The Dragon FighterA Story by Eun Jee Nikki Kang
I was out of breath running up the stairs, squeezing my way through a crowd of people looking for names on the list of sites for ICARE’s service-learning week. In disbelief, I stared at my name under Stairway. Out of the sixteen sites that were available, Stairway was not one of my choices, a rehabilitation site, a home, for juvenile boy criminals and offenders. I did not want to be associated with such people.
All throughout the planning process for games and activities we were going to play with the kids, I could not stop thinking about all the possible malicious things that could happen during my stay. What if they point a knife at me? What if they steal my belongings? What if they inject me with some --- drug at some fearful point? What-if questions flooded my mind.
Our group departed for Stairway at 6 in the morning, on December 6, 2009. As we came closer to the site, my hands started to tremble; as we landed, I felt my body stiffen. I pulled myself up and reluctantly stepped off the boat.
Voices intoned, “Mabuhay Stairway!” as the Stairway people came crowding around us offering to take our bags and immediately, I repelled my greeter and said, “No, it’s okay,” fearful that he might run off with my luggage. When time came for everybody"kids from Stairway and our school, ISM, to sit in a big circle, I frantically scanned the seats between my group members, but because I was one of the last people to arrive, there was only one seat left, which was between two members of Stairway. I sat there gathering my body as tightly as possible, avoiding any physical contact with those next to me. The boy beside me, my age, leaned over and said, “Hey, I’m Zach. I’m the son of the founder of Stairway,” and right away, I began to relax and managed to introduce myself. I made one friend the first night and that was how I wanted to keep it.
The next day, we were scheduled to hike up the mountain. I could not wait. I loved the feeling of mud getting in between my toes, the feeling of nature on my skin and in my lungs. Then I remembered that we were going to be with the Stairway kids and I suddenly dreaded the hike. I tried my best to make my way through ISM members avoiding all possible interaction with the Stairway kids. But as the pathway became narrower and narrower, whom I encountered or walked with was not something I could control. Suddenly, while trying to avoid the swaying arm of the Stairway kid next to me, I slipped on an incline; hands dug into the mud; my feet lost balance; I started sliding backwards at a speed I could not halt. Branches collide with my body. Blood and pain oozed through my skin. No one could catch me, and even if someone were to try, it was most likely they would put themselves in the same danger. But I felt a hand grab mine. I looked around desperately; it was one of the Stairway kids! My shock was even greater than the sharp pain that seared through my body. I was shocked that a Stairway kid risked being injured as severely, or perhaps even more, just to save me. He ran to grab on to a branch to stop me from descending any farther. The tree that held on to us was thin and severely bent, as if it would break off any moment. Soon I found myself surrounded by the chaperones, a horde of people, and a jumble of first aid kits.
The security guards were mending the broken skin, cleaning away the blood, wrapping the wounds"more than that, they wiped my ignorance clean. The wounds they were wrapping made me feel closer to a second chance at life, hiding away the shame I have been carrying for my prejudice and unreasonable fear. I felt reborn.
There are many different people in multiple socially constructed categories that only hinder harmony in our world. It is not the fact that there is diversity that obstructs unity, but lack of people who can accept equality and sacrifice their privileges. Acceptance is difficult because it means breaking away from societal expectations, stereotypes, and the strongest barrier "our own psyche. James Joyce once described the cycle of an artist in three stages: the llama, the lion, and the dragon. The llama is what we are when we are mounted with elements that impede acceptance. The lion is what we transform into when our identity becomes defined by those heavy impediments that bar acceptance. Realizing this, the lion must then fight a dragon in order to reach the last stage, become newly born through the process of rebirth. According to Joyce, it is only when we overpower the strength of the dragon, that we are reborn to become authentic individuals, with our own values. Most people do not reach that stage; they become paralyzed in the stage of a lion. That day in Stairway, I met my dragon.
All along, the dragon had been in me. He had constantly whispered, “acceptance”, but for a long time I could not listen, my ears were plugged by my psyche, “thou-shalts”. A Stairway member saved me so I can taste the baby’s first breaths of air. Stairway was my gateway to realization. Though the trip itself initiated cultural sharing, the whole idea around the trip was doing “good” for the community and this makes the whole trip’s fundamental values a façade. The fact that ICARE is described as a week of “service” to our community implies an attitude of “superiority”. It is this sense of “superiority”; the “I-am-here-to-render-service- and-after-I-am-done-it’s-over” mindset made me distance myself from the Stairway kids, perceiving them as “inferior” because of their criminal past, a situation ingrained in me as “bad”. This very notion hindered any attachment I could feel for them. The dragon had a firmer grip. But after my fall, I cannot see them as criminals anymore because I have grown closer to each individual; I understood and sympathized. The boy who stole $50 from a rich person to support his family imprints his life on mine; the boy who saves money while worrying that his sister is not eating, imprints his life on mine; the boy who killed his sister’s husband who had bought her, imprints his life on mine. The key to harmony and world peace is empathy "understanding, acceptance, and respect. There is no short cut; we have to delve into dangerous territories that bring the unexpected. We constantly come face-to-face with our dragons in our search; we face them in relationships, conflicts from the boyfriend-girlfriend relationship to global issues such as poverty. Over powering the dragon within us inspires me. As an individual, I have a power to change the world beginning with myself by taking the courage to face my dragons and defeat them, one solid battle at a time. It is not easy, but it is not impossible.
© 2012 Eun Jee Nikki Kang
Eun Jee Nikki Kang