Give Thanks and Be Present, A Guest Post on Thankfulness

This next guest post in our series also comes from one of my remarkable alumni students. Joanna Zhang is spending a gap year in Peru as part of Princeton's Bridge Year program.  Along the way she's been kind to update me on her many adventures. Below is Joanna's contribution to the thankfulness series, her story is told alongside some wonderful photos she's taken during her time in Peru.

On the night before I left the country I was born and raised in for a nine-month hiatus in Peru, I was tied to forty or so other people by a string then given a bead to make a simple bracelet with. Central to the heavily symbolic send-off of students and their directors getting ready to leave for five different countries was the assignment to come up with a mantra to be represented by the bead. As each of us picked up our bead from the center of the circle, we said our mantra aloud. Close to two and a half months later, that bracelet has not left my wrist. My mantra is, “Give, give thanks and be present”.

I am thankful for this gap year I have been blessed with and in turn, my experiences away from the life I’ve known have made me more acutely aware of how much I have to be thankful for.

Stable access to electricity and running water, constant connection to others at the touch of a button, control of room temperature and water temperature at the twist of a knob, and a sense of security in food and drinks have been “minor” givens of my entire life up until this point. They were such assumed assets that I paid little to no attention to their presence except when, perhaps, nothing short of a disaster cut off access. In this case, I probably could have been found to be in an entitled rage over the loss of one of these usually guaranteed amenities, cursing the internet provider or whatever municipality that had failed its responsibilities. Then I moved to Urubamba, Peru.

I remember the first time I stood at the sink slowly comprehending the fact that yes, I had just turned the knob, and yes, there was no water flowing from the faucet. It was early enough in the evening that my little host sisters still had yet to brush their teeth, so my host father brought us a pitcher of water to wash from. I was veritably perplexed. I also remember the first time, and the second, and the third, and so forth that I came home at night only to discover that the water had been shut off. Eventually I learned to be proactive and take care of bathroom rituals early or carry a water bottle in with me. Now, it’s perfectly normal for one of my fellow volunteers to call out, “The water’s off!” in which case, before leaving for the night, we all fill up our water bottles from the filters at the office to use when we get home.

I remember the first time our group went out to dinner and the light sputtered out and died above us. The waitress brought out several candles and the rest of the meal was lent a romantic atmosphere by the ambient lighting. Then there was that time the lights went out in Spanish class and without skipping a beat, our teacher brought out a candle. And that time I was video chatting with one of my best friends back home and the room went dark and before I processed what was happening, our conversation ended abruptly. I pulled out a good old paperback book and set to reading while waiting for the return of electricity.

I remember my first nights in Urubamba, before I got a Peruvian cell phone and my smart phone was nothing more than a glorified clock. It was a strangely disconnected sensation and I felt a deep loneliness that only someone of the generation of social media can fully understand.

I remember marveling over how much my sheets, fleece throw, two alpaca wool blankets and comforter weighed – all necessary to combat the mountainous nightly chill. And I remember when the realization first dawned on me that I had yet to encounter a building in Peru that had air conditioning or heating, it was simply a question of more or less sweaters.

I am thankful that I had the opportunity to grow up never wanting for what really is an absurdly high standard for “basic amenities”. That I could flip on the light switch, turn the thermostat or take a hot shower at my leisure. Yet I am also thankful that I’ve learned that losing electricity for an evening or not having running water at night isn’t even close to the disaster I once thought it was. I am thankful to have gained a new perspective on the capricious nature of life and an acceptance of the need for flexibility. But even more so, I am thankful that I have come to see what a luxurious life I’ve lived. That is said with an acknowledgement of the relativity of the term “luxurious”. A year ago, I might have defined a “luxurious” life as the high life of a celebrity or a business giant with private jets and multiple mansions. Now, I’m beginning to recognize that the term “luxurious” can also be applied to simple access to running water, sturdy walls and a solid roof not made from corrugated aluminum, electricity and other creature comforts. This realization has inspired me all the more to engage in service work in order to bring up the quality of life in other parts of the world. It has made me all the more thankful that I have the opportunity to work on a project for water filters alongside one for cleaner burning stoves; the former clears out all kinds of parasites, bacteria and sediments to make potable water while the latter ensures that women don’t spend half their day stooped over stoves as smoke blows in their faces and fills the room. I did nothing to deserve being born into the safe and opportunity-laden situation I was and a part of me rebels at the injustice of others’ lives in comparison. But what would be even more unjust would be to ignore this disparity instead of acting to lessen it.
My time in Peru has also helped me gain a better understanding of my parents – both of their childhood experiences in a developing country and what it’s like to live in a foreign country. For this, I am grateful as well. My comfortable life in the States is only possible because of the hard work of my parents; the realization of how many luxuries make up daily life there has brought me to a deeper appreciation of what they have done for me. Not only am I thankful for what they have done but what they continue to do. My parents continue to be there for me even as we are separated by some 3,842 miles (as the crow flies). And my older sister, Angela, is not to be forgotten. I bawled to her without abandon over the phone on the first night of orientation, voicing all of my absurd concerns and receiving words of comfort in return. She was a huge supporter of my decision to apply to this gap year program and I am eternally grateful for her being the exemplary pioneer second-generation immigrant child, an extraordinary role model and incredible big sister in general.

This will be my first Thanksgiving away from home and it just might be the Thanksgiving during which I am most thankful for what I grew up with.

This will be my first Thanksgiving apart from my family and it just might be the Thanksgiving during which I am most thankful for them.

This will be the Thanksgiving during which I will have been the most aware of where I am and who I am surrounded by and everything that that means and have an overwhelming sense of gratitude for it all.

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This post is part of our 2013 Thankfulness Series. If you are interested in contributing,  please email me at kathrynfweaver@gmail.com.

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