When I entered the commons of the Jiaxin Children Assistance Center, a much-anticipated ambush of children charged at me with smiles and laughter, each child eager to be the first to show me his/her new toys. Cheerful as the children were, their happiness did not reflect their difficult pasts. A handful had been homeless. Some suffered from abuse. A majority had parents who were either missing or incarcerated. Jiaxin provides these children safe shelter, free meals, amenities, and a caring family of peers and counselors (which now includes one Princetonian volunteer!). At Jiaxin, the children know me as laoshi (teacher).
Being that that day was an “Arts and Crafts Thursday,” I decided we would make a “梦想地图” (mengxiang ditu), or “dream map,” by illustrating our goals, wishes, and aspirations on a grand poster. After the children described their previous art pieces, I realized the pieces had recurring themes – hobbies, favorite animals, friends. Besides reflecting on things in the present, I wanted the children to dream, to think towards the future, and gain faith that such dreams might someday unfold into reality. The dream map, I hoped, would kindle such thought.
After taking a quick head count, I realized only three of the nine children from last week remained: Xin, Hong, and Ming. Friendly and welcoming as Xin was to adults, the four-year-old enjoyed smacking other children for sport, thus earning herself the position of “class troublemaker” among Jiaxin staff. Hong always devised ways to eat hidden candy, stash toys, and break into closed rooms, and somehow use his cheeky smile to get away with it all – a true mastermind of mischief. Because the four-year-old had never attended school and learned Mandarin, he communicated solely through Kunminghua, the local dialect. Ming remained a mystery. A shy, taciturn eight-year-old, Ming lived for giving and receiving hugs from adults, and would often have little interaction with other children. Though I had planned on more children being there, I was eager to start the activity with my three students.
To give the students inspiration, I began to talk about the different types of dreams. The first type of dream, I said, was the desire for one to become something. Xin was the first to speak: “I want to become a princess!”, waving her hand in royal fashion and flaunting the pink dress she wore on “glamour days.” Hong followed, shouting “I want to be a tiger!” and ending his response with a thundering roar. The Princetonian in me cheered. Although he saw his classmates’ enthusiasm, Ming displayed no desire to answer, and stayed silent. To encourage his participation, I introduced another type of dream: a place in the world where one wants to travel in his/her life. The first two children almost instinctively shouted “America! America!”, and proposed that we take a field trip to the States next week. The two then turned to Ming, but yet again, his thoughts remained unspoken. Finally, I moved on to the third type of dream, the hope for something to happen. This time, it was Ming who answered first. In a soft voice, murmuring an almost incomprehensible message, he said:
“I want my dad to come back.”
Within seconds, Ming began to weep uncontrollably, and plunged his face into the refuge of his own arms. After an extensive period of silence, Ming wiped the tears from his cheeks and faced me. “I know my dad’s dream. He hopes that I won’t follow the same path that he did, and that I’ll do well in academics to better my life.”
Surprised, but thankful to have had this sudden insight into Ming’s life, I answered: “It’s important to develop dreams, that’s how we can be motivated to make them a reality. Do you agree with your dad’s dream?”
“It’s the only dream I’ve ever known. Thank you for reminding me to keep following it, laoshi.”
When I returned to the shelter the next week, I found that both Ming and Xin had been picked up by relatives and taken home. I grew disappointed, realizing that I would likely never see these children again, and might never be able to witness them reach their future potential. Yet, at the start of my time at Jiaxin, the staff told me that only on rare occasions did the children talk about their stories with adults, and only so with the people they trusted most. Though I had only been at Jiaxin for a few short weeks, Ming and some of the other children entrusted me with such personal insight into their lives. Why?
After some thought, I recalled the laughs shared while the children and I danced to a ridiculous “child workout” video from the 90’s, the holding of small hands as we made circles for a game of hot potato, and the overjoyed shouts of “Happy Halloween!” as we practiced Trick-or-Treating on October 31st. These children had seen and endured countless episodes of emotional trauma, but in the end, were in need of play, a sense of belonging, and a space for self-expression like any other child. I now realize that providing them that, as well as the occasional hug when necessary, was affording them precisely what they had been missing. I did not have the opportunity to bid a final farewell to the kids, but I had the chance to gain their trust and share unforgettable memories with them before they left. Now, I can only hope for their happiness and future well-being.
For the remainder of my Bridge Year, I hope to continue building relationships with the children of Jiaxin, acting as both a listener of the stories in their pasts and an educator of the paths that may lay ahead. Making each of the children’s dreams become a reality might be a goal too ambitious to achieve, but gaining their trust, teaching them about the vast world around them, and building their confidence so that they may pursue their own dreams themselves is a goal I will most certainly strive to accomplish.