‘I know that I can go back to a more developed and cleaner country, but… I do not know what will happen to you after I leave. I don’t want you to grow up having to sell clothes on the streets, or to drive a taxi, but I want you to be able to achieve your dreams.’ Upon saying this, I was deeply moved and some tears started flowing.
I spent 6 weeks in Perú, running a series of lessons to inspire young students to follow their dreams, and to dream bigger. I wanted to use this experience to reflect on the lessons gained from my time there. But I also wanted to take the chance to inspire you to act.
Perhaps the most important lesson was about love. In Perú, I met street hawkers who would readily give me oranges, juice, out of the precious little they had. I met others who readily offered me their homes to stay. To see love so affectionately displayed made me reflect on my own experience of love. In my own background in Singapore, it seemed hard for people to ever say: I love you. I miss you. But here, I witnessed love and affection displayed so powerfully. There were the daily cheek-kisses. But one incident struck me. My host was flipping through a photo album that had been handmade by my teacher. She started crying, saying that she felt the deep affection others had had for me. It stunned me. It made me realise that we should have such a ready access to one’s deepest emotions, instead of trying desperately to hide them.
Daily, I stuffed my emotions under a blanket of work, busyness, and addiction. But they leaked into other parts of my life. What was making me afraid of acknowledging them, and attending to them?
Perú showed me the reality of global inequality. The lottery of birth had determined that I had the privilege of schooling in a developed nation, but had condemned others to schooling in a country with little resources. Yet this did not stop them from trying. One student always came with many questions. ‘Como se decir profesora en ingles? Desayuno? Guapo? (How do you say teacher in English? Breakfast? Handsome?)’ It pained me to see that his enthusiasm for learning did not match the resources offered by the school. One night, as we were celebrating the birthday of a friend, I saw two young girls approach us, selling sweets. It made me wonder… why did these girls have to spend their evenings selling sweets, instead of enjoying their childhood like everyone else? But as Covey’s circle of concern shows, it is not very productive to worry about things that are beyond my circle of influence.
Instead, what can I do to move global inequality into my circle of influence? I believe that it is first by taking the important step of mentoring those around me, who may be from less developed nations.
Lastly, Perú demonstrated how education is the way forward. I greatly enjoyed the experience I had teaching the students. Many of the activities we did imbued them with much confidence.
For example, in one of our first activities, we asked them to write a list of their fears on a piece of paper. They would then need to come up to the front of the class, read it, and shout, ‘Yo no tengo miedo! (I have no fear!)’ It was inspiring to see some of them shouting at the top of their lungs, breaking the hold that these fears had over them.
It was delightful to see how much they had grown over my short stay of 5 weeks with them. From shy students, they started to express themselves freely. But my experience in Perú showed me how my education had given me a much greater headstart than others. Beyond my trilingual education, I had had the opportunity to travel abroad during secondary school. But beyond being there to volunteer my help, there is little else I can do except to raise the profile of Perú. Despite the environment they see around them, I have seen hopes and dreams in these 9 to 13 year-olds. Declaring that ‘I have a Ferrari’, ‘I have a 3-storey bungalow’ is evidence that within a child, there is unlimited hope and dreams of a better future.
How could you apply this experience in your own life?
Take a huge leap of faith out of your comfort zone. Your future self will thank you for it. I went to Perú with little confidence about my Spanish. Earlier in the month, I had headed to Valencia to practice my Spanish, but the most I ever said was ‘Donde esta el baño? (Where is the toilet?)’ In Perú, I had no time to think about being embarrassed. If I didn’t communicate with Spanish, I would have spent the rest of my trip in silence. In moving out of your comfort zone, don’t just aim for a tiny step out. Aim for a huge leap. It’s true that there were many aspects of Peru that I didn’t like. Being able to bathe every 3 days. Only having water from the taps from 4 – 6am in the morning. Having to wake up each morning to collect water in huge pails. But those experiences led me to find a deeper resilience I never thought I had.
Move towards what you fear. The experience you have will be far more magnificent than you ever feared. If you are scared, I like to think that is probably the right direction you are moving in. Are you afraid of what might happen? Do you want to die thinking ‘what if?’
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in that gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
– Theodore Roosevelt
Try. What is the worst thing that could happen if you make a fool of yourself? Little, I realised. I was initially scared of speaking Spanish wrongly. But I realised that didn’t matter. What mattered was the determination to try. To fail, and to get up and try again. As long as you didn’t die from the failure, what could stop you?
If you ask me what I have given to these Peruvian students, I would say ‘Nothing.’ They have had everything they need for success within them. They just needed someone to believe in them, to unlock that potential, and to show them that there is a world beyond Ica.
Todos por Ica, y todos por Perú.