Two Different Worlds This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

October 6, 2013
Two Different Worlds

The girl walked in and looked around at her immediate surroundings. Smooth, cool granite floors provided the foundation for the room. The walls were painted an eggshell white, with occasional streaks of brown where time had taken its toll on the carefully managed surface. There were two cheap black couches in the room, stuffed so full with leather that it looked like they could burst at any second. This, coupled with the fluffy pillows that lined each couch provided for an inexpensive, but comfortable combination. An old television set sat on the cabinet in the corner, still gleaming from the careful cleaning earlier that day. The room was dimly lit, with the only light coming from one lamp on the table near the door. Overall, it was a cheap residence that had a homely feel to it, otherwise known as my grandparent’s apartment. The girl had on a simple t-shirt with a few Chinese characters written on it and old, faded jeans that she still managed to wear with dignity. At first glance she seemed to be about 15 or 16, but she had actually just turned 13. Her intelligent eyes searched the room until they landed on what she had been searching for. Upon seeing me, she gave me a brilliant smile slightly tinged with regret. It contained all of our amazing experiences from my past month spent in China, but also the acceptance that it would be another 4 years till I got to see my cousin again.

That trip was my 3rd time returning to the Far East, the overpopulated country known as China. Like most Asian kids, I had parents who were very invested in my education, and had started me on the magnet school path ever since elementary school. “All A’s” was the premier goal in my household, and restrictions were placed upon me whenever this standard was not reached. I was about 5 feet 6 inches tall, with black hair and brown eyes. I had a good group of friends and was part of many extracurricular activities such as swimming, volleyball, and debate. I thought that I was the coolest kid in the school, and my daily worries were centered around who liked who and what NFL team was going to win the super bowl this year. Just an average high school kid.

When I finally arrived in the town of Guanghan in Sichuan Province, I was expecting a place much like the cities I was used to, filled with shining lights and huge billboards. On the contrary, Guanghan was a sleepy little town that had only 3 main streets and an old, rustic hotel that had been there since my parents were little kids. It had only one middle/high school that all the kids attended. It was at my cousin’s school that I got a taste of what a life in China meant to most Chinese citizens.
The smell of old wood was prevalent as soon as I entered the classroom. The walls were colored a sickly yellow, with occasional holes were bugs had managed to burrow their way through it. Flimsy chairs were arranged around the room near creaky desks that looked like they might break down at any second, with some of the legs tilted at awkward angles to the ground. The blackboard was covered with dust, and even the lights seemed dim and sad. The only bright part of the room was the children. Their clothes and shoes were plain, but each radiated with a natural curiosity that I had never seen before. Fifty of them crowded around one desk, seemingly engaged in an extraordinarily interesting activity. I went over to take a look at what had caught all their attention. To my surprise, it was a simple math problem that one kid was demonstrating. My cousin, along with the other children, was clambering over one another to try to be the first one to solve the problem. When I asked one of them what the prize was for being the first to finish, they simply explained to me that there was no prize, just the “satisfaction of winning.”
Soon, the teacher of the class walked into the room, and the kids all hurriedly took their seats. Interestingly, no one seemed to want to interrupt the teacher as she took role, or whisper to other students about the day’s gossip. All of them were attentive and focused on the history lesson, a scene almost foreign to someone who grew up through the madness of the American classroom. They took notes on old pieces of newspaper or scraps, with only a few being able to afford the spiral notebooks that American kids took for granted. I felt almost out of place with my freshly washed clothes and ball-point pens. As the day progressed, the temperature got hotter and hotter until I began sweating while simply reclining in a chair. Gasping in the heat of mid-summer, I begged my cousin to tell me how they withstood the heat. All she told me was to “concentrate on your learning, and everything will go away.”
After school, I went with my cousin to her apartment, which was on the top floor. As there was no elevator in the building, we were forced to walk up the six flights of stairs to reach her home. Once in, a wave of heat slammed into me causing me to almost long for the 90 degree temperatures present in the school room. When I moved to adjust the air conditioning, she patiently explained that no one in this area of China had enough money to afford it. I was almost unable to process what she had just said, as I considered air conditioning a basic need for living. Her apartment only had 2 rooms. Her parent’s room doubled as a kitchen, and she slept in the living room. Her bed was just a mattress stuffed with straw. It was placed next to the only desk in the house, with a little lamp that she used to do homework by, her birthday present for the next 2 years. She was only permitted to use this light for 30 minutes a day, as the electrical bill would be too great otherwise. Overwhelmed by the level of poverty that my cousin lived in, I asked to use their bathroom to get a few moments alone. She graciously said that she would show me the way to it, and began to walk towards the door. Confused, I hurriedly followed her and asked why we were leaving. “Oh,” she said, “I thought your mom had told you that we don’t have our own bathroom. We share it with everybody else in the building.”
All of these memories ran through my head as I settled in for the long plane ride that would carry me back to my true homeland, the United States of America. But, I was now a changed person. No longer was I the naïve kid who thought that everything revolved around him. My perspective of the world had been widened, and I realized that there were others in the 21st century who were still living in immense poverty. Of course, I had heard stories of impoverished families in Somalia, and people who only lived to 30. Before, all this had seemed extremely distant. Witnessing such events so close to my immediate family has forced me to reconsider my own selfish and careless habits.
Though we both exist in the same world, my style of living is a world away from the type of environment my cousin resides in. While American kids are busy playing video games or watching the latest TV episodes, these Chinese children are hard at work earning a few extra pennies for a cheap dinner. While we take getting into college as a guaranteed stepping stone, the implications of this is a dream come true for many poor Chinese families. While American students do their homework just to get it over with, young Chinese scholars are trying to absorb as much information as they can, since they realize how important a good education is. And even while I sit here, leaning on my comfortable chair, sipping soda and writing this essay, I imagine my cousin is also at her desk, working harder on her own schoolwork than I could ever dream of. Since she herself could never begin to understand the luxurious lives we live here in United States, I feel duty-bound to share her story with the rest of the world, hoping that someday, she can also join me in America.

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