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Going into the ACE program, we received thorough training and countless pieces of advice, both applying to the general ACE experience as well as more specifically tailored to our time in Shangri-La. Yet despite such preparation, I boarded my plane to China, not entirely knowing what to expect. I knew what our scheduled itinerary looked like, that we would teach camp in the mornings, eat lunch, and explore the local community in the afternoons. I knew that we would visit Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and work on a personal research project.

“Time and time again, I remember ACE Alumni telling me to keep an open mind to whatever may come my way, to be flexible and adaptable. For me personally, no other piece of advice could have been more relevant.”

I had no idea how hospitable and welcoming the staff at the CERS Center would be, how quickly my nine fellow ACE teammates would become like family, how communication through the language barrier would challenge me, and how truly rewarding connecting with the kids would be. Time and time again, I remember ACE Alumni telling me to keep an open mind to whatever may come my way, to be flexible and adaptable. For me personally, no other piece of advice could have been more relevant.

‘You won’t be here forever,’ I kept finding myself writing in my journal day after day, ‘Keep an open mind. Embrace every single moment. Appreciate the little things. Find joy in the challenge.’ Some of the most meaningful moments from my experience in China were those that I never would have anticipated, nor could have even predicted happening. When driving home from a nunnery several hours away from CERS, we encountered a fairly large rockslide blocking the entire road. With one single bulldozer working at clearing a path and anticipating a several hour delay, we wandered down the bank of the Yangtze River and began skipping rocks. A situation that would typically have brought me tremendous stress – how would we navigate such a delay, and what if we did not make it home on time? – morphed into a carefree, lighthearted environment of joy playing childhood games. It was the simplest of situations, there was no choice but to wait for the road to clear. But that experience helped me to understand the importance of being flexible, being open to unexpected fun.

people in the distance skipping rocks along a river
Spontaneously skipping rocks on the Yangtze River due to an unexpected rockslide delay on the highway.

Likewise, one of the kids’ favorite camp games, besides duck-duck-goose, was musical chairs. We were not even planning to play musical chairs until a rain storm blew in one morning, throwing a slight wrench in our original lesson plan filled with outdoor games. A sense of joy filled the room as the kids danced around the circle, laughing as they battled for a seat when the music stopped, cheering on their friends once they were no longer a part of the game, and embracing the spontaneity of a new game. Sure, the kids had no idea that we hadn’t planned that game all along, but to think that had it not started raining and we stuck to the original plan, we would have missed out on such a fun game of musical chairs is yet another instance that taught me the importance of being flexible. The change in plans was most certainly for the better.

The examples of meaningful moments that I never expected are endless. The words that the middle school girls asked me to translate into English for their notebooks: peacock, matsutake mushroom, Sagittarius. The boys who loved playing ‘stick ball’ (lacrosse) so much that they fought over our only two sticks. The full hour we would spend sitting and chatting after lunch on a daily basis. The traditional Tibetan circle dance that we joined after dinner in town one evening. My ACE experience will forever be highlighted by these small gems, such moments I never saw coming.

children playing with lacrosse sticks outside
Some of our most enthusiastic lacrosse stars picking up sticks for their very first time.

Perhaps the most humbling experience during my time in China, was the afternoon that we picked up trash around CERS with our campers. Now this activity was indeed planned. I could have seen it listed on our itinerary before I took off for China in the first place. But it was a quaint little activity, one that was almost an afterthought. After finishing an exhausting morning of camp, quite honestly, I wasn’t even sure if I was mentally prepared to entertain and work with the kids for a few more hours. However, once Team Monkey (the name of our group of campers) was assembled, and we gathered our trash bags and turned the corner from the gate to CERS, it quickly became clear that this had potential to be a special afternoon. I turned my back for one second and realized that I had already lost all three of my Team Monkey children. After a brief moment of concern and shouting their names several times, they each came scrambling out of the woods along the road carrying armfuls of garbage.

“I was inspired by their energy and drive to make their community and natural environment a cleaner place.”

Time and time again, they loaded our trash bag with garbage until we had so much that the bag actually began to rip. “Come over here! There’s so much more trash!” they kept shouting to me in Chinese, as I tried to explain that we had to wait a bit longer in the same place until we could acquire another trash bag. I was inspired by their energy and drive to make their community and natural environment a cleaner place. Despite the large amount of garbage in the village, the children’s passion for cleaning it up shined hope on the situation. They channeled every last ounce of their attention into cleanup that afternoon, a focus I hadn’t seen in them throughout our time in camp.

piles of trash outside
The final product of our very successful garbage collection outing.

This experience picking up trash will forever stick with me. Garbage, particularly in such beautiful natural environments, is not just a problem in this small village outside of Shangri-La, but in Durham and all over the United States as well. I never expected that learning to appreciate the waste I personally create, the bulk of garbage on our planet, and the effect of several children coming together to pick up such trash, would stand out as one of the most meaningful lessons I learned on this incredible three-week adventure. But perhaps I should have known that with an open mind and a willingness to appreciate and embrace these little moments, I was sure to find meaning in something unexpected. So, to all who advised me to keep an open mind throughout my adventure, I am eternally grateful. For all future ACE Athletes, I reiterate this very same, simple advice.

One response to “The Best Advice

  • Griffith Mark says:

    Great article, Madison, and great advice. It is a good lesson for all of us. Thank you for writing this article and for making the present richer. .

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