Notes from China
By Jenny Dunn February 2002 - part 1
It is hard to believe that I have been here for two months- There is so much to say; and it would be impossible for me to attempt to draw a composite picture of my life, experiences and feelings so far. Instead, I plan to offer you a slide show of impressions. Mostly I am going to share the moments I had the chance to write about as they happened (which are limited). Many of my observations lack the background necessary to clarify them to someone who is not familiar with culture, history and politics in this part of China. I will do my best to insert some of that background as I am compiling my writings before this computer, but know there will be many holes- it is difficult to predict even obvious questions after a period of emersion.
Quick background: For those of you that don't know, I am living in Yunnan (means 'south of the clouds') in southwestern China. Yunnan has complex but beautiful geographic and ethnic terrain. It borders Tibet, Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. In the North West is the breath taking mountain ranges of Shangri-La, where Tibetans still practice a nomadic lifestyle. In the south there is tropical jungle, inhabited by monkeys, elephants, tigers, and many diverse minority nationalities. These people share ancestry, language and culture with ethnic groups from the countries on Yunnan's southern border.
China divides its population into 56 'nationalities', or distinct ethnicities, among which Han are the majority and compose about 94% of the nation's entire population. 26 of those 'nationalities' live in Yunnan, composing 1/3 of the provinces population. Some of these people are radically different from the Han in language, costume, religion, and lifestyle. According to the government, many were still living in primitive or slave societies before communist liberation in 1949. Others have a longer history if integration with the Han. Yunnan's primarily mountainous terrain makes it difficult to farm and develop, and it is one of the nation's poorer provinces. The government is working to develop tourism, industry and infrastructure in Yunnan in its current plan to "open up the west".
I am based in Kunming, Yunnan's capital. Kunming is referred to as the 'spring city' for its pleasant climate year-round. Nestled between mountains at 1800 meters, it has the ideal conditions for both living and farming. You can find the finest produce in the nation (and some argue in the world) in this region during any season. Cold spell or thundershower passes through occasionally, but never lasts long enough to make the cities' abundant flowers wither.
In Kunming I am teaching English to both private students in my home, and to adults and children at a local school. I am also doing editing work at a translation company. I change from Chinglish to English manuscripts, speeches, advertisements, factory inspections, patent requests, tourist manuals, investment proposals, and land or nature-reserve surveys, to name a few. This can be a challenging but very entertaining job, and has given me the opportunity to learn a great deal about Yunnan's resources, history, and development. I am also studying Chinese with a tutor, and studying issues concerning education in Yunnan, particularly in minority-dense regions, under a professor at the local Minority Institute.
I am also volunteering for a US based non profit organization called PEACH (Promoting Education, Arts, and Community Harvest) Foundation, that promotes educational opportunities for some of Yunnan's most impoverished but scholastically promising students. A couple of weeks ago I returned from my first trip to visit some of the schools and students that PEACH sponsors. I visited 5 schools in remote, mountainous regions with over 95% minority populations. I will share a few of my travel experiences, after a brief description of a few kilometers of Kunming.
November 5, 2001 - My commute to work:
I hop on by bike at the corner of my building, the last in a row of 5-story apartments. The courtyard is a public forum for household activities. There is cabbage hanging from a clothesline, red chili peppers drying on the pavement. An old woman on a stool plucks the tips off of spinach leaves. She is keeping an eye on the neighbor's toddler, busy bossing around a puppy. An elderly man is doing his exercises- swinging his legs, briskly patting his body and then walking backwards. The noodle lady is there as always- large baskets of 5-foot long cooked rice noodles strapped to her bicycle. The random entourage of old and young sit in chairs around my gatekeeper (who's eyes are intently watchful beneath his Mongolian fur hat, even as he pulls from his 3 foot bamboo water pipe) I edge around the man sleeping on the ground at the gate, with a handwritten sign on water-stained cardboard that says "DVD, TV sales and repair".
I start down my humble alleyway, rich with the pungent clouds of boiling, frying or roasting potatoes, grilled squid on a stick, and large steaming bamboo baskets of rice buns. The alley is lined with carts and blankets laden with both familiar and science fiction fruits; the younger and more daring vendors yell as I pass by, bidding me to taste a slice of bowling ball sized grapefruit. (Most people bring their own produce down from the mountainside, sometimes by bus, sometimes by bike) I weave between the bike and donkey carts, laughing herds of uniformed students, and the costumed vendor ladling sweet lotus flower paste from an enormous brass cauldron. Before I reach a main street I pass under the brilliant, gold leafed arches that adorn the cobblestone square, beneath the distant specks of butterfly kites. I pass the wooden gates to an exotic maze of alleyways; it is crammed with rows of tea vendors (peddling san qi roots, licorice, ginger and massive dried mushrooms), serenaded by the rock and karaoke of empty but hopeful bars. I lean around the roundabout, the heart of the town's traffic. 3 White steel peacocks hold their graceful stance in an island of perfectly pruned marigolds.
