us), those who were not involved were given free time. When I played with this girl, another child came up to me and said, “the teachers said we can’t play with her,” and determinedly tugged me away. They gave no rhyme or reason for why is it so, and foolishly – I let it go.

 

One day, when we were waiting at the strangely empty classroom, she – her name is Chao Qun – came into the classroom and informed us the entire class was practising singing (turns out that the external singing instructor came and took over the time allocated to us). Fuelled by a conversation I had with a friend about her, I asked “so, do you like your parents?”

(Now thinking back, if I asked this question in a normal meet-up, I’d probably be brushed off with a laugh or an uncomfortable cough. Parents are a difficult topic, I think.)

She blinked at me, then said, “I like my mother.”

“And your father?”

“I don’t like him. He beats me. There was once he beat my brother until he bled. It’s a metal wire, see…”

Shock. And horror. And all of a sudden I choked on my own, self-righteous rage.

“He hit me this time because I’m not in the singing competition…”

It is still a memory I wince at. I heard myself say some superficial things I didn’t believe in. Like – “sometimes parents don’t really know how to deal with their anger, and their problems, and they take it out on you, but you know they still love you, right?” And she nodded, innocence in a picture, and I said, “alright, go and play.” And as she turned her back, the tears came, fast and ugly.

 

I wondered about my visceral reaction later. I don’t know why. I still don’t. I’ve mulled over it, and I pride myself as being more emotionally aware than most. (Okay. As emotionally aware as teacup. Most people are teaspoons.) Besides the blatant fact that she doesn’t have anyone to rely on, not her parents, nor her classmates, it was probably the fact that she was getting hit by her father using a metal wire. But it wasn’t just that. It was also the shock, and the guilt, and the shame, piled up in one. My first reaction of avoiding her turned its accusing fingers towards me, you see, it said, don’t you feel guilty for judging her need for attention? For her bratty, sometimes inappropriate actions, when she’s ten and getting brutalised like it was something entirely normal?

I got my stimulated tear glands under control, and when the girl saw me again, she asked me, quite bluntly, “what’s up with you?”

“Nothing,” I said, “must have caught, like, a flu or something.”

She shrugged, and apparently went to ask another facilitator about what happened to me. (The answer, of course, was that I caught a flu.)

The girl’s hair, on the third or fourth day we were with them, wasn’t up in its usual hairstyle, and she was clearly quieter, upset. I took her out and asked her what was wrong. She was recalcitrant. She refused to talk, and it took around 5 minutes for her to say “Shi An doesn’t want to play with me.”

Shi An was her only friend in the entire class. Or perhaps friend is too much of a stretch – since, apparently, their friendship was on-and-off.

“Why?”

Her mouth was sealed tight. I sighed, and brought her back into the class. After a quick discussion with my friend, who was close to Shi An, I found out that it was because she had spat on Shi An. So I probed her about it, after it was clear that she didn’t want to participate in the activities we’d arranged for that day.

“Shi An said you spat on her. Is that true?”

“I didn’t do it today,” she said, a little defensively, “I didn’t do anything today.”

“Then why don’t you go and play with the rest?”

“No. I’ll sit here and read my textbook.”

“Isn’t that boring?”

“If I read on alone, it’ll become fun.”

“No, it won’t. Let’s play with your friends, okay?”

“No.”

What a difficult child, I thought, and as the other facilitators split into groups to carry out our small-group activities, I brought her out to take a walk around the school grounds. We found a lovely warm spot in the sun, and we sat there, quiet. Her hand felt small and fragile in my own, and after a brief silence, I asked her: “your hair is different today.”

“I did it myself today.”

“Ah, I see. Who does it for you, usually?”

“My mum.”

“She didn’t do it for you today?”

She was quiet for another moment, before she muttered, “we had a fight today.”

Ah. There it is.

“A fight? About what?”

She averted her eyes and focused on our hands, peering at mine. Then she showed me her hand abruptly, riddled with white scars.

“From when my parents hit me,” she said, as if she was brandishing an open secret. I swallowed back the prickle of tears. They seemed to be age-old scars, covering most of the back of her hand, starkly standing against the tan of her skin.

“Did she hit you today?”

“No, not today.”

“Did you tell someone about it?”

“No.”

“Who do you live with?”

“My grandfather, and grandmother, brother, father and mother.”

“And you don’t tell them?”

She shrugged, “they don’t care.” She then pointed at a tiny scar I have on the knuckle of my index finger. “What’s this?”

“An accident,” I replied, having forgotten about the faint mark on my knuckle.

