I have been through a few “phases” in life, where I was obsessed with, say, a band, or a sport, or the idea of something. I trust that everyone has been through those phases in life. To me, that’s where past-times stem from. You don’t actively try to pursue a habit until you start needing it, looking forward to it as part of your day, and going to sleep thinking about it.
My involvement with these rather transitory subjects renders me a bit unreliable when defining life’s passion. That, plus I am only 16. But the reason why I took up human rights was different from all of these past obsessions; it was part of my family’s history, and future.
Human rights are generally no more than the 30 articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted by former First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt and signed into effect by the United Nations in 1948. However, even before I read that little-known document, and prior to obtaining a clear conception of “universal truths” as they pertain to humanity, I heard stories. Stories, first, of the teary past of my grandparents. Stories of starvation, arbitrary torture, and deprivation of education. Then there were stories on the internet of so many lawyers, journalists, doctors - people of all professions and gender and ages, being silenced and killed for exposing something called “human rights abuses”. Moving to the United States and feeling the shackles of intense propaganda through education of my home country slowly fade away, watching activists with their hands up in the streets - that was what human rights was, at first, to me.
Quarantine was a turning point. Not only had I gotten involved with programs such as TWE and mock trial, but I had also developed a much fuller understanding of human dignity. Staying at home gave me the opportunity to research, attend online webinars hosted by prestigious professors, watch discussions, and spend time with my grandparents. Through all of these sources, I learned more every day. I realized that the starvation of 500 million for over 20 years was never compensated. I understood that individuals around the world were speaking out for the masses, and being silenced by authorities. So, I became an activist for Amnesty International. This is a human rights program that began in 1961 for activists of all ages, covering many human rights issues in all countries on Earth. I joined their “Write for Rights” campaign and wrote letters to authorities to release individuals at risk. I attended meetings, including their annual “Activism Alliance Conference”, to learn more. I looked forward to starting a student group at my own school, and bringing human rights activism home so I could uphold it more easily.
Yet the forces of reaction are forever on the move. Last fall, I was warned by my mother that we had relatives in China still, and that posting inflammatory messages on social media, such as news and truths about the pandemic as reported by now dead journalists, could involve all of them and make life very difficult for our loved ones. She also stopped all letters going out to the embassies because she feared that such appeals would attract attention to our household and invite uncalled-for troubles. I shared her fear. I lamented over my naiveness and the mistakes that I made by not being careful enough. Further, I noticed the way my grandparents adjusted their volume when they are talking about certain things, as if the walls had ears and the trees could speak - for, in the past, they did. And so I stopped.
Had I been less stubborn, that would’ve been the end of the story. I was offered research positions at a nearby cancer research hospital, and preparing and attending to that would’ve been a great opportunity for me in 2021. But the more time I spent with my family and cherished their company, the more I feel it terrible that children like me should be deprived of such joy and that my grandparents, hardworking and benevolent, should be reduced to mere ants in front of authoritarian governments. The more I looked into various issues, the more I heard and saw, and the less I could contain the fury within myself about the lack of action and awareness regarding injustices in this world. Around the same time, I joined the Human Rights Watch Student Task Force, which is a branch of Human Rights Watch based in California, United States, and became very intrigued by their new campaign of “Human Rights and the Climate Crisis”. I had felt the burning of my lungs when I stepped off the plane to Beijing, and I had watched how my beautiful hometown, Qingdao, was turned into a putrid, smoggy mess by the power plants an hour’s drive from my home. Thus, I was drawn back into human rights activism.
Just last week, the Human Rights Club I started at my school had our first meeting. Despite all that I’ve done, I have only taken my first steps to human rights activism. I am ready to do much, much more. If anyone is interested in standing up against injustice, here are some advice that I have you might find helpful:
To me, my grandma is gold. She likes to dress in plain clothes and laugh about her own white hair, but no other color depicts her better than gold. Warm, loving, and shining persistently, even in the dark.
When I was born, my mom had shifts almost every night at the hospital and my dad’s business was just starting up. The burden of caring for me, then, fell on my grandparents. My grandpa has always loved me very much, but in his traditionally masculine opinion, the tedious work of child-rearing belonged to the women of a house. So my grandma cooked, cleaned and did laundry for an entire family (as she had done for the past 55 years). Aside from that, for 10 years, she bathed me, played with me, tucked me in, and taught me just about everything I knew before school. She supports me fully in whatever I wish to pursue to this day. I remember begging her to stay in bed a little longer and not go do chores so we could snuggle a little more. I remember her reminding me to blow on the dumplings before digging into it, so as to not burn my lips. I remember her rescuing me from my terror of going to the bathroom alone at night. Above all, I remember always being in a golden glow of love and safety around her.
