1,000 little things

Austin R Ryan

#thelittlethings #lessismore #learningbyteaching

    People say – and I’ve always believed them – that it’s the little things that get you. Going to the most populous country, one of the largest landmasses, and some of Asia’s longest rivers you might think it the right time to turn focus on the gargantuan and goliath, the behemoth and hulking. For as big as China is and even though AYC gives a massive opportunity, it is still the little things that mean the most to me.

(Little things – like the bear shaped red bean dumplings at breakfast)

(Little things – like the bear shaped red bean dumplings at breakfast)


Nothing in the task of teaching or in the country of China seems as enormous as it is numerous. Across every lesson on how to teach there’s buried a billion bits of insight that might make or break a class. All of it hinges on the coalesced bits and pieces of instructor style that string the shards of advice together into a tapestry. Every good teacher I’ve had didn’t make one big thing to succeed. Instead, that teacher sowed 1,000 little morsels together into something tremendous. There is no “one big thing” to cling to like a buoy; there are just a thousand scattered planks to make a boat from.

 In the exact same way China is the sum of every tiny oddity and normality its people commit to. The Great Wall was built brick by brick and refurbished in small steps taken over centuries, just as a myriad of slight images and movements Chinese identity re-determines, reforms, and reinforces itself into something incredible. For as good a symbol the Great Wall is, time spent walking across it does not measure out to as much in my mind as all the little interactions with random Chinese people. 

Going outside with two new AYC friends to explore a nearby mall sticks out more than exploring the Great Wall, even if the mall was average and the wall was great. While there, we saw clothing and outlet stores from all across the world, massive playgrounds and daycares, and a mini carnival complete with paddle boats and a small bungee jump. For the most part we only got stares and an occasional “hello.” 

(The daunting red person that tells you to stop walking)

(The daunting red person that tells you to stop walking)


That changed when we went into a strange store full of stuffed animals and odd items. Upon entering the store a loud and bouncing K-Pop beat smashed up against our ears. Three young Chinese women watched us with nervous giggling, each one a shade more anxious than the other. They talked to us some in English and two got a good laugh when I replied with some broken Mandarin. Finally, the smallest and most anxious of them asked for pictures with the tallest and blondest of us. Cradling her face in her hands, she processed her nervousness in waves and gave her friends a few good smiles.     


In a brief trip to Shanghai, the legendary view from the “Bund” did not seem as interesting as watching my friend receive a spontaneous fully-body hug and peck on the cheek from a young man handing out pamphlets on the street. The sounds of the crowds there does wash out the guffaws I got from cheesing for two Chinese women’s camera phones. Every good journey I have had hasn’t been one big thing, but 1,000 little ones spun together into something excellent.

What stands out in my AYC experience isn’t the assured enormity of the move we made to teach and live in China, but the thousand little things that spun together to create this tapestry we are a part of. The towering glass edifice of the Neo-Sunshine Hotel doesn’t mean half as much as the cigarette buds stuck in the neat designs of its ashtrays and the amusement of the staff when one of us manages a Mandarin word. The fact that nearly a hundred wholly different souls assembled here to scatter all over and instruct means nothing without each miniscule instant in our lives that formed up the sea of strange tidings that carried us over here.


    When one of our teachers asked us to write out why we were here I scrawled down something in my chicken scratch handwriting that felt corny at the time. “Because everything led to here.” I wrote. Reflecting on it, it is corny but it feels more accurate than anything else I could have said. The sixth grade history classes where I first heard of the Han dynasty, the college days learning Mandarin, the work I did as a teaching assistant and then as a tutor to a Chinese student all come together as a smaller experiences that turned into something giant. 

I cannot say if it is like that for everyone, but I think for most some baby steps paved a path to the application that came to all this. I do not think everyone sees it the same, but in every life and time 1,000 little things come together to create so many great narratives. So, I do not want to cheer the goliaths of the world, like friendship and cross-cultural connection. I want to give my regards to all the little lessons learned that helped one of us a reach a kid in the back of the room. I want to thank the night decompressing and doing nothing in a hotel room that helped one of us wake up fresh and make friends the next morning. I want to give my love to every single one of the small shards of colored glass that form up our mosaics. Those 1,000 little things are my experience.