A long overdue post from November 2018, but better late than never. Last summer when I went back to California for a short visit, I was invited by my alma mater to write an article about my experiences while living abroad. It wasn’t difficult to choose a topic to write about, but it was a difficult task to write an article that would encapsulate one of the most profound experiences of my life, thus far – especially in a maximum of 800 words. After weeks of outlining and brainstorming before the final edits with my university editor, the amazing Kevin Matthews, I am happy to see the final published online on the CLU Magazine and in print. Also, a big shout out to Brian Stethem for the photoshoot! Below is a copy of my published article and photo: 

WangHsuehLi (CLU)
Photo by Brian Stethem ’84

SOME LEARN COMPASSION EARLY

Scars are life’s battle wounds that serve as a testament of our strength and endurance. Some wear them with pride while others conceal them. 

In 2012, I interviewed Rasha, an Egyptian street girl, as part of my master’s thesis research on street children and children’s rights. Rasha seemed no older than 11 or 12 and there was nothing particularly special about her appearance except for the seven or so linear scars that were carelessly etched across her face. 

When asked how she had acquired those, she spoke with a strength and command that still ripples through me: “I won! I defeated the bad man and saved my friend. These scars are proof that I, a girl, am stronger than any man!” 

On the day of this event, Rasha and her fellow girl comrades were roaming the streets of Cairo as usual, begging and exchanging tissues for spare cash or food. A man pulled up in a car and tried to kidnap one of the smaller girls. Through pure compassion for her comrade, Rasha immediately ran over, pulled on his hair, scratched at his eyes and hit him. Her comrade escaped and the man pushed and kicked her back into the street before driving away. When the other girls came to her, she realized she had been slashed multiple times across the face with an unknown object. 

To understand Rasha’s compassion and strength, one must first acknowledge that she was not born or abandoned in the streets; she chose to live there. Her journey started at home, where her father forbade her to wear jeans and finally forced her to marry an older man so that she became the target of sexual assault. As a result, she fled the seeming comfort of her home to live in the streets, where she dreams of one day building a home for her family — the street children. The street is her comfort, her safe haven, her freedom. 

Through Rasha, I see remnants of my childhood friends, of the students in my high school classroom, of the sea of faces of children who roam the streets, and of myself. I recognize the rebellion that festers within us. We vehemently try to escape, only to be squashed by the voices of surrounding adults. I feel the desperation of a child wanting to become herself, only to be stifled by social, cultural and familial assumptions and expectations. And I am left to wonder, what legacy are we, as humans, passing down? I also wonder, as a researcher and educator, what is my role? 

As my students look to me in the classroom, I look at the world around me and contemplate what I am to leave behind. The scars that I bear from my life, specifically from my childhood, also surface and I am reminded of the mistakes I have made because of them. I decided to drink and take various drugs as a means to escape emotional and psychological traumas. I chose to sneak out of the house against my mother’s orders, putting me at the wrong place at the wrong time and resulting in a sexual assault from which I have never truly, fully recovered. 

But I am also reminded of the decisions I’m proud of. I changed my career from engineering to social research and education. I left my family in Taiwan and California in order to learn from the street kids in Cairo and find myself. I decided to become a stranger in foreign lands in order to discover the layers of what it means to be human. 

My story is neither unique nor extraordinary; it is merely a thread in a tapestry of human beings, each of us with our individual stories, each of us bearing scars. What is important is not the quantity of scars but rather the dialogue that we have with them; how we go about understanding and making ourselves in a never-ending journey. More importantly, our turning our scars into actions and change, hopefully driven by compassion, is not only empowering but also contagious. 

As I reflect on my own scars, on Rasha and the other street children that I have the privilege of knowing, and on my more privileged students, I realize we are not all that different. We are all trying to survive, trying to find others to relate to, trying to find purpose. In whatever we choose to do or become, we can remember to add a little bit of compassion for one another. To listen with both ears and to see with our eyes and heart; This is what I hope to leave behind. 

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