My grandma has been through a lot. She was extremely malnourished until her 20s due to the Chinese Great Famine, and was forced to quit school after elementary because of the Cultural Revolution, despite her persistent desire to learn (I am teaching her English and sharing books with her right now, which she quite enjoys). The One Child Policy was implemented when she married, meaning she could not have had the number of children she would’ve liked, despite her love of them. Then, when she retired, pension reforms were made due to the outrageous proportion of the working class to retired (1:6) and her hard work for 50 years was undermined pitifully. Yet her golden positivity persisted, and she would wave away my frustration at her suffering every time I fume about these things.
Despite all the hardship she endured in her early life, she is still able to act as a role model to me, every day, by being positive and thankful. She was also able to radiate such unconditional love and support for me, that I became the healthy teen that I am, on my way to a life I desire for myself. She is, indeed, the gold shining brightly in my life every day that helps me keep my faith in this world.
Body image is something everyone has struggled with, more or less, in their lives. Considering the number of mirrors there are in the world, it’s hard to imagine someone looking at themselves four or five times a day without noticing some blemishes on themselves. While I do applaud the Western popular media’s altered approach of promoting acceptance and self-care as the key to stay happy in life, I believe that health is important and, as long as living factors such as finances, time, and body conditions require, we should strive for the healthiest versions of ourselves.
There are many ways to stay fit. From the personalized diets and training plans that professionals have, to just staying off sodas on regular days. I am, perchance, nothing more than a relatively busy high school student. So if your needs are anywhere else, please take my words with a grain of salt. Also remember that the same words are a combination of self-conducted research and experience, mainly aimed at suggesting and informing you just a little about what you can do.
My “fitness journey”, as people nowadays seem to call it, started around four years ago. When I was 12, my life was, for the lack of better adjectives, very, very easy. I could spend six hours a day on my phone with no consequences. This, naturally, led to my exploration with self-betterment, namely getting fit. I had a lucky advantage, in that my grandmother cooked every day for the family and that she was very healthy and proportional in her meal choices. There would always be at least three types of veggies and two types of protein at each meal (yes, she does really enjoy feeding us). So for me, eating healthy was not a problem. I had always been at an average weight, too. At 5’11” I was 150 pounds. A little chubbier than my ideal standards, but still, healthy. So my area of improvement lay in increasing muscles and getting lean.
I started following workout routines for fun. At first, I downloaded workout apps. But as it turned out, most workout apps were not sufficient for a good workout. Just like those language learning apps, most are placebos that don’t make you sweat or foster results - although, if you are a beginner, I don’t see the harms of starting there. In that case, I recommend Keep, FitOn, and Adidas. They offer free workout plans and a nice array of sessions. However, as a regular golf player and someone with a mile time of 7 minutes, it was not until I was introduced to YouTube workout videos that I began truly challenging myself.
My friend, Sufei, stunned me that summer by losing 20 pounds. She had always been chubby, so seeing her again with such a big change was nothing short of shocking. I remember her coming over to my house and doing a Chloe Ting 10 minutes ab workout with me.
The experience made me realize how pathetic my previous workout attempts were; so, I started exploring immediately. After going around every fitness YouTuber, I came back to Chloe. There are a few reasons for choosing her: 1) Her workouts are just the right level for me. 2) She has a diverse selection of videos for every need and length. 3) She offers free workout plans online that are very easy to follow. 4) Her workouts get straight to the point, with good combinations and no extra words. This girl has been my virtual exercising coach for more than two years now. I currently do her videos more than I probably should, but her workouts help me maintain the positive equilibrium that I believe I currently have. If you’re looking for an alternative, however, Sydney Cummings posts great workouts every day that are pre-planned so you don’t have to go through her videos yourself.
Exercising not only changes your physique, it also makes you happier. In Addition to the extra endorphins produced by appropriate exercise, you will feel such a satisfying sense of accomplishment by just pushing yourself through a difficult routine. I believe that challenging yourself, in every aspect of life, is quite necessary to your journey - and working out provides a platform for that type of self-strengthening. If you haven’t yet, I urge you to try it. You invest nothing but hard work, sweat, and time - and you obtain so much more. Self-confidence, happiness, sense of accomplishment, health, immune system boost, stress relief - these are all great things to have!