The next portion of my commute to work is like a cruise through a muted carnival- everything is illuminated in cotton candy colors. One of people's favorite evening pastimes is 'walking and seeing the street', which is understandable in this Mecca of visual delights. Department store stairwells ripple with neon lights; dancers or models attract a crowd at the entrance. The slated pedestrian path is jeweled with green, orange and yellow squares of light. Four stone dragon heads rise from the steaming purple light of a dancing-water fountain pool. Then I hunker down to brave the dizzying row of clothing stores- rows of plastic coats, striped sweaters and hot pink pants- the mannequins' ensembles look almost precisely the same in each store. There are always more attendants than customers.
Two young people stand outside each store, straining to clap as energetically as they can, yelling "come on, come on! stop in! great deals!" They are almost screaming to the blaring backdrop of obnoxious 2 beat techno, clashing with the equally awful and loud music of every neighboring store. The screeching techno fades as I cruise deeper into the red lantern street- beneath the softly arched bows of eternally green trees, symmetrically draped with the rich luminescence of deep red lanterns. I hear the synthesized jingle of Christmas melodies, and turn to see the garbage truck edging down the street- people run out of stores with their bags of trash when they hear its music. Then past the bongo trees, giant jade Buddha and calligraphy shops of this last alleyway. I wheel my bike down into the bicycle parking garage, where the family that lives there is watching TV, throwing seeds to their chicken, or cooking in the stuffy basement air. Then up to work.
The following are excerpts from my recent trip:
At each location, I was greeted and guided by a teacher that also served as the local PEACH representative I should mention that I started a pen-pal program between Merced and PEACH sponsored-students. I brought the first batch of letters from the US, and wanted to deliver them personally to the students so I could offer them an explanation, help them translate and respond.
The first school I visited was in Taian, outside of Lijiang, in southwestern China. Lijiang is one of Yunnan's major tourist attractions. It is famous for its old town, a charming maze of cobblestone alleys and bridged waterways, and its location beneath the cloud soaring peak of the 'Snowy Jade Mountain'. The Naxi are the primary minority nationality in this area. Their traditional language and religion is distinct from the Han. The young people in Lijiang dressed in the furs and colored aprons of Naxi costume are outfitted for tourist benefit- the old women's dress is a bit less vibrant but hand made and authentic. They always have something strapped on their back-either a baby, or a several gallon-size basket of turnips or apples for the market. Guojun was my guiding teacher here.
November 24, 2001:
Our summit to the Tai'an school started at one of those literal 'hole in the wall' restaurants; a cement enclave with one case of veggies and eggs, and a few low stools and tables. The man picking through lettuce leaves near the entrance welcomed us with an exuberant smile. "This is one of our teachers. His wife opened this restaurant and on the weekends he comes to town to help" Guojun explained. I tried to imagine finding one of my U.S. teachers squatting on a dirty roadside, enthusiastically helping to prepare 20- cent meals to supplement the family's finances. As is the case with many teachers, he lives at the school and only returns home on the weekends to visit his family. It is too far to make the commute every day, and because his wife has a business in town she can't live at the school with him.
Our jeep/tractor/truck (I'm not sure which) mobile finally showed up, and we piled in. After passing the city-outskirts industries (manual cement mixers, ornate iron door displays and stone carvers) the road became windy and steep. We rattled through auburn- fringed pine trees, brick furnaces, and stone walls of Naxi houses. Some were marked with the thick red letters of government slogans, others with the mysterious pictographs of ancient Naxi religious script. Goats rambled through harvested cornfields, baby pigs squealed from muddy ditches, and the occasional old woman emerged from the woods with a basket of firewood strapped to her back.
Suddenly the driver veered onto what I thought was a washed out ditch. After bouncing along for a short period I spotted the gray fortress walls of the school on the hillside above. The principal came out to greet us as we slowed through the gates. I tried to control my scouring eyes, tempted to pick apart the facilities, and reciprocate his warm greeting. Several dilapidated wooden buildings framed a weedy courtyard. A large raised water fountain with evenly spaced faucets protruding from the walls stood in the center. A boy was beating his laundry beneath one of the open spouts. A couple of girls giggled as they swatted a badminton birdie back and forth. The rest of the school was empty- most students had returned home for their weekly visit, and were probably just starting their journey back to the school, to make it in time for Sunday's evening classes. (Most of the student's homes are scattered throughout the mountainside, and accessible only by foot. Their walk may take anywhere from one to six hours. At Taian, all of the students live at school and return home either once a week, once a month, or once a term to visit their families. There was no phone at the school, so their contact with their families is limited to their trips home.)
