It was a humid, fervent summer in Douala. I had just boarded my flight to Paris, where I then will fly back to Shanghai. I came to Cameroon to investigate the local timber supply chain for my father’s company but was left with a deep burden. As the plane took off, the barren lands of Cameroon caught my eye, once again reminding me that this trip had changed my life. This journey reminds me of a vivid dream, recollecting the scent of the air, the noise from the streets, and the sight of the forests. Traveling, at least to me, is a process of receiving new experiences that ultimately lead to change in my perspective of the world. However, for this trip, I was within and without.

After a weary flight, I touched down in Paris for my layover to Douala, Cameroon. After a swift 8 hour layover, I boarded my flight to Douala, Cameroon. I may forget my high school math lessons, but I may never forget the sensation of the moist air and an incredibly congested crowd. I got off my boarding gate and was welcomed by roughly 200 people shouting, shoving, and sweating. It took me nearly 2 hours to get all three of my suitcases, which then I carried to my rental car drenched in sweat.

         The next day I met up with a couple of my timber suppliers but had tough luck. I drove to 9 locations and failed to close on all of them. Frustrated, I traveled north of the city to look for more potential partners. I had my doubts initially, but I thought I didn’t travel this far to stay in a hotel. So I started my day driving up north to meet with one of my timber suppliers, who seemed to have a little too much interest in meeting with me. I’ve had my suspicions of him being a scam from the beginning, but I had to try. We toured the timber yard and talked about the suitable terms. After that, we drafted a timber supplying contract, and I was on my way out.

Departing from his office, I realized my car needed gas. As I was filling up, a truckload of 10-year-olds holding AK-47s stormed by, cheering and chanting. That moment struck me with its significance after I sat back in the car. I’d never been so close to violence and war before. After consuming that moment in my thought process, I got on my way, and less than five minutes in, crisp, loud, resonating gunshots startled me. I swerved in the road out of panic but then put my foot down out of terror. Later I learned that there was, in fact, a border war between the English-speaking people and the French-speaking people that spanned across the border of Cameroon and Nigeria, and those children were the ones fighting it. The war has caused countless casualties because the English-speaking part is considered a minority and is oppressed by the French-speaking part.

Returning home, I felt as if someone sat on my chest and refused to let me breathe. The feeling of disgust, and terror, engulfs me every time I ponder about the experience. I’d always find myself staring into the abyss, thinking about the event and those affected by it. I felt guilty after returning to my life because I would always ponder how people don’t have the same access. Whenever I go to the hospital with my grandmother, who is often ill, grieving people who have just lost their loved ones never fail to haunt me. These scenes make me wonder how the parents of those children would react to such a tragedy. Gradually, my perspective on life, the world altered. I call it a revelation. The world used to be a very vague but promising place. Everything was filled with warmth and comfort; however, the details of the different aspects of the world were never clear to me. I had always assumed that everyone had the same access to privileges as me, like education, love, safety, and much more. Then came the revelation; it felt like taking off the filter glass I’ve been wearing all my life. Now I see the world closer to its true form, where blood, violence, and sorrow dominate people’s lives. Even the most minor thing in my daily life can leave me lamenting for the unfortunates. For instance, whenever I see a man walking in the rain without an umbrella, I feel terrible for sitting in a car. Although a man in the rain isn’t a big deal, for me, the experience was too traumatizing to recover from.

         I couldn’t stop pondering how life would be for those child soldiers if there weren’t any war. The experience made me appreciate the simple things in life, like family, natural resources. I take every day as a blessing as I know there is more suffering for many people. The experience helped me realize how precious family is. On certain occasions, I embrace the difference in culture for what it represents. While rare but inevitable situations make me feel gutted for the circumstances some people have to live with, the stark contrast with my environment will forever shock me.

         In a way, the experience changed me for the better. I think about life and its philosophy. Because of this experience, I tried to read many of America’s most significant pieces of literature. In Hemmingway and Fitzgerald’s works, they told their own story through characters packed with personality and depiction of the societies’ flaws. In The Great Gatsby, I learned about people from different walks of life who experience things that may never intertwine. I believe Fitzgerald said it best: “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” We who live in a cocoon of comfort and love need to understand that there is a world outside, a more cruel, cold, and dark world. This encounter led me to realize how blessed I am to be in a family with people that care and love me. 

In the past, I’ve been ignorant of that blessing.  I failed to see the suffering of man.

Qiheng Qian