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Opinion

China trip creates rewarding experience

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February 28, 2013

I was staring at the diverse scenery through the window in the train, excited and curious. My mind was wondering what I had signed myself up for and how magical it was that I was on a trip to an orphanage in Yushu, China, as a volunteer.

I received the opportunity to be a volunteer from one of my mother’s friends. At first, I really had no understanding of the concept of being a volunteer. However, because the destination is an orphanage, which lies in Yushu, a place I had never been, I chose to take the adventure. The only thing I knew about the place was that it experienced a severe earthquake in 2010, so it would be very cool if I went there and then shared my experience with friends when I got home. Eventually I signed up for the group, just for fun.

After I searched online, I felt interested but fearful. Yushu is a poverty-stricken area in the world’s highest plateau called the Tibetan Plateau, the Roof of the World, with an average elevation of 4,500 meters (14,800ft) and it is the main source of water for Yangzi and Yellow River.

In addition, it has naturally beautiful and rich grasslands with a worldwide reputation for the sea of song and dance. It is said that people in this area are born to sing and dance. So maybe, I could witness the splendid view of these rivers personally rather than from pictures, and I felt it would be a feast for my senses to enjoy the folk songs and dances.

However,  I felt feelings of nervousness and fear which drove away all the delight when it came to the extreme environmental condition. Because of a high elevation, Yushu has a harsh climate with long, cold, winters and short, rainy, cool to warm summers. According to the timetable, I would start the trip in November which is in winter, the coldest time of the year.
The characteristics of the weather are chilliness and oxygen shortage with the lowest temperature of -52°F. Every year, at least 100 visitors die of severe altitude sickness. How could I bear it? Every friend of mine knew that I feared cold and couldn’t stand the lesser amount of oxygen.

After further reading, I was more informed about the earthquake. I found out that Yushu was awoken by a magnitude 6.9 earthquake and nearly all the buildings made of wood and dirt collapsed, and hundreds of thousands of large structures were damaged or destroyed. At that time, I could never imagine how such a peaceful region was swept away in a remarkable short span of time.

Filled with curiosity and dread, I started the trip with 16 friends. Just before we got on the train, we saw a pattern of clouds in the sky which looked like a golden phoenix standing above. This is a symbol of good fortune in China. Was it magical. A sign of good luck? Or God blessing us for doing something charitable?

The trip to Yushu was so long and tiring. We spent nearly 30 hours by train. At the beginning, I was more than excited to get accustomed to the totally new environment. It was my first time to make such a long journey by train, my first time in a sleeping car and my first time to appreciate different scenery in my homeland. The only activity for me to do was enjoy the view.

I stared at the dark sky with stars twinkling, witnessed the beauty of sunrise as well as sunset, and wondered what the orphans looked like and what would happen after I arrived. It seemed that 30 hours passed in the blink of an eye.

Nevertheless, we had to spend another 19 hours on the bus, and it was much more tiring and made me exhausted. We could only sleep sitting upright, which was very painful. With the elevation increasing, the temperature dropped constantly and I showed some symptoms of altitude sickness with a mild headache and stomachache. In addition, the night was the hardest time with my whole body frozen and neck aching. However, the purely white world around indeed touched my heart.

When we were about to reach our destination, all the cells in my body cheered up, and I couldn’t wait to see the new world. Upon our arrival, children in the orphanage were lined up into two columns and gave us a royal welcome. They brought their hands together as if praying and bowed to us. All of us received a white hada (a piece of silk used as a greeting gift) from these lovely children. The white color symbolized the pure and innocent hearts of the children. And then we donated two pencils, one bag and one textbook to each of the children. They lined up again quietly to get the gifts; no competition, no loud noise, but with much affection.

I saw some boys jumping with joy and big grins on their faces. In return, they blessed us with splendid dancing and singing, which fulfilled my dream. One of the little boys sang a Tibetan folk song with a native and innocent voice. Words fail to express how wonderful it was.

These pleasant performances bridged the gap between us and made us even closer just like brothers and sisters. My litter sister took me to visit her dorm. It was a dark room with worn-out beds, closets, and bedclothes, although everything was in order, tidy and clean. There were some colorful balloons floating on the ceiling, like their colorful dreams drifting in the boundless sky.

I took out my camera and invited the little girl to take a photo. She readily agreed and closely put her face on my face. What stood out to me the most was the brilliant and pure smile on her face, very beautiful, like spring sunshine. After taking this photo, all the other children crowded together, yelling to take pictures as well. All of us embraced together, and the camera recorded the memorable moment forever.

Time does pass by quickly when having fun. The approach of night prevented us from staying together, but at that moment our hearts were together turning into a permanent thread. It was more than sad to say goodbye, and we didn’t know when we could reunite and play games again. All the lovely children crowded together blocking the door to the bus. I can’t even remember how I got on. When the driver started the bus, I will never forget the scene: children were running after the bus, waving their hands, yelling “goodbye” and asking “when can you come back.” I suddenly choked with sobs, and tears gushed from my eyes.

At that pivotal moment, with all the mellifluous laughter, and memorable scenes flittering in my mind, I realized that the true meaning of being a volunteer was using your heart to love and care for others, and using your soul to go into their internal world to know what they really need. I found that what these orphans needed was not material support but love and companionship. I could never find any sorrow in their faces but shining and brilliant smiles.

Although they were leading a life without parents, and though they were still so young and never got the love from their mothers, they were still satisfied with everything they owned and never competed with others. With a sincere heart of gratitude, they always thanked us and showed the most beautiful smiles to us. In addition, they let me know the precious value of being a volunteer and let me reflect on the true meaning of life: giving is better than receiving.

Shanting Chen is an international student at UW-River Falls.