The Silk Road
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"This fascinating human trail,"
our Chinese teacher told us
the language we all knew,
"was never a paved
the way like the Roman roads were."
We had been just 12-years old,
a group of Senior School students
on the exchange tour,
living in Xi'an in China,
in a communist commune
helping local children
to work on fields,
and walk few miles every day
to the nearest school,
part of it on the Silk Road.
"The first main line of the east-west route
with four greatest centres: Xi'an, Tarfur,
Samarkand and Baghdad,
started just here,
built by the Tang Dynasty,
our city was the biggest in the world."
We covered our ears
our teacher was writing fast
a white chalk squeeked on a blackboard
and her voice rose above it in a high pitch:
"Write it down fast and then go home to pack up."
We looked around
but our Chinese classmates
their heads down
copying the signs fast.
"Li and Su go and collect the provisions from our communal kitchen,
just for two days,
Chong you pick up mats and blankets from our gymnazium,
we make a bundle for each person to carry their own."
When they quickly left
the teacher noticed us and smiled:
"I want you to experience
how was it to be a Chinese merchant in those days."
We left when dawn was just breaking up
struggling on the rocky path,
in one long line,
on the main route that led across
the Eurasian continental mass,
the hardship, danger and loneliness
of these vast empty spaces
We walked all day
stopping just for a quick drink,
never used to
extremes of cold and heat,
many of us felt sick,
tired and hungry,
all at once,
we sat down in a middle of the dust
crying out that we want to go home.
Our Chinese schoolmates just passed us,
without looking behind,
no pity just disgust in their eyes.
Our teacher, who was leading us,
came back and towering above
in her high pitched voice
ordered us to move on
or we just die here.
It was pitch dark again
when we noticed in a distance
a welcoming flame of small fire.
Our Chinese friends pointed at it
with a big smile,
but our teacher was gone.
Shivering with cold and fear
stumbling through that unfamiliar place
holding our hands
we tried to follow the footsteps
of Chinese friends
in a quickening pace.
Until there was no one there
six lost children
bundled up together in a foreign land.
When we stumbled upon our camp,
still holding our hands,
exhausted and hungry,
tears smudged all over
our dusty cheeks,
our teacher ran to us
hugging us tightly
followed by our class
cheering us up
with their noisy fire-crackers.
Filling our tummies
with many and more plates
of delicious food,
warming up next to a high-piled fire
we asked our teacher
what for was all that suffering.
She looked around
on all those big and innocent eyes,
reflecting in the light of fire,
full of questions
that no one can answers.
In amazing silence
in her hands
a single small cocoon.
Finding the end
she slowly unwound
one long thread of silk.
"As you experienced,
the Silk Road was never a paved carriage way,
like the Roman road system,
but more like a human equivalent of the pathways
that ants find through or around obstacles,
and which, once marked,
are followed invariably
over and over,
this fascinating human trail,
do you know that you make similar pathways,
every time you experience something new
in your brain?"
We looked at her
more confused than before.
She unwound another thread of silk
from another small cocoon,
for all of us to see,
"There are two
in your brain
to turn you all
but your brain needs exercising,
just like your body does."
Our teacher gently laid down the threads
and clapped her hands,
to which our Chinese friends
started to recite from memory:
"Even small changes
can lead to big changes
in who we become..."
The best student in our class,
Li put his hand up
and shouted from the bottom of his lungs:
" The first system has everything to do
with emotion and motivation,
the area of the brain that responds to rewards."
"Just like you, Li, always desperate to be first,
to be the best..."
Su spitted out angrily, but the teacher laughed:
"Why do you think, Li is like that?"
"I don't know," Su shook her head.
"Because he wants your respect,
the respect of his peers,"
the teacher looked up on the suddenly quiet crowd:
"His brain slowly preparing him
towards his future
that he will share
with all of you
leaving the home of his family
starting to make
his own way
in the world of equals."
"What about the second system?"
