Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
In my hometown, Nanchang, China, the Gan River divides the city into two worlds. One side of the river has enjoyed much government investment: skyscrapers are adorned with beaming neon lights, and beacons are announcing the economic prosperity of China.
I grew up on the other side of the river. Most of my childhood was spent running through rich rice paddies, catching grasshoppers, and listening to my neighbors speaking with a sense of envy about the other side of the river. They would always remind me of an old Chinese proverb, “a knowledgeable person travels ten thousand miles.” They encouraged me to go out, and see the broader world.
Is the outside world better? This question haunted me and motivated me to travel—ten thousand miles from home to Tanzania in the summer of 2015 on a service-learning trip.
Following our Tanzanian guide, Alex, through the countryside, I was entranced by lush green maize fields, straw-roofed huts, and pastures for cattle, goats and sheep. Soaking in all the beauty, I started to believe that perhaps things in the outside world were, indeed, better, just as my neighbors had promised. But the thought made me feel uneasy.
This feeling kept me up that night as I lay in a sleeping bag on the cold ground inside one of the huts. I shivered, not because of the cold but because of my thoughts. I decided to get up and go for a walk. When I opened the door, I saw Cassia, a Canadian girl in our program, lying on a blanket outside.
“What are you doing here? Don’t you feel cold?” I asked.
“Cold? What are you talking about?” She chuckled and invited me to lie down beside her.“Look up! I bet you couldn’t see constellations this clear back in the city.”
“Actually, I often see them in my hometown,” I answered, with my thoughts going backto my childhood.
“Really? Tell me about your home,” exclaimed Cassia. Suddenly, the voice of my neighbors murmuring that proverb echoed in my ears. However, looking at Cassia’s eager face, I pushed forward. “It was not very developed, but I loved to run barefoot in the rice paddies…”That was the first time I had narrated my childhood in the context of my hometown, and I feltrelieved. I ended with the phrase: “I’m embarrassed to tell you that my hometown wasn’t that developed.”
“Why should that be embarrassing? I bet your hometown is just as beautiful as Tanzania!”
A chill went down my spine. A voice inside my head cried out, “Yes!” I finally understood where my uneasiness came from—I had so easily accepted the beauty of Tanzania but had never appreciated the same beauty of my own hometown. My upbringing, the people around me, had given me the wrong motivation to travel around the world.
I found the reason for my insecurity when I was interacting with urban friends at school or sharing the story of my hometown with strangers. I wondered how I could go out and meet the world if I never truly appreciated where I came from. How could I love diversity, and embrace the actual meaning of the proverb, if I did not even appreciate my own identity? I vowed to look past my prejudice against my hometown, and treasure the culture and values that have made me the person I am today.
On the plane leaving Tanzania, I looked out the window and saw the pastures and farm fields again. As I looked at the landscape, the maize fields of Tanzania began to merge with the rice paddies of Nanchang in my mind. Unable to distinguish the two, I felt equally strong love for both. I knew I would carry this love with me into the future.