Roll with the Punches

Finding a good project idea is not as easy as I originally thought. These last few weeks, the ideas have come like waves on the shore, each one building a crest of excitement in me, only to be shattered by one cliff or another.

First it was the volunteer-based screening and outreach. Inspired by JIA’s “work-camp” model, and wanting to find an outlet for eager students to make a real difference, I proposed sending university volunteers from Guangzhou down to villages to do basic vision tests and educational activities. Dr. C was hesitant—he felt the volunteers were too temporary, and at the very least needed to leave something lasting from their efforts.

With that suggestion I turned to the possibility of using local high school volunteers (unfortunately, there are no universities nearby). Dr. C was excited about the idea as well—we even came up with a catchy name and motto (The Sight Brigade: Charging Toward a Better Future!)…until my Chinese mentor Dr. H pointed out how infeasible it was to recruit high school students during the most academically pressuring period of their lives. “It sounds like a great idea to a pair of Westerners like us,” Dr. C told me regretfully, “but given someone with Dr. H’s experience, I think we need to listen carefully to what he is saying.”

Then I thought, why not find something simple, not time-consuming, but with clear positive results that could encourage high school students to develop a sense of volunteerism? Treating young kids with amblyopia by encouraging them to adhere to occlusion therapy and engage in near visual activities sounded like the perfect medium—until I discovered there is no scientific evidence for the efficacy of near visual activities in treating amblyopia.

I’m on to something else now, something big that I think shows a lot of promise. But as I said my goodbye’s on my last day in Guangzhou, Dr. C sat me down and told me, “Tom, I don’t want you to be discouraged by all the obstacles we run into, in fact you’ll find that this is a perfectly normal part of the process.”

I was discouraged, every single time, but I always managed to bounce back, fueled partly by the knowledge that starting off a project on shaky ground essentially dooms it to failure, and partly by the conviction that a killer project idea was out there if only I took the time to look. Before I came to China, a former Lang Scholar (you can find her blog here) told me over and over that the most important thing I could do is just “roll with the punches”. I couldn’t really grasp what she meant at the time, but now I’m beginning to see that if you don’t roll, sometimes it’s KO in round one.

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