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Student Perspective: The Encounters that Change Us

 

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” –Desmond Tutu

***

The day I arrived at the monastery in Myanmar, I had no idea what to expect.  I came ready to leave behind a piece of myself in exchange for a glimpse at the everyday life of an orphan in Burma.  What I wasn’t prepared for was this feeling – the feeling that was gnawing at my gut and brewing something strange.  It left me weak in the knees.  It left me powerless.  It left me questioning whether I really am capable of changing the world.

***

My heart is already beating faster than usual, and the inconsistent bumps and ditches in this dirt-covered road aren’t helping.  A cloud of dust disperses into the air, causing my chest to swell with anticipation.  I’ve never been to a nunnery before and have no idea what to expect, especially from one located in a third-world country. As I pile out of the bus in Pyin OO Lwin, Myanmar, I can just make out the outline of a few smiling faces through the brown haze.  The dust settles, and I realize I’m face-to-face with dozens of girls dressed in pink garb.  They line the walls and crowd the windows of the monastic school, waving hello and ushering us into their home.   Inside the courtyard, yet another crowd of Burmese girls swarms me.  I come to learn that

this orphanage in particular houses over 500 girls – some are orphans, others temporary students whose parents pick them up for the summer months.  Here, they are able to receive food, shelter, and an education until they reach their high school years.

I look to my left and notice one beautiful little girl peeking her head out from behind a pillar.  Unsure of what to do, I glance over and give her a big warm smile and wave of my hand.  Unfortunately, this gesture must have been too forward because she has shied away from me, seeking refuge behind the post.  I spend the next couple of minutes studying the sea of unfamiliar faces in search for hers, but her big brown eyes are nowhere to be seen.

If only you could be a little less eager, Elizabeth.  Then you wouldn’t have scared her off. 

But suddenly, there she is, just a few feet in front of me, waving and revealing her adorable little smile.  I walk over, kneel down, and introduce myself.  She stares at me for a few seconds before giggling and sheepishly burying her face in her hands.  She looks back up and grins.  I ask for her name but the language barrier has made it difficult for her to answer, so instead we exchange smiles in silence.

Moments later, another girl runs up and sweeps her away into the crowd.  I stand up and walk back over to my group, feeling dejected for not having been able to really communicate with this girl.  Did I really travel all this way to say hello, wave, and smile?

As we head back to the bus, I search the crowd one last time for the little girl with which I have become so familiar and catch her staring directly at me.  She tiptoes over to where I stand, smiles, and leans in to give me a hug.

We pull away from the monastery and I watch the crowd of pink from my window until it shrinks out of sight.  I feel the vulnerability, the confusion creeping up my spine.  I was so touched to have made a connection with this girl, despite how miniscule it was.  But I’m angry, because are today’s actions really going to make a difference in the world?

Wave.  Smile.  Say hello.  This was no selfless deed.  Suddenly I feel terribly angry with myself for not having done more.  How many other groups must prance into this same orphanage, just as I did, leaving nothing behind other than a faint outline of their shoe prints in the dirt?  I wish I had the opportunity to stay longer and actually connect with this girl.  I wish I could experience a real day in her shoes.  I wish I could have contributed more than a flimsy hello.

Amidst all of this wishing, I realize I’m being too harsh.  Just because I didn’t accomplish something revolutionary doesn’t make my time here any less significant.  Visiting the monastery has shown these girls that there are people out there who know they exist and are interested in finding out more about the rest of the world.  It shows that curiosity is alive, and hopefully instills in them a similar sense of wonder.

Today I went to Burma and I didn’t bring back postcards, elephant-print pants, or hand-painted umbrellas.  What I did bring back was the knowledge that a gesture doesn’t have to be grandiose to make an impact on the world.  And though I may not have changed this little girl’s life forever, she has definitely changed mine – whether she knows it or not.

Author Elizabeth Pettinicchi is a student at Boston University.  Photo by Margaret Graham, Miami University of Ohio.

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