When we asked an adult whether there were cases of abuse happening in this school, the answer came immediately: no, of course not. Parents love their children too much to hit them too harshly. Punishments are for their own good, anyway – did a child tell you about his beatings and made you upset? You know they lie for attention, so don’t take it to heart.

Let’s think about this. Children are the most vulnerable. They are usually too young to process or create healthy coping mechanisms to protect themselves from the world that can be too much with us, sometimes. Mechanisms to deal with whatever life throws at you is something that you hone as you grow older, but as a child with not-yet-developed emotional states, it is hard to understand why do your parents hit you, or why they do the things that they do. And the answer that would be given, when asked, is love. Because they love you, that’s why they want the best for you. And the best for you must be drilled in through harsher means, if you are unreceptive. To sum this up, of course, is the catchy phrase 打是疼,骂是爱, ie, verbal and physical lashings are good for the child, because it comes from love. But would you look at Chao Qun’s scars and think, woah, your parents must have loved you so much they left everlasting marks on you, huh? Contrary to belief, love doesn’t justify everything, least of all abusing your child. Scars are memories. While those that are created from your own carelessness are easy to forget, I don’t think she can easily forget the scars created by her very own parents, that speak of disappointment and fallen expectations and mishandled anger. I hope she can rise above it all. I hope that the repeated acts of violence on her will not warp her personality. I hope that she would not grow to resent her parents.

 

Because what can we, as OSL members, do for her? From conversation, it is clear that her teachers, or any adult there do not think much of the implications behind Chao Qun’s admission. It is clear that their view on parental discipline will not be open to the general consensus that the P3 facilitators came to – that her situation is something that needs to be addressed and rectified promptly. So what can we do?

At risk of sounding fatalistic and overtly defensive, there was nothing we could do. Time was not on our side. This situation only came to light on the second last day of programmes. To be honest, even if we found out on the first day, there are so many limits to what actually we can accomplish. To borrow a phrase from a discussion we had about addressing the issue, it would not do to “open a can of worms” and not close it properly, worms tamed or eradicated. I hated to agree with it, but I couldn’t provide a viable alternative. Ultimately, the goal of OSL – to define it by what it is not – isn’t to solve the problems of the children. Or perhaps it would be better to say: we can’t solve their problems. There are socio-economic and cultural norms already in place, so entrenched that only an upheaval can possibly overthrow them. OSL seems to me to be a venture that is tied at the hands and the feet because there are simply many societal and cultural problems that none of us have the capacity to address adequately or completely.

Up to now, my entire narrative sounds entirely pessimistic. OSL cannot tangibly effect any visible change in society, nor force the people there to accept a perspective that is radically different from what they have already grown up with. But Forster’s quote comes to mind here – that everything that we did was to “only connect”. And in that venture, I can positively say that we made great strides. In the 5 days we had with the P3 class, bonds and connections were forged. Between the words I say and between the words they give back to me, bloomed a relationship of trust: despite being of a different nationality, our terrible Mandarin, and the agonisingly short period of time that we have with them, we are able to speak with them about their worries, their problems, their dreams and aspirations. They shared with us difficult things – like parents being away for a business trip, or being worried about the safety of family members – and we worked through it together with them. I hope that we did not betray their trust. That we were able to return what is incredibly close to their heart in a way that retained its shape and essence but redirected it into something more productive.

If you think about it, creating a bond can cost so little: a small smile, a proffered hand, and asking the right questions. What you earn from the connection formed will far outstrip this effort. These bonds are not to be underestimated. Because through connections, different perspectives are brought together to inspire new thought, and isn’t thought the main driving force behind change? That someone gives you a different piece of information and teaches you that the world might not necessarily be as you first imagined it to be – round, not square. While we have indeed given the children certain things – a nudge towards chasing their dreams, a little workshop on how to manage their emotions – the lessons they have given us are ultimately far more profound than the things we have given them. This bond I have with Chao Qun, despite being tinged with the bitterness of inadequacy and helplessness, became precious to me. It is a scabbed-over wound that I want to carry around. I want it to fester, for it to bleed and ooze regret and frustration. I could forget about it. She’s only one person out of so many others. There are a dime a dozen of people facing the same problems. Why should I carry this memory around like a burden? But this scar will come in handy in future, I think. It will serve to remind me that everyone is fighting their own battles, unseen to the rest of us. That there could be a deeper, darker story tucked away in a tiny boxed-up part of them, that might need to be drawn into the light and vanquished, like monsters under the bed.

