Today I went to the Thanksgiving Sharing Assembly of my former lower/middle/and high school Berkeley Carroll.

I was invited as this year's alumna speaker to talk to the (entire!) school on the subject of gratitude. Here's how I began:

Today I wanted, naturally, to talk about gratitude. I’ve been thinking about how gratitude spans a huge range—from the really big, like being grateful for your good health, for being alive—to the much smaller, like that you’re having a good hair day. And I’ve been thinking about what brings gratitude about and usually it’s a change. Sometimes it’s a scare, a threat, a close call, but it’s not always that dire. Mostly it’s about a change from the usual.

There’s something I love to do that’s all about a change from the usual: travel.

When you leave home, you’re given a new perspective—on places you’d only ever heard about before in the news, as well as on your own home. And with that new perspective, you often become immensely grateful for what you have back home.

From there I managed to talk about the sorry lack of shower curtains in France to my unreasonable happiness over finding a grilled cheese sandwich in India, as well as one of the most memorable days of my life: a day I spent when I was sixteen in a tiny town in Western China in the company of three little kids who had never met a foreigner before in their life.

At the end of that day I went to bed so grateful that I met these generous little souls. And the next morning, when we were all getting on the bus to leave they came to say goodbye.

I took off my big backpacker pack to crouch down and hug them (and cry—I totally cried, I always cry at good-byes) one of them, the little girl, asked me, “Why did you bring everything with you?” I tried to explain in Chinese that we were on the road, moving around for two months so I have to have it all on my back and she was like, no, “Why didn’t leave anything in America?”

And that’s when I realized, oh my god, she thinks this is everything I own.

And there’s no way she owns enough to even fill that backpack halfway. How do you answer that question?

Honesty? I can’t even remember what I said exactly —I think I bumbled around a bit, probably cried some more and gave them each a yo-yo. But her question has stuck with me ever since—even twelve years later. “Why did you bring everything with you?” And every time I think of it, I feel grateful. For having all the material comforts that I do, but also for meeting her and her two friends because they have given me—without even meaning to—something that lasts a lifetime, and that is the gift of perspective. And for that I am immensely grateful.

(Photo of B.C. via here.)