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U of T student spends summer volunteering with China’s “left behind” children

Gu “Smile” Xiaoyan spent this past summer volunteering to teach music to China's "left behind" children. (Submitted Photo)

Gu “Smile” Xiaoyan is using his love of music to help ease some of the pain felt by China’s “left behind” children.

“Music has brought me a lot of happiness in life,” says the second-year computer science student, who spent this past summer in China volunteering to teach music to a group of children with limited physical, educational and financial means.  “I hope I can pass on a bit of that happiness to those children who are in need.”

Gu, who recently transferred from University of Toronto Scarborough to the St. George campus, was inspired to help after seeing a UNICEF video about the issue last year. “It broke my heart to see these children suffering,” he says.

While estimates vary, the United Nations estimates more than 61 million children have been “left behind” across China. Most have little or no contact with their parents and have been traumatized as a result. Many suffer from depression and a host of other mental health challenges. 

It was such an emotional experience for Gu – who came to U of T as part of the Green Path Program – that he decided he needed to do something about it. So he set about raising funds by teaching music lessons and selling his music. He was able to buy 30 ukuleles that he brought with him to teach music to a group of children in Chongqing, China.

His passion for music runs deep. In addition to the guitar, ukulele, djembe (African drum), ocarina (vessel flute) and harmonica, he can also play traditional Chinese instruments including two types of bamboo and vessel flutes, most of them self-taught.

He was never much into video games as kid, so whenever he was feeling lonely he would pick up an instrument and play. It became a form of therapy for him. Gu, whose given name Xiaoyan means "smile," hopes to bring a smile to the faces of the children he's working with.

“I think it’s in our nature to enjoy music, but there are important therapeutic benefits to it as well. Sometimes the joy of learning music is taken out of it by repetitive or strict lessons. I try to make it fun, as a way to help these children take their minds off what they’re going through.”  

Unfortunately, when he got to Chongqing he soon found out he didn’t have enough ukuleles. Each day he witnessed children lining up outside the classroom windows staring in at the lessons inside – there simply weren’t enough instruments to go around.

“If I can raise more money and bring back volunteers who can help teach these children different instruments maybe they can learn different types of music that appeals to them,” he says.

“Maybe it will help ease their pain a little more,” he says. “Who knows, every little bit counts.” 

© University of Toronto Scarborough