Amy Hao, a junior in Harvard’s Leverett House, describes volunteering in a home for children of incarcerated parents in Beijing. Amy received undergraduate summer funding from the Fairbank Center to travel to China last year, and is the undergraduate winner in the Fairbank Center’s 2016 Travel Essay Competition!
As I dragged my suitcase over to the waiting car, two little figures, clad in puffy pink and black coats, came barreling over and enveloped me in a hug. Little CaoMei and Xixi, both six years old and two of the youngest group of girls at Beijing’s SunVillage, wrapped their arms around my waist and buried their faces in my jacket. After a minute, CaoMei looked up and asked, “Jiejie (“older sister” in Mandarin, which all of the children called me throughout my stay), can we take a picture before you go?”
Surprised, I pulled out my phone, “Of course, let’s all take a selfie together.” The three of us posed, and I snapped several photos. After another hug, the girls pulled me down so I was looking at them face-to-face.
CaoMei said solemnly, “When you go back home, don’t forget about us, okay?” And then she turned around to go, pulling Xixi behind her, waving as they returned to their room.
Since I returned back to the US, little moments like these keep on returning to my mind here and there, often unexpectedly. I spent a total of thirteen days at the Beijing SunVillage, a home for the children of parents incarcerated in China’s prison system. Unfortunately, in the country, there are no systems in place for children whose parents are sent to jail; often, they are passed between relatives or forced to live and fend for themselves, often at very young ages. A former prison warden started a network of (soon to be) ten group homes all around China to take in these children until they leave for college and can make a living on their own. The children live in small houses segregated by age and gender, including three rooms with bunk beds, a bathroom, and a larger common room. Personal space and privacy is hard to come by, the children operate on a schedule of whistles that dictate their activities, and everyone has chores to attend to regularly.
During my time staying at the village, I mostly interacted with the youngest school-aged girls and boys. They were in school for most of the day, but after they came home, homework help and playtime were in high demand. I have never met a group of young people that were clearly expected to grow up so fast but held on to that spectacular wonder, inquisitiveness, and creativity in as magnificent fashion as this group. For example, XiaoFeng, a third-grade girl, is in charge of making sure the younger ones (a gaggle of ten first-graders) get all of their homework and chores done, often mediating arguments and fights in between; and she does it all with the maturity of someone over twice her age. Another time, JinHua, one of the other first-graders, presented me with a paper rose she had made herself while proclaiming that I was the best “Jiejie” that ever came to stay. The children routinely offered me snacks that they received as gift packages from volunteers who came on the weekend, often treats that were hard to come by. On my first day, one of the middle-school boys handed me a piece of gum from a pack that he had obviously purchased with the little spending money he had. I tried to return it and tell him to enjoy it himself, but he insisted that he had plenty and wanted to share. This incredible generosity and maturity from all the children, whether they were six or sixteen, was astonishing and eye opening.
While I was there, many different volunteer groups would come visit on the weekend to interact with the children and donate goods. The day before I left, a group of fourth-grade students from an elementary school in Beijing visited SunVillage with their parents to conduct a “book donation day of service”. The students brought new books for the children in the village and presented them in an assembly. Afterwards, the students and their parents stayed for lunch at the village’s dining hall. As I was waiting for the lunch, I heard one of the students, a girl who had been flaunting and playing with her smartphone all throughout the morning, remark about the food, “Oh man, I should come here more often. If they marketed this dining hall as a weight-loss program, we would lose weight so quickly!” It was followed by laughter from her friends. Her comment felt like a slap in the face, as I looked around to see if any of the SunVillage children heard her remark. She would never know of the generous spirit of all the children, never have to deal with a lack of privilege (including the prejudice these kids faced as children of criminals), or what it was to grow up with only your peers from age six.
These children keep their heads high every day and take it all in stride. They reminded me of what it really meant to take advantage of and appreciate one’s position and situation, especially as a student at Harvard College. So in recognition of all of the children at the Beijing SunVillage, my unforgettable two weeks, and in answer to little CaoMei, which I gave her that very day, “How on earth could I ever forget you all?”
Amy Hao is a junior in Harvard’s Leverett House, and a recipient of the Fairbank Center’s undergraduate summer funding to travel to China. Amy is the winner of the Fairbank Center’s 2016 Undergraduate Travel Essay Competition. Learn more about how to apply for undergraduate funding to travel to China.