I spent the morning with 60 young boys.
They were seniors from a high school in the Philippines that’s hugely popular for its strong Chinese language and culture program. They were spending six weeks here in Beijing as part of a cultural immersion program. The agenda, of course, included visits to famous tourist destinations – what good is a trip to the capital of China if there are no sightings of the Forbidden City or the Great Wall? But this was not completely a touristic pursuit and there were classes scheduled, as well as outreach programs with beneficiaries of charity organizations.
For extra relevance, the program directors also got in touch with several Filipinos already living in Beijing, inviting them to share a bit about their personal and work experience here. I was one of them, and although I am normally reluctant to address a big group of strangers (all taller than myself) I said yes. Primarily because, being a mother to two sons, I am partial to gatherings of boys.
The boys I was to meet were only two or three years older than my elder son. Somehow, I felt that by addressing a roomful of boys, I was communicating with my own sons as well. Besides, I couldn’t say no to old friends who play pivotal roles in the running of the school. Finally, much as I love my family, I need time to do things for me. My writing, despite a lot of it being about my family, is mine. So, I thought would giving this talk be too. I would be there as me, not as wife or mother.
And so the acceptance email was sent, the gears in my head started spinning, and a few days before the talk, the words got put on paper. The talk shaped up very nicely, I thought. A few choice photos to accompany each paragraph were arranged into a rudimentary PowerPoint presentation. Armed not only with my speech, but with the intention to connect with just one person, I made off for the Beijing Language and Culture College to meet with my audience.
The thing about pouring your soul into a piece of (real or virtual) paper is that you don’t get much feedback from people who have read it. Sure, they may read through your entire piece, but you never actually know if you managed to strike a chord, or if they thought you were talking hot air.
I reminded myself to relax, read what I had written (and previously rehearsed several times at home, to be sure), and was glad to see a real live audience’s reaction. It wasn’t all bad. I saw some nods of recognition, some smiles, and some moments of understanding.
As with most talks, there was a question-and-answer session at the end. I tried to answer the boys’ questions, and all I could do was hope that I did not disappoint.
At the end of the talk, one brave boy came up to me, saying that something I said had said during the unplanned, spontaneous discussion at the end had struck him. It had had to do with finding your purpose in life and realizing your place in the grand scheme of this big bad world.
As he spoke, right in front of me stood my own children at different stages in their lives. For a while I even saw my husband, whom I met when we were both this boy’s age. All the questions, asked and unasked, were evident, as was the quiet knowledge that there really couldn’t be any answer that would suffice. So I simply looked him in the eyes and said, “And it’s tiring, isn’t it?” He looked back, nearly incredulous that I got it. “It’s tiring.” I repeated. “And you just wish things could be so much simpler.” Both our eyes teared up as the connection was made.
There, in that chilly lobby, in a small circle that also included two of his teachers and a few classmates, there was the connection I had hoped to make. With a boy I had never known before. One who was missing his mom and just needed to be heard. And, amazingly, I knew what to say. Spontaneous and unplanned.
I felt good to have been able to leave something for him to think about. And I remembered to give him a hug too. But how many times have I kicked myself for never having been that present for my own sons? All they hear from me is how they should do their chores without being reminded for the nth time, how they should be good to each other and stop trying to kill each other (or worse, me), and how late they will be if they don’t hurry, hurry, hurry up. When it comes to them,I smother them instead of mothering them.
I spent the morning with 60 young boys. And I may still not know them all or their life stories, but for a few short minutes, I hope I stood as mom to one of them.
Photo by Dana Cosio-Mercado
Dana is the beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent. Originally from the Philippines, she moved to Beijing in 2011 (via Europe) with her husband, two sons and Rusty the dog. She enjoys writing, photography, theater, visual arts, and trying new food. In her free time, she can be found exploring the city and driving along the mountain roads of Huairou, Miyun and Pinggu.