Lily’s Change

You might say that change comes in small alloy drops, and newly minted monies whirring down the pipeline before they become a veritable measure of a country’s  economic prowess.

“I want to do change.”–Lily

I slowly ambled into the room last night, flipped the light switch and took a seat in one of the nearby chairs.

It would take far more than coffee to wake me up for the next hour, I thought to myself as enervation seeped through my bones. Like every day thus far at the Harvard Summit for Youth Leadership Conference (HSYLC) in Beijing, my day had been spent teaching my students, leading extracurricular activities, engaging in discussions about every nuance of culture and country, and just generally, being busy. And despite my enjoying every minute of that time, there is no denying that myself and most of the other seminar leaders are suffering from a considerable lack of sleep.

Placing my Nescafe can on the desk in front of me, I stared at the flimsy aluminum and tried to will an energy boost from its sweet, caffeinated contents. But alas, it became clear that the need for energy could not be siphoned by a mere force of will.

It was time for my office hours.

Little did I know that what would follow would be among the most enlightening and refreshing conversations I have had during my time here—a conversation that took me away from my duties as a seminar instructor and mentor, and reminded me of the joy of pure Curiosity and how a little navigation and ingenuity can take you anywhere you want to go.

Lily wanted advice. Simple enough, I thought.

I soon found myself recounting tales of U.S. history that have been impressed upon me for the past eleven years. But here these oft-repeated accounts of history were bringing wonder and amazement to young Lily’s eyes and I could see her contemplating with intention the meaning this could have for her country.

“My mom said to never come back to China once I leave, but I know I will.” Such a young girl to be making such pronouncements. But I knew that it didn’t make them any less true. Though her English was imperfect and her hands gestured wildly to buoy her speech, she spoke with conviction and hope: “I want to do change.”

I haven’t heard that much from my Chinese students–that is I have noticed how quiet they often are, and the great energy it takes to procure answers to my questions or opinions from them in class. Why? was my question to Lily. Why are you so silent?

Here I must note that Lily is the exception. She is eager to participate in class when her classmates are far more accustomed to staring at me with an immutable expression. “We were all very outgoing once—in primary school,” Lily said, “but soon that changed.”

Coming from an American school system, the cultural shock in this regard is substantial, considering that eliciting speech in an American classroom is not so much a problem as curtailing it is. Though there are exceptions, we are generally taught to form our own opinions and share them, and so the shy among us must learn to adapt, or risk being left behind.

I came to office hours slightly bleary-eyed and bracing myself for an assault of college application and SAT prep questions. Instead, I was visited by a girl who had a very simple request of me: that I, as the teacher of a ‘Negotiation and International Conflict Resolution’ seminar, give her and her country advice. In retrospect, I cannot help but smile as I think about the tiny can of coffee sitting on my desk. How terribly inadequate. I figure the amount of caffeine that would be required to transform me into a decent foreign policy adviser would be of astronomical proportions. Luckily though, Lily’s passion gave me the kind of jolt that no amount of caffeine could have. I was reminded to be cautious as I talked with her about how a government could hire administrators to beat destitute vendors selling illegal wares, or commission textbooks that share only one side of history with its children.

I was reminded to be open-minded as I thought critically about a government system that is significantly different from the American one that I am used to and to be considerate of its good aspects despite that difference. “I like our government,” one of my students said during a class. “It is incredibly efficient and makes us proud–look at what was accomplished for the 2008 Olympics.” With that, I couldn’t argue. The Chinese government is certainly a beacon of efficiency in many respects, and I too have loved hearing the diverse perspectives that my students bring with regard to it.

But still–there is Lily. And sitting with her during office hours, I was reminded that there is always potential for an individual to take action if they are unhappy with the system that governs them, and a fire to be lit under a million more who could join her.

For me what is most significant though is that Lily is determined to stay here. She will stay in the country in which she was raised rather than go abroad and seek a different life. At a time when Angela Merkel and much of the world have a very different type of change on their mind, I found it unbelievably refreshing to think about Lily’s variety. She will stay here and do things that no stream of newly minted coins could ever accomplish—she will do change with a passion and love for the country that she calls her home, and in doing so, she will change history.



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