 

What I’m trying to say is this: be kind. Be gentle. Be mindful. For even the most obnoxious of peoples have their own stories. Touch lives as carefully as you would a flower blooming vibrantly, earnestly, bravely, in the palm of your hand. Gaining knowledge about a person, or anything, places you in a position power, and what you do with that knowledge could trigger positive change. And know that despite its broken dreams and fractures and contradictions, it is still a beautiful world, and we still live on.

In many of the CAPTclouds reflections, we end off with how much impact we could’ve left on the children. I don’t know. I would never know. But I know that only time can bear witness to change and growth. And I know sometimes a happy memory can last a long way. If anything, I hope that was what we left the children. As seasons change and seeds germinate, I hope they will be smiling, and laughing, and striving to be happy.

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Written by: Mun Yee

Photos by: CAPTClouds 2018 Publicity Team

Planting The Seed In Service (And Learning)

“I can plant a seed and it becomes a flower; I can share a bit of knowledge and it becomes another’s; I can smile at someone and receive a smile in return”

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Stumbling upon the eyes of the restless primary threes, white chalk in hand, and with my ineffectual translation of thoughts into Chinese – what are nouns in Chinese? Did that nine-year-old just laugh at my pronunciation? – I wondered if I was helping them at all. Teaching basic English to a class of twenty for just an afternoon did not feel like service or learning. The children had evidently not gained much; when it was their turn to vocalize the various animals in English, the classroom was an uneasy, awkward silence. When I resumed speaking in Chinese, they burst out in their usual ruckus.

This was the reason why I felt Overseas Community Involvement Projects (OCIPs) and overseas volunteerism was problematic. Many times, we come in wanting to help, to offer our service, but in reality, the locals could do our jobs waybetter than we could. A friend recounted to me how he went for an OCIP to build roads and infrastructures for an underdeveloped community. The ironic thing is, the locals had to teach them how to do it, and when it came down to doing it, they did it ten times faster than them. Did the local community really need their help? Or were OCIPs more for students than for the beneficiaries? Criticisms like these made me painfully aware of the unsustainability of OCIPs, and I knew I didn’t want to do more harm than good – even if my intention was good.

Thankfully, my experience with CAPTClouds 2018 has been nothing like this – save for that day we had to teach English in the primary school because the school wanted us to. The root of the problem was changing the way English was taught and perceived in China; a quandary that required long-term solutions which we, as short-term volunteers, were clearly incapable of providing.

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if anything, CAPTClouds 2018 has taught me that the most important thing about overseas volunteerism (or what I would personally consider the best thing to do) was to plant a seed.

Mamata Banerjee said this: “When a seed is sown into the ground, you cannot immediately see the plant. You have to be patient. With time, it grows into a large tree. And then the flowers bloom, and only then can the fruits be plucked.”

The importance of imparting soft skills to the children really spoke to me during the course of the trip and after post-trip cogitations. In the first half of the trip, when we carried out our daily reflection sessions, the question that often came to my mind was what is the purpose of this OSL?What are we leaving with the communities here? Even though weeks of preparations have been made prior to the trip, engaging with the children first-hand was another ball game. We had to adapt and redefine our purpose. It was only at the halfway mark of the trip that I saw and understood what we had to do with the children – to unlock their dreams and aspirations; to inspire them to be self-reliant, driven individuals; to plant a seed of change in them. More than leaving them with books, winter jackets, and murals in their school, I wanted to leave them with a hope that they can be better individuals and succeed in life on their own terms.

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At Liangmei primary school, I met this girl in primary five who, on first-look, appears bubbly and amicable. She is surrounded by friends and knows how to joke around. The first thing she said to me, in an effort to dismiss our presence and show us that she is the boss around here, was “teacher, what are you doing here? We don’t need you guys around, but do you want to play with us?”

I furrowed my brows, thought of an unconventional reply to rise to the bait: “I’m here to be your friend. So, of course!”

And that was the beginning of my friendships with this girl and the rest of the group. While I am not supposed to have favorites, she was the one whom I could banter with, who challenged me when I employed conventional strategies to get to know them, and who made me realize that I might have a chance of leaving something long-term with them. The children at Liangmei were definitely little devils – but I realized all that devilry was a product of their circumstances. They wanted attention because they might not be receiving enough of it at home, and they acted notoriously because their teachers were awfully strict and harsh on them. That is why the girls adopted such a deviant and rebellious attitude when they first met me.

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“So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A teacher! Or an artist… maybe a singer.”

“You want to be so many things?”

“Yes, I want to be multi-talented! Teacher, are you looking down on me?”

