I had the opportunity to visit a rural Chinese school yesterday. It was a humbling experience, as some of the photos below illustrate.
This school was simple — concrete structures housed classrooms that were sparsely furnished with plain wooden tables put together to form a hollow rectangle with tiny wooden stools for the students to sit on.There was no heat and I’m almost positive that, like most places in Haiyang, it was colder inside the classroom than outside — and it was flurrying out there. There was a little coal stove near the door, which I assume is used by the teacher for cooking his/her lunch or heating up hot water or tea. Can any of my American friends imagine going to school under such conditions? I cannot. After sitting in the classroom for 1.5 hours, my feet were numb and frozen even though they were encased in multiple layers (wool tights, ankle running socks, heavy wool socks, and thick, furry winter boots). How can a kid (not to mention a teacher) concentrate or pick up a pencil when they can’t feel their body?
I was at the school because I was fortunate enough to have received an invitation and a ride from some of the other expat wives. 2013 marks the second year that the property management company that oversees our apartments and living circumstances here in Haiyang teamed up with the expats in our village to raise money for very needy school kids. Roughly 25 students were selected to receive a cash donation and new winter coats from the money that was raised and given just in time for Chinese New Year. The property management company has donated to the school for the past ten years, though I’m not sure what the relationship between the school and the company’s owner is.
While the school is located within Haiyang, we had to drive to what felt like the middle of nowhere to reach it. The single dirt lane leading into the village where the school is located was filled with potholes. We were dropped off by the principal’s office and invited to have some cha (green tea) and snacks, which included mandarin oranges, apples, and peanuts that were grown and roasted locally. The peanuts had a different taste than what I’m used to back home — they were more sweet than salty and we all wolfed them down.
After the refreshments, we moved next door to a classroom where we were joined by the students who received the donations. They were a polite and well-behaved group of mostly female kids. We were given some time to interact with them after the speeches were said and done and after the donations were given out. All events in China include multiple speeches from what I’ve been told and we must have been lucky on the day we went to the school because the speeches were short and sweet.
A woman who I believe is a member of the local Haiyang women’s group served as the event MC. She gave a brief speech, as did the school principal, the local Communist Party representative, the owner of the property management company who was responsible for bringing our worlds together, and two managers from the Western companies involved in the building of the nuclear power plant in Haiyang. All of the speeches were similar. Thanks was given to the school, the kids, and the expats and their respective companies. Wishes to maintain and build upon the relationship between the school, the property management company, and the expats were expressed. Encouragement was also given to the kids as were expectations. For example, it was acknowledged that the kids were receiving the donations because their families had difficult circumstances (absent fathers or disabled brothers or sisters among other reasons). Yet it was also stated several times that the generosity the kids received was to one day be returned. The kids were told that as long as they worked hard, they could accomplish whatever it was they wanted, and that they would be expected to provide the same help and support for other kids at the school in the future.
The most moving part of the event was a speech delivered by a teenager who is a top student at the school. She was selected to give a speech at the same event last year and after listening to her, I’m not surprised that she was asked again. She had a commanding voice and her speech was thoughtfully written. She stated that she was not ashamed of her family’s circumstances and that she would continue to study hard.
Had it not been for one of the other expat wives who is a native Mandarin speaker, I would have been completely lost during the event.* She was nice enough to sum up the speeches we heard and help me communicate with two of the students sitting next to us. Both were 15-year-old girls who were very sweet and very shy. My friend told me that one of the girls wanted to go onto high school if she got good marks on the end of year exam that all students take. She thought that her family would be able to afford to put her through high school, but she wasn’t sure they would be able to do so through college. Her older brother is 25 and is disabled, so from what my friend told me, this places a heavy burden on the family. In rural villages and communities, each family member works to provide for the whole of the family, and when a member cannot contribute, the other family members must work harder to make up for it.
After speaking to the students, everyone assembled for group pictures at the head of the classroom. We then said our goodbyes and the kids headed back into their freezing classrooms, while we hopped into our warm cars and headed back to the village.
*Any mistakes in describing the content of the speeches or conversations we had with kids is entirely mine.