Looking back on the day I graduated college (about 2 years now) it’s crazy, and a bit cliché, to think how much my perspective on life has changed. I would be kidding myself if I didn’t accredit this to all of the places I have lived abroad in. But one day that really stands out in the endless list of travel stories that I’ve accumulated is one particular day in the Sichuan Province of China.
When I lived in Chengdu, China, I had the chance to spend a day with a charity called the Chinese Relief and Development Foundation (CRDF). This incredible organization works to help children in rural areas whose parents left them behind so that the parents could go find work in bigger cities. People always talk about how great China is doing economically, but there is a dark side that comes with this rapid development. I’ll spare you a discussion on that because that’s not what I’m here to talk about..
These children are often times left to be raised by their grandparents or neighbors. This leaves them with few social interactions with children their own age, hinders them from being able to integrate into today’s society, and often times puts them at risk for human trafficking.
Throughout my time in China, I was close with a friend whose job raised money for the CRDF. We helped put on a charity soccer (football for all you non-Americans) tournament, lake-side BBQ, and Christmas Charity Dinner. I really didn’t know too much about the charity, but luckily that all changed when I was invited to go to one of the schools that the CRDF helped build.
I really had no idea what to expect.. going out into the rural countryside of China. The drive took us about five hours and was deep within the part of China that no one ever really thinks about. If you can imagine China on a map, guesstimate where the middle approximately is, then go a bit more West.. that’s about where we were. Deep within the mountains, surrounded by small farms built on the side of the hills, populated with people who stared at our Western faces as we drove by, we finally made it to our destination.
As soon as we arrived, I got out of the car, eager to see what the school looked like and to meet the children. This may have been the countryside, but the view was stunning. The school was surrounded by mountains on all sides, the air was crisp & fresh (rare for China if you know anything about their air quality), and my eyes were engulfed in the visual sensation of the lush greenery that hide the school away from the rest of the world.
Then all of the sudden, the children came. A little group of about 15 elementary school-aged boys and girls came running towards us. They were all giggling and shouting, “Hello, how are you?”– a standard English text book phrase that every child learns in school. It only took about ten minutes for the group 15 to become a crowd of about 100 children. More and more of them kept appearing.. and all of them were so nice and sweet!
The next hour carried on in the manner of playing basketball, frisbee, taking an endless amount of pictures, andsitting in on my friend while he gave a mini English lesson. At one point, one of the children even asked for my autograph (it felt so weird I can’t even explain), which then led to all of the children coming up and asking for one too. I must have signed my name about 60 to 80 times.. I never thought something as simple as my signature could make a child so happy though.
Yet, what struck me the most about all of these students was how genuinely grateful they were for everything they were getting. The organization handed out new pens, pencils, notebooks.. and the look on these children’s faces would’ve made you think we had just given them a brand new iPad. These kids were raised having the bare minimum, and anything they did own was usually handed down to them– never new.
These brand-new schools supplies meant the world to the students, which made me think about so many different aspects of my own life. Coming from America, I am constantly surrounded by people wanting designer clothes, the latest iPhone, and anything & everything they can possibly buy. Yet here I was seeing pure joy radiate from a child’s soul, all because he got a new notebook. In my eyes, this may have been just a notebook, but in their eyes it was something new, something that was theirs.. Something they could use to learn. Something that they could write their ideas down. This something might not have meant a lot to me, but for these children who didn’t have a lot of anything, it meant everything to them.
I am lucky to have had that experience. It was eye-opening to what truly matters to people around the world. We are so easily consumed in what is going on directly around us, that it’s hard to see how life may be for other people in different cultures. So what truly makes us happy? A box of new pencils or the latest iPhone?
I don’t know. That’s up to you, I guess. Happiness is completely subjective and in our own lives, we decide what we want it to mean to us.
But.. that’s just it. We decide.
Not everyone needs to feel like they need the newest clothes or most up-to-date technology. Not everyone thinks this way. And I’m not saying that one way is better than the other. What I am saying is that this day that I had at this tiny, rural Chinese school helped me realize that I want to find happiness in the little things in life. The daily things. Maybe even things that aren’t even tangible.
Whenever I get the feeling that my life isn’t going how I planned, or I feel unhappy about my current situation, I think back to this day. I am lucky and beyond grateful for the opportunities that have presented themselves to me throughout my life. I am lucky to be able to travel, and I am lucky to have been there, on that day, at that Chinese school. Because in life, I want to be like those children. Constantly filled with pure happiness.