Guojun helped me carry my things up to my room, presented me with a thermos of boiled water, and indicated the bucket and basin for washing on the porch. The wooden floor was warped but clean, a thick blanket folded at the foot of my bed. When I went downstairs they introduced me to Eve, whom they prided as their best English teacher. I politely nodded in understanding acknowledgement as she eagerly translated the simplest Chinese phrases into English for me. After a brief rest we all loaded into the jeep tractor and headed down the road for lunch. We settled at one of the village's two restaurants. Guojun asked if I would mind waiting a little while, because they would like to kill a chicken. They wouldn't accept my insistence that it was unnecessary, and we decided to go see the government offices while we waited.
A few people sat around one of open rooms watching TV and spitting sunflower seeds. We climbed the stairs to the academic department, to review general information about student population at various schools in the district (county may be a more appropriate word here). All of their carefully compiled information was listed on two chalkboards - a hand drawn map over rows of numbers. Student statistics indicated grade, sex, and nationality. I wish they had a printout with this information, but settled for closely studying the chart. As I suspected, over 90% of the population was of Naxi nationality. A few other minority nationalities were listed including Bai and Pumizu, and a couple of Han Chinese. The ratio between males and females seemed fairly equal in all the grades.
By the time we returned after lunch, the school was coming alive with students and teachers. Most of the students were engaged in their assigned chores- sweeping, heading up the hills with baskets on their backs to collect firewood, hanging up laundry or cleaning the bathrooms. (No plumbing of course, just cement slabs with slots over a large pit) We went for a tour of the facilities- the girl's dorm was a large rectangular room, with rows of bunk beds to accommodate about 40 girls. 8 girls huddled on one bed, bowed their heads and covered their smiles as I approached them. Each bed had a blanket roll, a small case and piles of books and papers at its foot. The bed was the extent of their personal living and storage space. Dorm rules were listed on chalkboard- no spitting, swearing, or washing clothes in the room.
We pass through one of the kitchens, two shallow cauldrons built into the surface of a brick stove. Some students vanish with their rice bowls when I enter. Only the giggling, blushing cook is left to speak with me. She swirls a large ladle around some kind of vegetable broth and reluctantly answers my questions- she takes the bus to town twice a week to buy supplies. The students pay for each meal, by the scoop. A spoonful of vegetables or potatoes costs about five cents, a spoonful of meat dish about 20 cents. That means that most children subsist on veggies and potatoes. We walked up to the boy's dorm, a series of rooms that housed 8 students each. I ignore the heavy smell suggesting months of accumulation of sweat and socks (bathing is not a frequent luxury) - and extend a brief greeting as some boys grin and recede into the sparseness of their room.
The 'library' or book room was the last door on the second floor. After securing the key (in many offices, getting a key requires unlocking a series of drawers that contain the key to the next drawer) we stepped inside a dusty room, with a large table and apparently random piles of books in the center. Some textbooks, novels, puzzles, a few joke books and magazines. I ask who supplies the books - most are provided by the contributions that students and teachers are required to make. Each student must bring one each year, the teachers 5-10. After the library tour, we stopped by the teacher's preparation room. It was spacious and sunny, with several rows of wooden desks. Teachers instruct 2-4 hours of class each day, and spend the rest of their workday here preparing lessons, grading assignments, and studying on their own to ensure they are delivering quality education to their students.
It was time to start meeting with the students and delivering their letters. This also gave me the opportunity to talk with them personally. Some were enthusiastic, some relaxed, some solemn, and some almost petrified in my presence. I encouraged those that were open and comfortable to tell me about their situation, and just focused attention on the letters with those that seemed a bit uncomfortable.
I was moved by the quietly sincere words that some chose to share with me. They revealed a determination to succeed fueled by their personal hardships, without ever complaining about difficulties in their lives. They were driven to study in hopes that one day they would be capable of mending the wounds of their families' and villages' life. Their aspirations were rarely centered on personal desire for money, or freedom from their village life. I was surprised when most of them told me they wanted to return home after university. They all spoke of how their successes would help them support their families financially, or enable them to improve village life with critical skills and services. I considered that they might present their future plans in way that they thought would satisfy me, but after hearing each individual story it was difficult to believe they were anything but deeply sincere.