In sum, body positivity, to me, is not only coming to terms with what you already have, but also improving what you can to make yourself feel even better. I would say that I reached my fitness goal of becoming leaner, but it’s more than that. Working out has taught me things such as moderation, self-control, and discipline, and for that I am grateful. So give it a try yourself! Nowadays, it is more often than not that we can find some opportunities to exercise. At the same time, more and more of us are, in fact, facing more need to exercise. Online classes can really take a toll on your posture and physique, as can jobs that involve a lot of sitting around. Right now, I use working out to take a break from staring at the computer - and it “works out” great!
“Deliver it,” the old man said to me.
“Alright,” I replied, and departed.
The corridor is longer than usual. I stare down the wall on the other end, a mere glowing dot from the moonlight pouring through the window with an undrawn curtain at the end of the corridor, and move my feet. The darkness is frightening, but not so much so that I am paralyzed.
One, two, three. My footsteps are soft and muffled on the lustrous carpet. I trudge through the soft mesh of synthetic materials, refusing to let them stop my feet. In all reality, I could lie down - lie down, and just fall asleep right there. It is dark, anyhow. Walking is insensible business.
I hear the shrill laughter of a woman, and the clinking of bottles. Then, unsettling silence. I stiffen my resolve to knock on the gold-embroidered door.
I am familiar with the door. Not this one in particular, but many doors like this. Its inhabitants are often both extremely ill-tempered or jolly, depending on what your message is. But they can be quite mellow and sad too, such as this one. I suppress the urge to take a step back at the fat woman’s sharply drawn eyebrows, arching impossibly downard to make her powdered face egregiously sorrowful.
“Good evening, ma’am.”
She nods her head in acknowledgement. I know I am but a haze in her eyes, nothing exciting or stimulating in the least.
“I have a message for you.”
“The old man. You may have heard of him - your neighbor, just over there.” I point to the door behind me. Have I only walked three steps? It does not seem like it.
“I know no such old man. Would you like to come in? I have freshly baked cookies and some lovely earl grey tea.” She asks, her sad eyebrows inching up and down a bit like depressed, starved worms. I refuse politely, and move on. She has likely never met a child in her life. I have only glimpsed the little dolls with glasses that flash by the windows once in a while. They are always so perfectly still, she’s probably never had to talk to them.
The next door I knock on is a dark blue one. A beautiful woman emerges, with birds in her flowing hair.
“Hello,” she greets me, and extends a hand for me to kiss. I want to refuse it, but something makes me bend down and touch my lips to her ivory skin.
“I have a message.” I utter quickly, lest I forget the mission of my trip.
“Lovely.” A bird chirps quietly in her hair, its silver tone being just loud enough for me to hear. Her smile falters for a second, then comes back.
“Well, go on. Don’t let me tarry your journey.”
“Do you not want the message?”
“I have no use for it. Move on, now, and try not to let the night eat you! It’s very hungry.”
She laughs, and her silvery laughter sounds just like that of her bird, except louder. I trot away anxiously, now darting my eyes into the thickening darkness seeming to envelope me from all around. It wraps around me, seeps into my nose and eyes, blinding me, suffocating me-
“Need some help there?”
“Yes, yes.” I choke out, and nearly collapse. A ray of warm light from the room in front of me blows away the darkness in my eyes and I see a middle aged man with wild grey hair. I gulp, and say what I have come to say.
“I have a message.”
“And if I could help you deliver it, I would.” he looks sympathetic. He then turns and peers behind himself, into the warm, welcoming room, and I hear the sound of a child and a gentle cooing. “My family is about to have dinner though.”
“I understand,” I answer, trying and failing not to sound deflated. “Thank you, sir.”
He waves his hand. “Don’t call me sir. I am Paul.”
“Goodbye then, Paul.”
“Goodbye. Good luck. I advise you against your journey. If you must take it, close your eyes. Things can get very ugly outside.”
“But I’m already outside.”
“Not outside the room. Outside the house.”
Outside the house. I mutter to myself, over and over again as I walk away, until I misstep and fall down a staircase. It’s a slippery one, and I fall. A silent scream in my throat. My message threatens to spill out of my brain as I stumble and tumble, around and around, down, down, down.
A pair of small hands stop me by the shoulders. It then moves down, to my shirt hem, my pants, my shoes, until it suddenly reaches up and slaps my face. I didn’t even get to see what it was. The hands dance away gleefully, laughing as it did so, the sound dying away.
I get up and cough, discovering that my mouth was filled with dust. My eyes water, too, from the acrid earth that got into them. I cough and cough until I feel something slippery jump into the palm covering my mouth, and writhes away. I decide then to suppress my cough, and walk on.
