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Quaker Stories from Around China

My original purpose of coming to China was to research the Chinese legal system. However, I was struck by the conditions of the millions of migrant children and decided to dedicate my energy to improving their lives and set up CAI's programs for marginalized youths in China and founded Promise Foundation, a tax-exempt public charity, in the U.S. and Hong Kong to support CAI's programs.

The program has attracted many talented and giving volunteers. Mike Marcinkowski was a coordinator at one of our CAI camp sites during the summer of 2007 and wrote about his experience of working with CAI.

He lived in China from 2007-2008 and helped to start up an online language training company, Guava Talk. He is and alumnus of Northwestern University and is currently living and working in Chicago, Illinois.

I am pleased to share Mike's story below.

He was shorter than the other 5th grade boys, and he always tucked his shirt in half way to China such that his pants rose a little above his stomach. I could tell from the start of the arts camp that he was a bit of a loner, not always associating with the other kids, yet completely disassociating with them either. Perpetually happy, he seemed quite content in the presence of others or simply in his own company. On most mornings he would arrive at the camp a little late, running out to the field where the other kids were playing, offering up a high five to either me or another camp volunteer. Sometimes the group of kids would welcome him into whatever activity they were involved in, and other times, he would be just as easily ignored. Sometimes he would provoke their attention with mischievous behavior, and other times he would quietly join the group, fading into their laughter and enterprise.

I can't say he was one of the kids who especially stood out to me at the arts camp. There were times I noticed him and times I didn't, but when I look back now, I wish I would have spent a little more time with him, gotten to know him a little better. He wowed me in the end, and now I don't think I will ever forget him...

CAI (www.cai-china.org) is a non-for-profit organization that sponsors programs for marginalized children during the school year as well as summer camps, with a focus on migrant children in the Beijing area. All the children participating in its Beijing camps come from migrant families who travel around the country to find work. Education and benefits for these children are tied to their hometown. Therefore, they have limited access to public schools in the cities they move to, so they go to makeshift schools set up by the private sector.

Often these schools are poorly funded, and the kids end up receiving less-than-adequate education in dismal conditions: The classrooms are housed in dirty cement buildings with floors that never seem short of silt and dust. Desks are all second-hand with chipped wood tops and rusty metal legs. If you lift one to move it, the desktop may very well pop right off. In the summer, the rooms are hot and humid, and the poor insulation leads me to believe that the winters may be similarly unbearable. The classrooms are downright dreamy, however, if you compare them to the washrooms. Cloaked in flies that come to life at the sound of movement, the children's restrooms are literally indescribable.
Though the kids spend most of their time in these conditions -- their home lives no better -- you will not hear them complain or gripe. Surprisingly, they appear quite content, perhaps resolved to their environment. Or maybe they are simply unaware that anything better exists. Their impoverished home lives are detectable only in their clothes and the grit beneath their fingernails. Nothing else about them suggests they are living lives of want or need. One girl wore the exact same unlaundered outfit the entire two weeks, but she stood proudly in her attendance line each morning and called out "Dao!" enthusiastically when her name was read. Yes, she was here, and she was glad to be here. And as for us -- we couldn't have been more happy to have her.

All the kids confounded me over the course of the two week camp because they magically disintegrated a condition, a situation, that at first seemed all too concrete to me: these were kids who were lacking, who needed someone to care, who demanded more from life than the lot they had been given. But from the very first day, they proved the opposite to be true. They seemed to lack very little in life, overcome with the joy of each other's company and this new group of foreigners who had dropped in from some faraway place. This is not to say that they didn't have their spats or occasional disgruntled moments, but overall, they shined with a vitality that made me see things from a different perspective.

Somewhere in the second week of the camp, the photographer at one of the schools started taking individual pictures of the kids jumping into the air, and he took them at an angle such that the kids looked like they were soaring above the school buildings and literally floating into the sky. All of their faces are shining with an ecstatic laughter!

When I asked some of the boys over lunch what they wanted to be when they grew up, the resounding answer was stated with a determined sincerity: "Astronaut!" There was no question about it: these kids saw the world with all its possibilities and neglected to give its limitations any consideration. What a way to live life!

Needless to say, the last day of the camp was a bittersweet time for everyone. We met at a large outdoor amusement park where the kids' artwork from the previous two weeks was put on display for the public. Each child had a large presentation board featuring some artwork, a photograph they took, and some words describing what the photo meant to them. I remember walking around and taking notice of this one presentation with a relatively mundane photo on it of a gray sky, 5 black telephone wires, and small black birds sitting sporadically on the lines. My first thought was that the picture was not a very good one, but then I looked at what the kid had written about the picture, and it literally floored me: "Around ten birds are peacefully perched on the electric wire, but if you look carefully, they are one happy melody. If you look at anything carefully enough, you'll realize how unique it is." Squinting my eyes and bending down to take a closer look at the picture, everything became crystal clear: the telephone wires formed a music staff, and the birds were musical notes on this staff. After a minute of looking, I couldn't see anything other than the "happy melody." The birds had disappeared, the wires were gone, and the sky was nothing more than a gray backdrop for sheet music. Whoever took this picture had seen beauty where most might have never looked.

I soon discovered that the short loner kid with the hopped up pants was the lens through which this picture was taken, and when I was able to catch up with him, he was in the middle of a dance number that the kids were performing for the public on this last day of camp. A series of dance segments climaxed with several of the taller kids lifting the short loner kid up over their heads, holding him there for a moment. Suspended in the air, he was all smiles. I could only imagine what he saw from that vantage point where his feet were no longer touching this world. Perhaps he saw space, maybe was listening to a happy melody, or possibly even the face of God, but whatever it was, I'm sure it was beautiful beyond comprehension.
- Mike Marcinkowski

Judy Shen is an alumna of the Law School 05 and founder of CAI ().
July 2009