For example, Li lives with her family 3 hours (walking) away from school. They are farmers; they grow potatoes and corn and raise some pigs. Sometimes they grow enough to make the journey to market and sell some of their produce, but usually have to worry about money. Their dire economic situation is exasperated by her older sister's 'sickness'. Several years ago she had an accident, and is now partially paralyzed and bed ridden. Not only do they lack her labor contribution but her medical needs have been an unbearable strain on already inadequate finances. Often, she lacks the medicine or treatment she needs. Li hopes to continue studying and become a doctor, then return to her village to work.
Kang lives with his grandmother, who he sees work in the fields despite failing health. "Of course her life is difficult. But she bears all of her burden inside, she doesn't let me see her pain". When I ask if he is interested in living in the city he states that he want to live somewhere that "has mountains, has water". He wants to continue through university, but return home to work to improve village life and ease his grandmother's burden. His biggest hope is that she won't have it so hard in the future.
In the evening I visited several classes- I tried to ignore the wind rushing in through broken windows, as I politely struggled to interpret the students' roughly phrased English questions. Qun, a chemistry teacher, soon dominated the discussion with her own questions- "how is the U.S. system different from the Chinese educational system?" Fundamental aspects of China's traditional educational system still shape modern education; most of the curriculum and instruction is designed to prepare the students for standardized tests. If they don't do well on those tests, they will have either grim or no prospects for continuing their education. (For example, students that finish junior high with low scores won't be allowed to attend high school. This emphasis on scores presents particular challenges for villagers that hope to eventually study at more prestigious schools in the city. A Beijing resident can study at a Beijing university with a score of 300 on their final examination. A villager must have a score of 600 for the same chance).
There is a saying in China (Ying shi jiao yu) that means education focused on test - that is now an unpopular phrase. The government and teachers are now beginning to emphasize the concept of developing and encouraging individual talent among their students, instead of conditioning conformity. I am not clear how they are implementing that concept yet, and apparently Qun wasn't sure how to practice that in her teaching either. She was eager for strategies that Western educators used to address the needs and talents of individual students.
After class I joined Eve in the staff cafeteria for cold potatoes. I dipped wedges into chili powder and listened as she told me about her job, family, and her boyfriend in the army. I asked how she came to work at Taian. She explains that she doesn't have her BA yet- she has completed two years of school and the government assigned her to come and teach. She is completing her degree during her vacations. I suddenly understand why most of the teachers here are so young. Most of them are in a similar situation. It is difficult to recruit a fully certified and experienced teacher to come work in such a remote location. I prod for a little more information about the extent of government assigned work in modern China. She explains that all university students are currently assigned their positions by the government. They can refuse and look for work on their own if they are so inclined, but will inevitably encounter difficulties if they decide to do so. (My tutor in Kunming insists that the government dramatically reduced work assignments in 1997. I have heard even different claims from other people, so have concluded that the role of government assigned work in people's lives varies by generation, location, and profession.)
Eve speaks of government assigned work as a security, and a service to the public that will soon be unavailable. "With China's accession into the WTO, the market competition will grow increasingly strong. Just having a degree won't be enough to guarantee employment. People will have to work exceptionally hard to develop and prove their talents." I ask how she feels about being assigned to work in such a remote location. "I have an obligation to, and desire to help my home village, so I am very happy to work here. If I get assigned to work in the city after several years, I would also agree to go." She says she is happy at the school, where she has the opportunity to both help students and pursue her own studies. Though the school lacks materials, modern technology and convenient access to the world outside, she respects the knowledge that the other teachers can provide, and still sees potential for growth here.
After dinner we settle around a basin of coals in Qun's room. She is bursting with energy and questions. She loves to dance, play guitar and 'fun'. She had the opportunity to study in Kunming, so feels her mentality is a little different from her co-workers. Sometimes she would put a radio outside and 'dance like crazy' in the cold mountain night. She shakes her head imagining the impression she made on the others. She smacks her lips and reaches a sports-jacketed arm through the smoke for some melon seeds, then flattens her hands above the coals simmering heat. I admire her cozy room, and she explains that the students built these quarters just last year. She used to live in the students dorm. The teachers would try to at least give the student' meals in exchange for their work, but they refused. They gained a sense of proud satisfaction from helping their teachers. She lowers her tone and asks me what I feel a girl has to do to be happy, by the sudden heaviness in her voice and her stern expression I can see she has spent time pondering this. She explains that she wants to have experience in the world, and her parents can't understand her drive. They want her to settle down, but she doesn't think she could be satisfied with the same scope of experiences they have had.