I walk, barefeet, on something warm, soft, and dry. It feels like ashes, or perhaps coal dust. Just as that thought pops into my head, a bright light nearly blinds me. I put my hand up and wildly try to get away.
“Hey! Hey, it’s okay, it’s me.” The lights dim a little, and I catch a little click of shutters somewhere. I start, but a human face in front of me calms me down.
“I have-” I coughed.
“I know, I know. Me too.” The boy smiled, his white teeth glowing in the dark. “Where are you headed?”
I panic in ignorance. Where am I headed? But then the answer came to me, clear as can be.
“Wherever the message is needed.”
“Hmm… why though?”
I peer at this strange boy, with soot all over his face. He keeps pointing the light at me, and smiles with his shiny teeth. “You do know that your message isn’t needed?”
“What do you mean? It’s a very important message.”
“Nobody needs it. I’ll prove it to you, just tell me this. Who told you to deliver it?”
“The old man.” I answer, disliking him more and more. His hand now firmly grasps my arm.
“And where does he live?”
“On… above. Why?”
He visibly ponders for a bit, and frowns as he does so. Somewhere, a canary chirps repeatedly. I try to wrestle away my arm, but it won’t budge.
“Promise me something, and I’ll let you go.” He smiles some more, waving my hand in front of my face. I observe in horror that it is now intertwined with his, and seemingly stuck together as if they have been glued. I struggle frantically, but his black eyes bore into mine and I bite back a scream, then stop struggling.
“What?” I ask, on the verge of tears. “What do you want?”
The shutters click again. “Promise me you’ll forget about the message.”
I decide against refusing outright, because a warm sputter of liquid is now transferred onto my hand. It feels violating, dangerous, and binding. I try to wiggle my way out.
“Because it’s dangerous.”
“But you are dangerous. You’re the only one that’s dangerous.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. Now, promise?”
He holds out his free hand, and extends a pinky. It is a shapely hand, with well manicured nails and smooth skin.
“You don’t belong down here.” I say. “What are you doing here? I came to deliver a message, and I won’t stop until it reaches someone.”
“Your message,” his smile turns ugly, “it dies with me.”
The canary screams, and suddenly the world is shaking. I yelp in fright, but am helpless as I am buried under dust, soot, and rocks. They rain down on me and the boy and we are soon buried. Dirt blinds me, silences me, and makes me deaf. He screams, too, but I am focused on extending my neck, hard, to stretch above the rocks. I succeed. My head arches strangely into a breeze, the intoxicating dawn of the outside. I let the air clear away the dust keeping me from breathing and seeing and speaking, and open my eyes.
I glimpse the outside for a second of an eternity. I see tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcano eruptions. I see explosions and mushroom clouds. I hear tremendous trembling, smell the fleeing of small things, and taste the uncertainty of the universe.
And then I am flying. Flying, flying, until I land in the middle of a playground. Children with wings are playing, and they come to me, grasping my shoulders, then my shirt and my pants.
“Why are you here?” They ask me. “Are you our parents?”
I open my mouth, but close it again. I will gladly be their caregiver, and play with them. But something compels me to dash the hope of the innocent, and utter the words-
“I have a message.”
They don’t seem wounded at all by the passive negative to their inquiry. “Ooh! Tell us, tell us!”
I take a deep breath, then feel a sudden fear of not knowing what to say. A thousand questions crowd my head: Am I the messenger? What does it matter now? What’s the point of saying it here? What is the message? But then it came to me. And I speak, with tears streaming down my cheeks-
“Stay alive. Keep alive the mind, keep alive the mind. Keep alive the mind, my loves!”
My Santa Claus
When are you coming?
I know you won’t be here tonight,
But I just can’t stop wishing.
For your presence, your gift
Perhaps they’re one and the same-
I don’t know if I’d fall asleep
Without seeing you on the driveway.
You don’t come through the chimney, I know that
You come riding on papers.
Green and red alike, they deck
Our household, and glitter.
Across borders and overseas.
When will you be here, I wonder?
Now I know what that ticket says
But it all seems so uncertain.
The doors to me are like obstacles
In a bizarre toy maze, as you run toward us.
They slam down behind you, one by one
Forcing thousands, millions to stay.
Sure, some still get through
But we’re too common to do
That, and plus, you and my gift
Won’t arrive in time nevertheless.
My Santa Claus
When are you coming?
To the land of Christmas
So we can sit around the dinner table
No more sneaking through a hole in the ceiling,
No more asking favors of reindeers.
Just you and me and everyone, you see
Everyone will be there-
When you arrive.