Again, I raised my brows skeptically as the girls echoed one after another their dreams and aspirations. It felt like I was in a bubble of exaggerated self-affirmation, where they were saying things that their friends could help back up, a cycle of unthinking, hollow dreams.

Don’t say things just to make your friends like you, I thought aloud in my head (although it was something I did too when I was eleven).

Perusing the dream journal and realizing that the girls hadn’t put in much effort to think about their aspirations, I was disheartened and slightly jaded. One of the girls went back to drawing on her dream journal. Even though I knew she wanted to be an artist and drawing was her way of communicating to me, I was irritated with their lackluster and flippant responses.I’ll just leave them be.

In a bid to get my attention, and maybe to cheer me up, Xi Rui (my favorite girl) said to me, “teacher, you really look like Wei Xuan (A senior from CAPTClouds 2016)”

“Is it? Do you miss him?”

“Yes. But I miss Teng Da more, he’s more handsome.”

I couldn’t help but chuckled, thinking how children can say the silliest things and bring a smile to people’s faces. While the rest of the girls were on their dream journals, I took the opportunity to talk to her one-on-one.

“So, what are you going to draw on the section of what you want to become?”

“Don’t tell you. And don’t look, I want my privacy.”

Relentless and not giving up, I asked again, “Come on, I’ll keep it a secret,”

“I want to be a navy soldier,” she whispered, her tone hesitant and somewhat abashed. Wanting to be a navy soldier was clearly something she did not want to share with the other girls. I felt a sense of triumph for having gained access to her secret, and in that moment, I wanted to be an eleven-year-old in the game of competitive friendship – to score more friendship points, to cajole her into trusting me with things she would not share with her classmates.

“Why a navy soldier?”

“Because I like the ocean. And I can travel the world! And I want to protect my country!” Her eyes shone as she spoke.

“Then why did you not share that just now?”

“Because everyone will say the same things – teacher, artist, and singer. So, I just followed,” she replied, matter-of-fact.

Dreaming was not something the children in Yunnan did often. I have a feeling that from a young age, they were taught to embrace collectivism and to follow in their parents’ footsteps – the girls told to be good housewives, and the boys taught the ways of farming and tilling. Even as they rattle off aspirations like being a teacher and singer, it was only in the gesture of placating us volunteers, to show others that they can dream, albeit only in certain standard occupations. They never had the chance to think outside of the box.

Having gained access to a secret she would not share with others, I felt a responsibility to protect her flame – to keep her dream burning in a world that is quick to quench it. However, I asked myself, could I really nurture and cultivate her passion in that seven days in Liangmei? The answer was no, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t be able to see her through her primary school education and I wouldn’t be able to offer my guidance at every step of her life journey.

But what I could do was this. I believed in her and I believed that regardless of whether she attained her dream or not, she would grow up to be a wonderful individual with a zest for life. And I needed her to believe in herself that despite all the imperfections she might have at the moment and despite her undesirable circumstances, she would turn out fine and fare alright in the game of life – even do superbly if she were to be driven, optimistic and resilient.

So, I told her that I would keep her secret, giving her a cheeky wink that underscored our mutual understanding. I proceeded to tell her about how much I loved the ocean too, that when I went to the Philippines on a sailing expedition, I dreaded coming back home to dry shores in Singapore. I showed her pictures of the Philippines seas, the coral blue against the sunset, its golden light warped in the twisted, glass waves like orange paint on a blue canvas. She got really excited and channeled that enthusiasm in her drawing – leaving me fading into the background while her dreams commanded her utmost attention and expression.

After she had finished, I wrote in her journal – “聪明老师相信你有潜在,能实现你的梦想。可以答应我你会相信自己吗?” (teacher Chong Ming believes that you have potential to achieve your dreams. Can you promise me you will believe in yourself?)

Hopefully, that was enough to plant a seed in her mind. Hopefully, our friendship, and my attempt to be the best role model that I can be, was enough for her to remember and know that from 2583km across the world, someone whom she has once interacted with believes in her and her dreams.

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Written by: Chong Ming

Photos by: Jan-Anne

Our Journey Begins

“To offer your heart with your hands, fully open”  – Esther Teo

CAPTClouds is an overseas Learning Project run fully by CAPTains in its third year running.

This year, CAPTClouds has a key focus on engaging and learning about communities in Yunnan. The team will be working with three partners, Lijiang University, Migrant Children’s Drop-In Centre and Liangmei Primary School as well as live alongside the rural communities in Yunnan.

Our team consist on 26 individuals with a passion to serve.

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