Zhao Pengyou - Making Friends

June 12, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Maya Alexandri for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Cai Qikun. Photo: Maya Alexandri for Mercy Corps

After a morning at the Xingfu Jiayuan displacement camp, I visited the Xiangfengqiao displacement camp in the afternoon. There the psychologists are doing double-duty, teaching general education classes to children because Xiangfengqiao camp lacks a school. After class let out, one of the students approached me.

"Can you tell me your phone number?" he asked. I gave him my business card. "I want to tell you my phone number," he said, and I wrote it down.

His name was Cai Qikun. The earthquake had left his house unsafe for occupation, and he and his parents are currently living in the camp.

He is a tall fifteen year-old, who'd previously had a tumor removed from his brain; a large scar circumnavigated his skull. Whether because of this operation, or because of other medical problems, his eyes don't focus properly, but he could see and read, and he spoke preternaturally good English for someone who'd never left Sichuan Province.

"I want to be the world's second Jay," he said, referring to Jay Chou, a Hong Kong pop star who's massively popular across Asia. Cai Qikun begged me to record him singing a song. I told him that I didn't have a recording device, but that he should just sing.

Without hesitation, he broke into song, and he glowed with happiness when I and the rest of the psychologists in the center applauded him at its end. "I want to be famous," he said. "You must remember me."

Later, when I was admiring the children's many drawings that hung on the wall, another boy struck up a conversation. Thinking he was ten or so, I was surprised to learn that he was fifteen. Vibrant and engaging, he gushed, "I have so few chances to speak to foreigners."

His name was Peng Jie. He was separated from his parents, staying at the camp with other relatives. Although he spoke some English, we spent more than an hour chatting in Chinese.

He was very curious about America. "Do you have robots there?" he asked. I told him that robots are often used in manufacturing.

"That's amazing! America is the most developed country!" Peng Jie exclaimed.

He told me that he could read English-language books, but that they weren't available where he lived. He had neither a cell phone nor access to the Internet. When I asked him if he wanted to visit America, he told me that it wasn't possible: he'd never have enough money. Nonetheless, he wanted to attend college, and he confided that his parents recognized that he was smart and should pursue an education.

He was very impressed that I'd moved to China by myself, without family. I replied that you had to be independent to move to a foreign country by yourself, but that it can be lonely.

"Loneliness is the worst," he commiserated. "My favorite thing is zhao pengyou — making friends," he said, emphasizing the last two words in English.

On the bus home, I considered that both Cai Qikun and Peng Jie were bursting with ambition and capability, intelligence and curiosity. I wondered what the future would hold for them and how the earthquake would change their lives.

I also remembered that, as we'd boarded the bus to leave, the camp's children had playfully blocked the door from closing and tried to pull one of the psychologists off the bus. I could relate. I felt the pull myself, to go back to the camp and do what I could to help.