Updated 2 years 10 months ago

Ernest Hemingway once said: "The life of a man, told truly, is a novel".

In that case, we hope Mr. Ma's life can be considered a literary masterpiece. Mr. Ma was our final Service Learning partner. He is currently 73 years old. He is native to XiZhou; having lived here all his life, he has witnessed XiZhou's growth over time. With three sons who return to visit him every once in a while, Mr. Ma lives with his wife in House 152, just a few minutes away from the Mosque. 

Throughout our many interactions, our entire Service Learning group has come to know Mr. Ma and Mrs. Ma as a faithful, welcoming couple. Mr. Ma is a devout Muslim. He attends Salat, a required religious practice, up to five times a day. Mr. Ma says that his religion has taught him to be resilient and tolerant towards the challenges he has had to overcome. He has faced many hardships throughout his life, including having to deal with his poor family background during the Great Leap Forward/Cultural Revolution. Because his family was extremely affluent and educated at the time, they were considered a target of the Party. Mr. Ma reports his family struggled to eat and satisfy basic needs during the time. He continued practicing his religion in secret, performing Salat in his own room. Mr. Ma offered us a glimpse into his beliefs by allowing us to watch the evening prayer at the Mosque and even taping his cleanings ('ablution') before each Salat. Mr. Ma is a greatly faithful man, both to his family and to his religion. 

Mr. Ma and his wife have been friends since childhood. They grew up together in the same community, as the same minority; Mr. Ma still remembers the exact number of their old houses. He always greets her warmly before entering the house, and the two seem to have developed a companionship that is made only through years of cooperation and interaction. We also had a chance to witness an interaction between Mr. Ma and his son; playful banter flows easily between the two, speaking of days when Mr. Ma was the most feared figure in the household. Mr. Ma and his family have developed such a close bond; he and his wife always have their doors open for whichever family member decides to stop by out of the blue. Mr. Ma has ten siblings, five of which are still present today, and they always find time to bring by treats and stories whenever they can. 

Mr. Ma also shared with us many observations from the past. Mr. Ma used to live in one of the oldest houses of XiZhou; it has been located in XiZhou from the start of the Qing Dynasty. According to Mr. Ma, many of the old houses had many decorations on the doors and windows. However, there were many policies at the time (mainly, the Four Olds) that outlawed the existence of such decorations. The Red Guards destroyed many of the furniture and artwork in his house. His father was also labeled a counterrevolutionary for speaking up against the government. Mr. Ma tells us of the time sadly. However, he also tells us that XiZhou has grown greatly in improving the life of its residents. He now enjoys a simple, pleasant life with his wife. 

Mr. Ma tells us that he feels great disappointment that children our age do not focus much on past history. He says: "In order to succeed in life, one must have dreams, ambitions, and knowledge." Mr. Ma says society has evolved to become "all fancy", and everyone seems to be repeating stupid actions because no one is bothering to look back to the past. He has many insights into modern society; coming from a unique background, he is a strong believer in the fact that hardships shape the person.

Showing Mr. Ma our final video made everything -- all the stress, revisions, and time we put into the video -- worth it. It was weird to feel a sense of pride in my team, my teachers, and this entire journey as I listened to our video play. Throughout the entire video, I kept glancing at Mr. Ma; he seemed to be laughing/chuckling the entire time, even during the more despondent information on the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward. His hands clasped in front of him, he glanced at us from time to time as well, and -- perhaps I imagined it -- but his eyes shone with happiness. Mr. Huang, the iman of the Mosque, who helped us tremendously throughout this entire project, burst out laughing at the end (when Mr. Ma described his 'childhood sweethearts' relationship with his wife). I was so glad to see Mr. Ma enjoy the video, enjoy the process that took so long to complete. At the end of the video, Mr. Ma stood up and clapped. Stood up and clapped for us! I was overjoyed to see that he approved, and I'm really glad we had him there in the end. Walking Mr. Ma out, our entire group felt a growing sadness. We gave the CD we burned to him, and waved an awkward goodbye to Mr. Ma, Mr. Huang, and Mrs. Huang. Sadly, Mrs. Ma was not there, as she was experiencing some physical discomfort; Mrs. Ma has been a grandma to all of us (awkward hugs, lots of waving, shoving candy...) and we really, really wished she could be there. After Mr. Ma, Mr. Huang, and Mrs. Huang left, we walked back through the long corridor to YangZhuoRan. After five steps, Mallory said: "I miss Mr. Ma. I want him back", and we all agreed with her. It was the effort and care we put into the video that made it so much harder to leave and so much more worth it when he was there. 

As for advice for future Microcampus students, I would say build on your connections. You can use many of the resources you contacted in your Inquiry Project as a Service Learning partner; in fact, that ensures that they are much more comfortable with you from the very beginning. In addition, get footage of them from the very first day. Don't wait until much later to start recording; get footage of them going about their normal lives, instead of an interview-like conversation. Last but not least, don't be afraid to just stop someone by the side of a road and strike up a conversation. I found that many of the most interesting conversations I've had in XiZhou was because of that. The Service Learning project was one of my favorite things here at XiZhou; the purpose of your Service Learning project is to make connections with a local, but that shouldn't be your mindset when you go out. When you head out with your Service Learning group, the goal of your trip is simply to simply give thanks to this community. They've done so much for you, and this is your chance to show gratitude. 


About This Learner

Hey! My name is Claire. I was born in Singapore but raised in China under an international system. During my free time, I like to dance, read, write, and play volleyball with my friends. My 28 days at XiZhou has been the most challenging and rewarding month of my entire life. I've learned many things about myself, forged strong bonds with many locals in the community, and -- all in all -- hoped to have left a positive impact. I truly believe this experience has been life changing, and I hope I have the chance to return to this wonderful place. Cheesiness aside, Microcampus has been an exhilarating journey of discovery and change. I couldn't have asked for a better experience.