When I first arrived in China my friend Kyle made an excellent point. He told me that it was impossible to fully understand our students, because they have overcome tragedies and obstacles greater than we could ever imagine. At the time I thought that it was an exaggeration, of course I can empathize I thought, but now I know that he was right. Some of the people I am most in awe of were the students I taught in Guangxi and Sichuan.
Helen was a shy girl, but you couldn’t help but notice her irrepressible smile. In Yizhou the other students had two nicknames for her, “Happy” and “Giggle,” both were apt. Helen’s English was near the top of the class and she seemed to be interested in everything. The other remarkable feature, that you couldn’t help but notice, was the scar that ran down the left side of Helen’s face.
I learned later that Helen had been out swimming in the river that ran through her hometown with her best friend when she was younger. The current was too strong, and neither of them were good swimmers. Her friend started to panic, and Helen rushed to her to try and help her ashore. The girl though clawed Helen’s face as she fought to stay above water. Helen screamed and lost her grip on her friend. Now Helen can’t look at herself without seeing the life she could have saved. I can’t imagine the strength it must take to carry on after witnessing your own friend’s death.
In a few months Helen will be graduating from college, and returning to her hometown to be a capable teacher. Some how, a person who could have easily become spiteful and angry, is replete with nothing but love and laughter.
Another example of the incredible strength I’ve seen comes from my work in Chengdu. When I met Lynn, she already seemed beaten down by life. She was only 16 years-old, but was having to grow up quickly. She had been taken advantage of by a supposed friend after he got her drunk one night. She felt that she could never tell her parents about what had happened because she knew that they would blame her. She said her father would kill her if he found out what she had done, and I believed it after hearing other stories about the man.
If that wasn’t a heavy enough burden to carry, she later discovered that this boy had impregnated her. Lynn told me, in tearful broken English, that more clearly expressed her pain than complete sentences ever could, “Inside I used to have baby. I was going to be mother, but doctors cut it out. Now no baby. Now I can’t mother.” She had borrowed money from friends to pay for her abortion. She lied and told them that it was money for a life saving operation for her sister. After the abortion she was incredibly depressed because the crooked doctors had told her that the operation had caused her to be infertile, a fate worse than death for a Chinese woman. A few months later she dropped out of school because her family could no longer afford her tuition.
Today Lynn is working in a clothing shop in Chengdu. She is now one of the main sources of income for her family, and was able to save up 1000rmb (about $125) for her mother’s birthday, which is quite an achievement. When I first learned of her problems, I was worried that she might be suicidal. Now she is back in control of her life, and is even admired by her friends.