Autumn in Guangzhou
The six weeks my 128 Xavier School Grade 7 classmates, 12 teachers, and I spent in Guangzhou, China, last year were the most challenging for me.
During our stay from late October to early December, we were up by 6 a.m., prayed, ate breakfast and marched from our dormitory to the classroom where we were taught Mandarin for three straight hours.
Teachers of South China Normal University corrected our diction and expanded our vocabulary.
Time management was essential. Noon break was not just for lunch, but also for soccer and basketball. In my case, also a nap.
Then it was back to the classroom for three hours of kung fu, Chinese crafts and all our other subjects, since our grades for the third quarter of the school year would be based on these.
After classes, we bought groceries, did laundry and cleaned bathrooms, before tackling the assignments: religious reflections and videos in Filipino, science experiments, English papers, social studies surveys of the customs and beliefs of university residents, complete with statistics.
We were supposed to be in bed by 10 p.m., but some of us literally burned the midnight oil.
No man is an island
In 2004, Xavier School director Fr. Johnny Go, S.J., started the Xavier China Experience (XCE) to immerse students in Chinese language and culture to make them more attuned to other peoples, particularly since most of us had Chinese ancestry.
Conducted by the Office of International Programs, headed by Brian Maraña and Jennifer Say, XCE helped us grow. For more than a month without parents or tutors, we dealt with our own problems about academics, injuries and homesickness.
We worked and played, ate and exercised, laughed and commiserated with friends. When we were in a tight spot, a friend bailed us out. And when someone had a crisis, we kept him company.
By leaning on each other, we all stood tall. XCE encouraged us to be independent, although I don’t believe in independence alone; I believe in independent souls building a community together.
Follow the saint
On weekends, we took breaks. We visited the Science Center, the Chimelong Safari, the Tee Mall. My favorite was Shangchuan Island where our school patron saint, the Spanish Jesuit St. Francis Xavier, died in 1552.
After swimming and riding buggies on sand, we went into high holy gear as we climbed winding mountain roads to our saint’s tomb. Cultures mingled as we prayed (Catholic service) and lighted incense (Chinese ancestor respect).
We retraced saintly steps as we went up yet another slope. Missionary work, it seemed, involved exercise as well. We could not see the top from the bottom, but we knew it was there.
I imagined ol’ Xavier climbing the mountain, symbolic of his very mission, unable to see the end but believing in every step, as he walked for God.
The top was beautiful: clear water, pristine sands, lush forests, cirrus clouds like icing in the sky. Even the armies of red ants could not mar the wondrous sight. OMG—in all senses.
God is in small things
But however grand these moments were, my fondest memories were of the little things and the lessons we learned.
Aerobics through climbing up and down five flights of stairs in the dorm plus six flights in the school at least three times a day. Muscular endurance through squatting in the toilets, plus squatting in kung fu to the master’s cries of “Mabu!” (horse stance). Weight lifting through the changing of the heavy water dispenser tanks.
Bargaining in the markets and games of pusoy dos (a card game). Meals of instant noodles and nai cha (Guangzhou milk tea started the trend). Fixing the busted water pipe in our room. Putting on several layers of clothing on chilly mornings. Navigating the crazy subways.
These are what I will remember decades from now.
God hides in little things, seemingly ordinary yet extraordinary day-to-day happenings. On rainy days, the few classmates with umbrellas formed a line, shoulder to shoulder, so everybody could get to the canteen safe and dry. That was God working through us.
When the requirements seemed never-ending, I remembered what my grandfather (God speaking through him) said: “Life won’t stop throwing problems at you; you just have to keep going past them until you reach your goal.” It eased the pressure.
Suddenly, I had more time to play basketball, watch movies and take naps. I learned to relax to let the body regenerate. Work hard, party harder. God would agree.
A dozen Xavier teachers took care of us and shared this experience of a lifetime. They were not only excellent mentors, but also exceptional football, basketball and Frisbee players.
Our families lived XCE with us from afar, linked by twice-weekly phone calls and the Web.
XCE was the hardest experience of my life. But it was also one of the best. We left as boys, we returned as men.
Visit our trip’s website at xceguangzhou1112.shutterfly.com.
(Editor’s Note: Scott Lee Chua, a seventh grader at Xavier School, now considers Guangzhou his second home. The XCE is a comprehensive study tour, requiring participants to learn Chinese language and culture while completing academic requirements.)