Someone shouted out,
but I was too tired to hear the answer,
falling asleep next to the fire,
dreaming about today,
the day I suddenly grew up.
Li enthusiastically updated me,
on that system in our brains
on our way back to school the next day,
that was not so horrific any more:
"It's to do with control,
it channels and harnesses
all that seething energy.
You learn to make better decision
by making not so good decisions
and then correcting them.
Expertise comes with experience."
"Do you understand all of that?"
I asked surprised following him on the rocky path.
"Sort of," he shrugged,
but then he turned back,
beaming with smile:
"But I will one day, everything is here,"
he tapped his head with his finger:
"The systems of motivation and control
are under control."
Nearly forty years later,
on the other side of the world,
I took my 14-years old son
to see the play,
each teenager should see.
"Didn't like that romantic bits," he yawned,
"Just that bit of fighting and why it took them so long to die?"
"Shakespeare wrote it
five hundreds years ago,
the life was different then,"
I replied impatiently trying to explain:
"But it is still relevant,
the intense combination of first love
and peer-induced risk
could be tragic today,
just as yesterday."
"No one would die today,
for stupid love, you know,"
he mumbled checking his iPhone.
if not for fate,
13-years old Juliet
would be married
and having children
of their own
within a year or two."
"You are joking,"
he shook his head already lost in his digital world.
On our way home,
we stopped by,
in my sister's house:
"What happened to my gifted
excelling through high school
then dropping out of college
drifting from job to job
ending up in his parents' house again?"
She greeted us with tired eyes,
loud music with bits of swearing and laughter
from the room next door
came to her
as an answer,
she just waved her hand:
"He has a drinking party again with his mates."
"He will grow out of it,"
an automechanic by trade,
brought us some coke and cake:
"We've been even worse at his age,
if you think of the teenager's brain
as a car,
they acquire an accelerator
a long time before
they can steer and brake,
what can you expect?"
"I expect you to do something about that,
you are his Father," my sister shouted back,
"Nowadays children reach puberty earlier
and adulthood later," I patted my sister
gently on her back.
"We used to cook meals,
look after our little sibblings,
assist uncle in the shop,
do all those kinds of tasks
we assumed we needed to know
to be grown-ups."
"It was different time and different era,"
I took her hand into mine.
"Our kids just go to school
and they come home,
No experience of trying to achieve
a real goal
in real time
in the real world."
I pointed at new iPad
and Mat using it
next to me:
"Our kids learn more
than ever before
IQ has increased
we never catch up,
it is their digital world, you know..."
"But there are different ways
of being smart,"
my sister, a biologist by profession
"Experience shapes the brain
as brain is so sensitive to experience,
our experience that control our impulses
make the prefrontal cortex develop,
our social and cultural life
shapes our biology,
shapes our brain.
Are our children
of our lost touch with reality?"
"Maybe he just got wrong genes, after me,"
her husband tried to lighten the atmosphere up.
"Is it true that girl's brain matures earlier than mine?"
My son put the iPad down suddenly interested.
"Of course, look at your aunty, she has always been smarter than me,"
laughed his ancle and they started to wrestle each other just for a bit of fun.
"Do not take notice of your uncle Mat, genes are just first steps,
in complex developmental sequences,
in myriads of interactions
between organism and environment
the adult brain is shaped,
both boy's and girl's one equally."
Even small changes in developmental timing
can lead to big changes in who we become.
The phrase from my long forgotten Chinese trip
suddenly came back to me.
" Come on, Mat hurry up, I think our next holiday destination will be China."
I rushed to my sister for a hug, but she was still lost in her thoughts:
"....with real responsibilities
we don't have to just accept
the developmental patterns
of adolescent brains
we can actually shape and change them,
but it is just a theory,
what did you say about China?"
"Anywhere but China, Mum, please,
what about Las Vegas or just Sydney,
I don't know anyone in Beijing."
"Xi'an it is called actually,"
"What 'an'? Never heard of it,
will be boring, boring..."
"Anything but boring, I can promise you that right now."