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After completing his undergraduate degree, Li stayed at CUHK to pursue graduate studies, earning a PhD in religious studies in 2010. He says that apart from imparting knowledge, his teachers at CUHK inspired him to be a good teacher. Several professors helped him to ease the financial burden of tuition fees by recommending part-time student helper jobs and lending him money. They would often have tea or breakfast with students after class. They discussed movies, literature and politics. “Perhaps these are irrelevant to the lessons. But this is life education,” Li says. “I always feel that having afternoon tea is the real lesson time.” He was encouraged to be more conscious about society and politics.

After getting his PhD, Li did not race to start his career. Motivated by his belief in equality and the dignity of human beings, he decided to throw himself into volunteer work. After sending letters and emails to different charities, he was invited to work for a centre for street children in Kunming.

He worked from morning to night to serve the children. In the morning, he organised activities and tutorials. In the evenings, he supervised the children who stayed at the centre. Li and his colleagues also conducted occasional outreach services for street children and brought them to the centre.

Li and one of the street children
Li and one of the street children

As he believes everyone is born equal, Li prefers to “walk alongside” rather than to “serve”. He accompanied the children as their buddy. “I lived where our children lived. I ate what they ate,” he says. “They accepted me in a very short period of time because they knew I was not superior to them.” As a former ruffian himself, he understood the children better than most of his colleagues, some of whom were bullied by the children and left in tears.

Li used his own personal experience to give the children hope, to encourage them to have faith in themselves and be good people. “‘I don’t expect that you [the street children] will change because of anything I’ve given to you. But I hope that at least once in your life, you know that you were loved,” Li says.

Li struck up a particularly close friendship with a 12-year-old called Bao Bao, a stubborn and smart boy, who reminded him of his younger self. Li thought Bao Bao could have a promising future if he went back to school. But one day, six months after his arrival at the centre, Bao Bao’s father took him away without informing the centre. Li was frustrated, “because you know it is the end of his future,” he explains. After he left the centre, Bao Bao ended up back on the streets and stopped studying.

To Li’s surprise, he received a message from Bao Bao a year later. It said simply, “I miss you”. Although Li said he never expected any return from the children, the message touched him deeply and was the greatest gift he could receive. “Everyone is equal. I believe everyone should love and be loved. This is a basic human right,” he concludes.