‘Yang Ma Ma!’ John* cries as he peers into one of the classrooms of his former home. The home where they keep abandoned children like him. I have always wondered what it feels like to be abandoned, to be left behind in a rubbish heap, on a side alley, not knowing that your parents will never return. It sparked my curiosity so much that I asked one of the boys one afternoon as we were going back.

‘Without your dad and mum, are you sad?’ I remember the halting speech of John, as he replied, ‘no… I’m …not sad…’ I was rather shocked by the answer and had the audacity to ask again. He replied the same.

To be given the chance to spend normal days like those with the boys, be it napping in the afternoon, taking a morning walk to the supermarket, or playing basketball helps me to remember that yes, despite the many tragedies of these boys’ lives, they still can ersist with normal, ordinary, but yet wholly extraordinary lives.

During this trip, I kept asking myself: what was I contributing? This seemed so ordinary, so plain, and so dull! Surely I hadn’t flown all this way to do this? But yet I seemed to neglect that even the ordinary lives these boys were leading, were already a huge step beyond the extraordinary life paths these boys had walks.

But yet in my head, I was thinking: what more for these boys? What more could be done for these boys? They couldn’t be confined all their lives to society, cooking, cleaning and washing in a small house. I had so many ideas! A café? A sheltered bakery?

Amidst this experience in Xi’an, I learnt two important lessons. Celebrating the extraordinary amidst the ordinary. Secondly, we can never connect the dots looking forward, but only looking back. Looking forward into the future, I had no idea what this experience taught me. I often thought this was an expensive lesson to see how welfare was organized in China, but with little real applicability in my own life. The stories I have seen have been touching. Each day is truly a breath of hope and fresh inspiration. To me, eating a meal means nothing, but to see Tom* perservering to cook a meal with one arm, wrapping the oil bottle around his arm and body, chopping the lettuces with one arm, holding the spatula with one arm, and constantly asking, are you going to eat my food? Are you going to eat the lunch I prepared? It’s small to me, but it’s large for them. To grow up without parents, to grow up with no place you can call home, little possessions you can call your own…it’s truly a complex world to navigate.

As you read this, I wanted to convey two important lessons for your own internship experiences. Firstly, it’s not what the internship offers, but what you make out of it. Often, I looked at how much I could gain from each placement I had. But after this internship, I realised that it was not what they offered that truly mattered. Instead, it was how keen I was to learn. It was my attitude and enthusiasm to create my own opportunities, taking absolute responsibility for how the internship turned out. Before you go on each placement, think about 3 things you want to achieve out of your placement. And keep yourself accountable to it.

Secondly, pick the really scary option. In my last placement teaching in a Peruvian school, I remembered sitting in the airport and thinking: am I crazy to be here? But what followed was an experience that redefined my boundaries, pushing me so far out that those boundaries were redrawn. Looking back, I’m really glad I chose to do the nerve-wrecking option, because it grew me in more ways than I expected. As Susan Jeffers says, ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’, when you are fearful, more often than not, you are moving in the right direction.

*Please note that all names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the children.