I want to live a life that matters. I realize that's a sickeningly self-important, obnoxiously earnest thing to say, so if you're feeling queasy, or you want to sneer and make a snide comment, I understand. Hell, I'm tempted to make a snide comment myself. But for too long now — long before I began my six-country, do-gooder quest — I've felt that my life doesn't matter. That if I were to die today, if my heart were to implode in a life-ending instant, no one would ponder my time on Earth and say:
That man made me a better me.
Folks have said this about my father. I've said this about my father, though never, of course, to him. We're similar in temperament — both introverted, both reserved — yet different in experience. I've never raised a son or daughter. I didn't rise from poverty. My middle-class upbringing came from his lower-class trials. And so the challenge, I find, is simply trying to measure up: to be more than a poor imitation — the lite beer to his stout ale.
About twenty-five years ago, when Dad was fifty-two, he traveled through China on business: a road trip from Hong Kong to Guandong. Dad was a VP with the medical division of a Japanese electronics company. This was his only trip to China, and driving through the green countryside with his team, seeing China's poverty and immense potential, finding himself plucked from his comfort zone … it was the most memorable trip of his life.
Now I'm in China on a journey of my own. For two hectic weeks, I'm volunteering at La La Shou, a special needs school in the gritty, growing city of Xi'an. I have no teaching skills or relevant experience. I do whatever the teachers need. The classroom is on the seventh floor of an old tea distributor's building, and the dull walls boom with colliding sounds: the children's giggles, chirps and sobs; the teachers' instructions in indecipherable Chinese; the kiddie songs blaring on a tinny stereo.
On my first day, an eleven-year-old autistic boy, chubby but solid, already taller than one of the teachers, grabs a clump of my hair and screams ...
He yanks my hair with one hand, as though pulling stubborn weeds, pinching my arm with the other as he shrieks. Moments earlier he'd been silent, leaning in a tipped-back chair against the wall, his eyes hazy like the gray sky in the open window. Stitched on his long-sleeved shirt are grinning bears, each proclaiming in English: "I'm a happy bear!"
I grab his wrist. "It's okay," I tell him in a soothing soft-jazz DJ voice, hoping the tone will compensate for my lack of Chinese. "Relax — it's okay."
"Okay!" says a short-haired girl.
One of the class's three teachers rushes to us, barking at the boy in Chinese, prying his hand from my head. She calms him, returns him to his wood chair. He tips back against the wall again, crying. "He pinch," the teacher warns me with a smile.
A pincher. Yes. Good to know.
Later that afternoon, a university student asks me a question. She's volunteering at the school for the day, and like every college student I meet, she speaks good English, then quickly apologizes for not speaking good English.
"Why you do this?" she asks.
She looks more concerned than puzzled, wondering why I've flown sixteen hours to spend my free time on a "voluntourism" trip — a mini-Peace Corps-like program; most of them run a week to three months — toiling at a noisy special needs school where I don't speak the language, where children may yank my hair with Moe-from-the-Three-Stooges vigor, and where I'm not only working for free, I'm paying for the privilege.
I answer in the clear, me-Tarzan way I've taken to speaking: "Most Americans come to China, sit on tour buses. Only see other Americans. When I come to China, I meet you. I meet teachers. I meet children."
All of which is true without being the truth. I'm as evasive with this pleasant young student as I am with my wife, Julie, back home. I've known Julie since the sixth grade, though she's surely wondered lately how well she really knows me. First it was my solo trip to a volunteer rebuilding project in New Orleans, nine months after Hurricane Katrina. Three months later, I convinced her to spend our vacation time teaching English at a rural elementary school in Costa Rica. Soon I'll be working at a climate change project in the remote Andes Mountains of Ecuador, and I'll spend Christmas — Julie's birthday — without her, toiling for two weeks in a Palestinian refugee camp. After that, assuming she hasn't left me, Julie will join me at an orphanage in Kenya.
So I don't tell this student that I want to live a life that matters. I don't tell her I'm in China because my childless life lacks meaning, because I'm struggling to answer questions that have plagued me for nearly five years —
How can I live up to my father's life when I'll never be a father myself?
What am I supposed to be?