Quote: “We travel, then, in part just to shake up our complacencies by seeing all the moral and political
urgencies, the life-and-death dilemmas, that we seldom have to face at home.”
This is my 7th year teaching Chinese at the Phillips Academy Andover and 1st year as Department Chair of Chinese and Japanese. I’m also one of the program leaders of our China trip, which is an interdisciplinary program led by faculty from the Departments of Chinese, Math, Social Sciences and History, and Music, that lets students choose their research focus while in China. I’m originally from Shanghai, and traveled to and volunteered in different parts of China (including Tibet), Ecuador (including the Galapagos Islands) and Namibia as a young adult before immigrating to the US. The story I’m sharing now is a story I wrote for the commencement issue of last year’s Phillipian.
Commencement Issue – Lilia Cai-Hurteau, May 2017
The Butterfly Effect
I have a story to tell, and here it is.
In the fall of 2001, I arrived in Limoncocha, a small Kichwa village in the heart of a Biological Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rain Forest, as the first WorldTeach volunteer from China. (WorldTeach is a Harvard-based nonprofit that places volunteer English teachers in schools around the world.) I taught at the Instituto Pedagogico Intercultural Bilingue, the local secondary school. The community gave me the best place they could find for me to live, la granja, “the farm,” which was a 20-minute walk from the village center. The place afforded me the luxuries of a cold-water shower (so I didn’t have to bathe in the river) and a generator that provided three hours of electricity every night. La granja was built by an oil company to provide a place for agricultural specialists to live while teaching the indigenous people how to grow plants. (Trusting you’ll get the irony!) I shared my home with a variety of small rain forest creatures, including poor tree frogs that would dry up and die if I didn’t bring them back out to a more moist location in time. At night after I turned off the generator, I would be greeted by total darkness, the kind of darkness that a city girl from Shanghai had never known, and a vibrant “night life” of birds, insects and frogs.
I would teach from 7:30am to 1pm every day – as the day would grow unbearably hot by noon. All the students, from 7th to 12th grade, would go home and change out of their nice, clean uniform of white shirts and indigo skirts or pants, and put on some old clothes more suited for fishing, hunting, climbing trees to get fruits, babysitting their infant siblings or cousins, playing basketball or soccer, etc. I would often stay in the village and hang out with some of my students’ families after school, playing with the little kids who followed me around. I was a total celebrity by their standards: “Tenemos una chinita,” I would hear them brag about having me to people from other villages, since almost all of them had never met a Chinese person. A few families would take turns taking me in, inviting me to dinners and sometimes to spend the night, as they all knew that I was terrified to make the 20-minute trek back home by myself in the darkness. (I’m not ashamed to say – I was afraid of jaguars.) One of these families was my student Gloria’s. She was a tall 15-year-old, and had about nine siblings. Her younger brothers Victor and Vladimir were both also my students in the 8th and 7th grade classes. Both boys were exceptional, naturally gifted artists, especially considering neither of them had ever taken a single art class before I brought them some markers to make flashcards. They would draw for hours, often times depicting flowers and birds in great detail, and would give the finished products to me as gestures of appreciation. They were both also exceptional fishermen. The boys would go out, sometimes together but mostly on their own, in their canoes and spend an entire afternoon on the lake next to the village, until they came back in the dark with large sacks full of fish – tiger fish, peacock bass, piranha and many other varieties. The women in the family would then clean the fish, wrap them in banana leaves and cook them in the fire, and I would be invited to a delicious meal of “maitos.” Gloria, Victor and Vladimir invited me to a funeral one time, during which adults and children played a variety of games and laughed all night long until they were too sleepy to stay awake at dawn – the Kichwa tradition is to celebrate life in the face of death.
Their little sister, Sisa, who was about 8 years old, was one of my biggest fans. She would walk with me everywhere, clinging to my side and proudly holding my hand. One night, as we chatted happily with a group of children outside a shop, we heard screams on the street. Sisa and I ran over, and saw Gloria and a few others huddling over a writhing body on the ground. In the darkness, I finally recognized Victor’s young face, as he twitched uncontrollably, mouth foaming. After a few terrifying moments, he recovered, got up, and was embarrassed that I had to witness such an episode. Otherwise, he was back to his independent self. Afterwards Gloria told me that he ran out of medication that month and didn’t get refills at the village clinic. She asked me to remind him to take care of himself because he would respect my opinions since I was his teacher. I talked with him, and he assured me that he would get medication for himself monthly and that I didn’t have to worry about him.
July of 2002 quickly came, and I left Limoncocha after a teary goodbye to my students, colleagues and their families. (I wasn’t so sad to leave behind the flying cockroaches and tarantulas dwelling inside my bedroom.) Years later I moved to America and started teaching in Massachusetts, but Gloria’s family had always occupied a soft spot in my heart. I heard that Limoncocha had electricity and Internet now, and some of my former students started to friend me on Facebook. A few years ago, news reached me that Victor went out fishing on his own one afternoon, had an epilepsy episode, fell into the water and drowned. I quietly wept that night, but knew in my heart that his funeral was filled with laughter.
I’ve been wanting to tell Victor’s story and now seems to be the right time. It rings especially meaningfully to me in light of the 2016 election, the immigration ban and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. And perhaps is something worth considering as you head out into the wider world.
Victor’s life transpired in a whirlwind of social and cultural change. His grandparents had moved to the village in the 1950’s to work with American missionaries whose goal was to translate the bible into the languages of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. At about the time he was born, American oil companies began drilling throughout the pristine Biological Reserve in which he lived. By the time he died, “colonos” had followed the oil company roads, settled towns, clear cut large swaths of the surrounding forest and established a new agricultural way of life that indigenous communities were all but forced to adopt. And at the center of the storm, there was Limoncocha and there were the families who lived there, and there was Victor, this beautiful, gifted, gentle boy so loved by his family and community.
There are large sweeping whirlwinds all around us. You can jump in and ride them to great heights. And along the journey, or, you can find your way to the eye of the storm and touch the lives of people, people whose lives are every bit as meaningful as anyone else’s, who are often tossed around by the tempest. Either way, you’ll make a difference.