Recently, the term “Shunyi Mama” has been hitting the headlines of Chinese social media. Shunyi Mama, the Beijing version of a Tiger Mom, gets her title from the Shunyi district, a cluster of top private international schools where almost all students are geared for top global universities including the Ivy League.
One of Habitat for Humanity’s Campus Chapters –the International School of Beijing (ISB) – is one such private school located in Shunyi. It is the first and probably one of the most desired international schools in China’s capital, given it is constantly ranked in the top three international schools in Beijing.
Ever since 2014, students from ISB has been involved with HFH. They have organized various fundraising events to raise funds for Habitat’s local projects and have run educational events to increase the international community’s awareness of poverty housing in China. Many students have also been a part of Habitat’s local building trips and have traveled to rural areas of southwest China to build houses and facilities like wells with their own hands.
It was on a trip in 2015 where we met Sean Wang, then a Grade 9 student at ISB. His story in the following years has continued to amaze and inspire us. It is a story about growth and change. A story of how his involvement in poverty housing planted a seed of purpose in his life. And how the fruit of the seed may add a bit of sweet to the whole world.
The First Build
When he joined ISB’s Habitat for Humanity (HFH) service group, Sean did not think much of it. He had just become a high schooler and had decided to join the club because some of his friends had. The HFH service group was then and continues to be today, one of the most popular clubs at ISB with a size of around 100 students. Sean joined the fundraising committee and surprisingly found himself a good fundraiser. Through selling raffle tickets and candies, he raised around 2,000RMB with his friends in five days. His performance allowed him to be selected to participate in a build trip in Sichuan.
The trip was memorable. For three days, Sean and his fellow students moved mountains of bricks, mixed cement, and built the walls of what would soon be a family’s new home.
“The house was for a father and his daughter. We had heard that the mother was mentally ill and had unfortunately committed suicide. I expected to see a man in sorrow, but instead, I saw a man full of hope and determination. Seeing the father work nonstop along with us for the whole time was extremely touching, and I think we all felt his happiness and hope as the walls of the house slowly got higher. I think everyone at the site got to share this emotional energy. It connected us all and inspired us to come together as a team to make an impact on someone’s life”.
“The experience was eye-opening. As young 15-year-old kids from affluent families, although we knew that we were privileged, I think this experience made us for the first time in our lives really understand how privileged we are and become aware of the extent of the disparities that exist in this world”.
Step outside the bubble
“After I came back from that build trip, I knew I wanted to do more,” Sean told us.
He became the fundraising leader for the HFH service group in Grade 10 and organized Showtime, the biggest annual fundraising event at ISB. After months of planning, reaching out to corporates for raffle prize donations, and collaborating with ISB’s music groups such as the jazz band, they were able to host a gala with over 200 guests attending. More than 40,000 RMB was raised that night, a record high then in the history of Showtime.
Sean also continued to participate in build trips whenever he had the chance to. Although build trips are similar in most senses in that the volunteers often repeat the same tasks, for Sean, every trip seemed to add to the seed planted inside of him since his first build.
“In grade 10, we went to help build water storage tank and dig the channels for new pipelines. It was a great experience because I learned that besides houses, Habitat also had projects such as building drinking water facilities which benefitted people in larger scales.”
“After coming back from my second build trip however, I felt that the impact we had on these trips were only temporary. I began to have this unpleasant realization that these trips in a way were simply ways for us students to get some experience and even a way to enrich our resumes. In some ways, we were just a bunch of volunteers helping out for three days and was no longer a part of it afterward. I thought we could get more out of these experiences and find a way to create a bigger impact by sharing what we learned to our community”.
When preparing for his third build trip, Sean asked Scotty Li, Habitat’s Volunteer Coordinator who was facilitating the build, whether the student volunteers could organize an interview session to know more about the life of the people they will help and to understand the impact the work they do will make. He also asked Scotty to provide information about the families and village they would be helping so that the students could prepare for the interview beforehand.
On the first day of the building tip, an interview session was held during lunchtime. The students and villagers sat in a circle, and the conversation lasted for over an hour. Villagers explained to students their daily life and the head of the village outlined the process of how they met Habitat, and how many families will benefit from the new drinking water facilities they were helping to build. Students shared with the villagers their interests and their favorite subjects. At the end of the interview, one of the families showed the students the 10-minute trek they had to make to fetch water.
“While it was great for us to learn much more about the village and the impact the project will have, I was extremely happy by how we eventually all ended up just chatting and getting to know each other. I think we were able to create a real connection to the people we were helping and that made a big difference”.
Helping on translation was Scotty Li, who works with hundreds of student volunteers each year. For him, Sean is quite different from most of the young volunteers similar to his age.
“He was not satisfied with doing what was arranged. He tended to think and wanted to know more about the behind the scenes work that we were putting in. This is what we at Habitat would love to see. The deeper our young volunteers dig into the issue of poverty housing, the bigger the impact they may make in the future”.
Future of the Shunyi boy
Sean is now a second-year student at Princeton, a definite success in the eyes of any Shunyi Mama.
When asked about his plans for the future, he said he had always planned to major in Economics, especially after reading a book named Banker to the Poor, a memoir of 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus. Lately, however, he has begun to consider the option of going into medicine.
“I am becoming more and more interested in the idea of being a doctor. My experience in Habitat has definitely contributed to this career interest; I discovered that I enjoy working with others to make positive changes in people’s lives. I still don’t know what exactly I want to do, but I feel a social responsibility”.
Sean is now a member of a non-profit consulting group in Princeton. He told us he was recently in touch with a local Habitat affiliate and may help establish a business model for a new program for the organization.
“That’s very sweet Sean. You offered your talents on selling candies and fundraising when you were younger. Now you’ve grown up and what you are offering is matching your ability which also have grown.” Said Habitat’s interviewer on the phone interview.
“Ah yes, I’ve never thought in that way!”
Click to watch Sean and his fellow students sharing their experience on participating Habitat’s build trips.
Thanks Sean Wang for being our volunteer AGAIN to proofread this story!