“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.
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.
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?”
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?”
“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?”
“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.
Written by: Mun Yee
Photos by: CAPTClouds 2018 Publicity Team