China ushered in the year of the horse (mǎ) , on the eve of January 31st. For Iggy and me, this meant listening to the BOOMS! HISSES! CRACKLES! and FIZZES! of never-ending fireworks as we sat in our cozy, warm apartment. The first couple rounds were exciting. We stared out of our windows into the black of the cold night, trying to pinpoint where the colorful explosions in the sky were coming from. Which village was setting this or that round off and which display was the best? It was hard to judge. All the fireworks were impressive, making us wonder just how much money goes into an average village firework display. Later, as we sat on the couch trying to hear the quiet dialogue exchanged in 12 Years A Slave, we were over the pyrotechnics and selfishly just wanted them to end. But what could we do? The new year celebration was bigger than us. Rightfully — and obviously — so.
Fireworks aren’t the only hallmarks of ringing in each Lunar New Year. Millions of migrant workers make arduous journeys back to their home towns and villages. The trials of this mass migration make Americans’ Thanksgiving travels look like cakewalks. As with any holiday, there is a ridiculous amount of food involved and an equally ridiculous amount of time spent preparing it. There’s also the element of giving during the new year, much like Christmas back home, which partly explains why several years ago the expats here became involved in raising money to buy coats for needy kids in local schools. I had only just moved to Haiyang when I attended last year’s donation ceremony and though I wasn’t planning on joining this year’s event, I did.
The event was similar to what I remembered from last year. A caravan of cars carrying several expat wives as well as two bosses and some workers from the Western companies here (you know, those ones building the power plants) made its way from the expat village to downtown Haiyang early one weekday morning. The cars pulled over and idled across the street from a decaying but still in use office building that featured a sad-looking Chinese flag flapping in the wind. Just like last year, in the same exact spot, we sat waiting, not knowing how long we’d be waiting or what we were waiting for. Eventually, after half an hour or so, we were told a government escort was on its way and they would lead us to the school. Why did we need an escort, I wondered? Can’t they just meet us there? And what’s taking them so long? These were additional questions to pile on to a growing list that included: Which school were we going to and where was it? Was it the same school we went to last year? How do the schools get chosen? How does this whole donation process work? How much money was raised and how much did the coats coast? I had asked these questions in one form or another to some of the other expat wives last year, as well as this year, prior to sitting in the car that morning, but no one really seemed to know. I should really have asked our point people (the property management folks who are our liaisons for everything in Haiyang) these questions, but I was worried that it might be rude to do so. And instead of asking my husband’s co-worker, who I hitched a ride with and who probably had no answers to my questions, I asked “do you know what that building is over there?” He nudged his driver’s arm, pointed to the building across the street, and said “Shenma?” (what?). The driver started tapping on his smartphone and then held it up, saying “government.” I can’t recall if he said it was the old government building or if we gleaned that nugget from the translation app on his phone. At least it explained the flag, I thought, and we all went back to waiting.
Our escort — a black van with tinted windows — finally pulled up alongside our caravan, presumably gave the “let’s go signal” (if there was a visible one, I didn’t see it, but perhaps a text message was sent to the drivers or a phone call was made), and off we went. Again, us expats are on a need-to-know basis when it comes to, well, pretty much everything in China, so most of us (myself included) have gotten used to a go with the flow mentality. After a speed race down some rural roads and a couple of miles on one of the new highways, we arrived at the school. It was not the same school we went to last year. It looked fairly new and was larger in comparison. I followed our group into the school, up a flight of stairs, and down a sunlit filled hallway that looked much like the hallways in my elementary school. Photos of teachers along with the their names were posted outside the door of each classroom and student artwork was displayed on the walls.
The classroom where the ceremony was held was sparsely decorated, so I couldn’t tell which subject was taught in it or which age group of kids learned there, but it was far nicer than the classroom we sat in last year. For starters, there was heat — not the blazing warmth that makes most kids illogically sweat during the winter months in American schools, but a faint warmth that allowed me to sit comfortably without gloves. The classroom was equipped with light fixtures, as opposed to the single bulbs that hung precariously from the ceiling in the school we visited last year. The kids sat quietly on the sides of the room, looking slightly bored as they waited for the event to begin.
The fun began after the speeches, including ones by a representative of the Haiyang Women’s Federation and a local Party member, who spoke on behalf of the Haiyang Municipal Party Committee, the Haiyang Government, and the Xin’An Party Committee (Xin’An is the town in which the school is located in). The coats were handed out to the students, along with an envelope containing money for their families, and an additional bonus: new backpacks full of treats including candy, pencils, and other school supplies. Like kids anywhere, they looked like they enjoyed opening the presents, but they also seemed a bit bewildered as they did, probably wondering who all the laowais were.
I’m glad I attended this year’s ceremony. Here’s why: we learned about the kids who received the donations. Obviously, we knew the kids needed a helping hand for one reason or another, but last year, we didn’t know why. This year, we were provided with a print out listing each child (28 in all) that included his/her name, grade level, their school name (turns out some of the students were from other schools in the area), and a brief sentence about their hard-luck family situation. Hard-luck is the only way to describe all of the 28 seemingly complex stories that were reduced to one simple line that fit neatly in an Excel spreadsheet column titled Family Status. Here are a few examples:
Father is disabled in arm and hand, mom is sick with heart and cervical spine.
This young girl suffers serious rheumatoid arthritis, it cost too much for this treatment which leads to poor condition to entire family.
Father ran away from home for mental illness, mom is sick all the year round, lives by farming.
Father suffered stomach cancer and took major operations, mother had no job and supported family by farming.
Mom was disabled without ability to work after car accident, family is in heavy debt.
Father died of illness; mom supports whole family by farming; and she has a sister quit school due to family difficulties.
As a whole, the column revealed facts about life in China. For one, there is no social safety net in China. There is no government support that’s gonna sweep in to help during troubled or dire times. As my Mandarin tutor told me once, China is so large that it “cannot take care of everybody so well.” That’s why everyone works so hard here. It’s not uncommon for people to work seven days a week and more than eight hours a day. It’s why grandparents take care of their grandkids whether the parents are healthy, sick, living at home, or are off working in some other province. There are no daycares to send kids to, and besides, who would want to spend the money even if there were when it has to be socked away for the future, whether for a child’s education or for tough times? The stories in the column also serve as a very small sample illustrating a recent finding by the World Health Organization and reported on NPR that more people die in China of cancer than anywhere else in the world, and that death rates from stomach and liver cancer in China are the highest in the world. Four of the 28 kids on the list had a parent with cancer, including three fathers dealing with stomach, liver, and lung cancer, and one mother who died from cancer (the type was not indicated). Lastly, it’s clear from the list that farming is the primary occupation for folks living in rural China and as hard of a job as it is, it isn’t financially rewarding.
A few hours after the ceremony, the property management folks sent out an email, informing us expats that as a group we raised 21,800 RMB ($3,595) and that an additional 4,000ish RMB was donated by a local women’s group. As a result, each child received a red envelope containing 600 RMB and a coat that cost 8.97 RMB. The rest of the money was used to fill the backpacks with supplemental gifts. Our donations won’t change the lives of the kids who received them, but hopefully they’ve helped the kids and their families start the new year on a happy, warm note.