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Trust in star lights

| Thursday, September 10, 2015

There have been three sexual assaults during the first two weeks of school, leaving us deeply and gravely irritated by and disappointed with this reality. However, I have come to believe the darker the times, the more necessary it is to find hope and strength within ourselves. As someone who truly believes in the power of stories and dedicates this column to sharing stories, I hope this one may serve as a spark during this difficult time for our community. Though it cannot solve the problem of sexual assaults, I hope it can at least let us see hope and more importantly, remind us of our privilege and our responsibility to dream, to act and to overcome these hardships.

Two summers ago, I was volunteering in a poor village in Hebei province in China. I taught English to kids in a local elementary school, separated from the rest of world — where people have enough water, food and clothes and where kids have to read Shakespeare, Confucius and Aristotle — by towering mountains, ring after ring. We arrived in the early morning, before daybreak. The dirty, muddy roads, the green mountains and the wistful white clouds looked like Chinese ink and wash paintings, soaked with a sugary mist. The stars were still shining in the azure sky, with a pink halo flowing around them. “Wow you never see this many stars in Beijing,” my friends said. “Let’s count the stars every night!” It all looked like a pure dream. But, when sun eventually rose up behind the mountains, the dream shattered into pieces of light, deformed and brutally real.

The first thing we did when we entered the class was bring our students the instrument to write, draw and create. We brought the kids a box of colorful crayons. We appeared at the door of the classroom and heard a boy shouting loudly, “Crayon!” All of a sudden, 56 kids jumped up to their feet and sprinted toward us with full speed. The fast ones snatched the canyons and were immediately surrounded by others, screaming and groaning. A fight broke out in the classroom. When we finally understood what happened, rushed to the crowd and dragged them apart, the crayons were broken. Nobody ended up getting a single piece of them. We were shocked and saddened, but we did not give up hope. The next day, we changed an approach. We went into the classroom after school and left some books on the teacher’s desk.

That night, my friends and I sat on the empty barn field, under the sapphire sky decorated by stars glowing with hopeful yellow lights. We made beautiful wishes. We prayed to the stars that one day the kids would stop fighting over trivial things, that they would learn to share and that through acquiring knowledge, they would have a greater dream than possessing a few crayons. We went to sleep believing the stars could see and hear us.

The next morning, all the books were torn into pieces and no recognizable sentence existed on the fragments. We tried again with rulers, and it was the same result. Notebooks, same result. Word cards, same result.

We were angry and frustrated so we organized a class meeting and criticized the student leading this series of fighting and destruction. He cried heartily and shouted:

“I am simply getting the thing I want. Why is it wrong?”

“Why can’t you share it with others?”

“Then I won’t have enough.”

“Why? Who told you that?”

“My mom.”

We were shocked by this interaction and for the first time realized how helpless we were. That day, in the chaotic classroom, we were educated by a group of 10-year-old kids on a harsh reality: they never waited in line for their meals, because if they had waited, there would be nothing left for them. They fought over everything given to them, because if they did not, they would not get their “share.” They studied 14 hours a day, because if they did not, they would not be the top 0.01 percent that went to middle school. Their parents were sometimes forced to steal money in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, because if they did not, they would not be able to support their kids to go to middle school even if the kids made it to that top 0.01 percent.

That night, looking at the beautiful stars, my friend murmured to me, “Sometimes I wish we could be those stars, high above there, away from this goddamn reality.” Then we looked at each other and started crying. As a group of teenagers full of ideals and grand dreams from Beijing, a place that the kids in Hebei only had heard of on the radio, we were exposed to our own naivety and ignorance. We thought we could give them dreams, but the only thing they needed was to survive, which was already difficult enough for them. We thought we were there to bring changes to their lives, but we did not even understand reality, a reality overpowered by a scarcity so imminent and severe that there was no room for anything else, not even dreams.

The night before we left, my friends and I sat silently on the empty barn field and counted the stars for the last time. Xiaoyan, a 10-year-old kid ran toward us.

“What are you doing here?”

“We are looking at the stars.”

“I really want to be a star.”

“Xiaoyan, we want that as well, but we are all here, trapped in this place.”

“But you guys are leaving tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah, to Beijing.”

“When will you come back?”

“We don’t know.”

Xiaoyan stared at us for a long time, sighed and looked up to the stars.

“I really like the stars. They make the night more beautiful. You know what my teacher told us? He said that only the stars have light, they have to come every night and illuminate the earth … Do you think they like us?”

“We don’t know. Why do you ask?”

“Because my teacher also said you guys are the stars.”

We left the kids the next day, but ever since then, every time I look up at the stars, Xiaoyan’s words echo in my head, “You guys are the stars.” I will once again remind myself that in the harsh reality which we are trapped in, there are people who regard us as stars. It is my privilege and obligation to make myself shine as bright as possible through the darkness, because to those people who are still in the darkness, I have the light. The reality is that while we are dreaming, most people on this earth are still trying to survive. We are the stars. Let’s keep on lighting up the path ahead, no matter how dark it may seem. Let’s trust in the star lights, our own star lights.

 

Dan (April) Feng is a junior political science and economics double major. She is from Beijing, China and lives in Lyons Hall. April welcomes all comments (or complaints) and can be reached at dfeng@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Yuan Feng

    April, beautiful piece. You can choose to light the path on the sky, and I will choose to walk through darkness by their side, on the earth. Thanks for the piece, we need you.