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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

The Piano In My Bedroom

Upon initial arrival in Kunming, I was both thrilled and concerned to find that my homestay family’s piano resides in my bedroom: excited to hear the melodies that I was sure would flow from it, and apprehensive that the placement of the instrument would encroach on my personal space. To my surprise, the piano waits untouched; its glossy keys produce no sound. I use it as an extra surface to place my various snacks, products, and trinkets. Under my bed, my MeiMei (host sister’s) ballet flats collect dust. Why do these facilitators of passion remain idle? My MeiMei is really freaking busy. Back in the U.S., I often found myself complaining about not having enough time to read, sleep etc. In retrospect, I could’ve made time; compared to my host sister, my schedule was practically empty.


Her school schedule is as follows:


Monday – Friday: 7 AM to 10 PM

Saturday: 7 AM to 9 PM

Sunday: 7 PM to 10 PM


At seventeen, my host sister spends over 90 hours a week at school. For comparison, during my senior year, I spent approximately 35 hours a week at school. In addition to these 92 hours, she also has a few hours of homework each night. Whether the assignment be to hand draw and color code a to scale map of the water currents of the world, or to translate a Communist Party speech to English, she takes each task in stride and completes it with fortitude and laser-like focus.

Last weekend, I joined my MeiMei and a few of her friends on a trip to see Spiderman Homecoming (note, this outing was planned two weeks in advance). Upon our arrival at the theater, MeiMei and her friends unanimously decided that they simply did not have enough time to sit through the entire two hour film; homework assignments and warm showers beckoned. Instead, we chatted over coffee.

As we sipped our drinks, my host sister apologized for not having time to watch the film, though she was sure to add “I think I will have time to watch one during winter break”. In response to my inquiry “When is winter break?”, she giddily replied, “Late January!”, as if it were next week. My host sister genuinely believes that she won’t have time to watch a two hour movie for the next three months. I likely spend two hours a day consuming media.

Although my MeiMei and I will both emerge from high school with a strong work ethic and sense of discipline, we will be disciplined in very different ways. For example, throughout high school I had to rely nearly entirely on internal motivation. Although I didn’t spend 90 hours a week at school, independently I still had to juggle sports, homework,  family obligations, student council, managing a website and much much more.  In contrast, my Meimei has very specific tasks that she must complete by a very specific deadline. She has developed a level of mental toughness that I can only aspire to achieve, which I believe will immensely help her to persevere through difficult situations. However, I believe that because my education, in concordance with core American values, fostered individuality and self reliance, I will be better prepared to approach situations from a creative perspective and to excel in situations in which I have no direction. Additionally, while my Meimei can quickly absorb and memorize large volumes of information, I am hopeless when it comes to doing detail oriented work. Our rapidly modernizing planet is in desperate need of both of these skill sets.

I have nothing but the utmost respect for the young people of China who shoulder the heavy workload with positivity and mental fortitude.  My MeiMei anxiously waits for graduation, because she will then finally gain the ability to delegate her own time. All of her hard work will culminate in an explosion of freedom. She often tells me of her dream to finally master ballet, to retrain her now stiff fingers to dance along the keys, and to travel the world. For now, she must put these dreams on hold.