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Notes from China by Jenny Dunn February 2002 - part 2

Notes from China

By Jenny Dunn February 2002 - part 2

November 27, 2001:

In Eryuan- (Outside of Dali, South of Lijiang. Prominent minority- Bai, with few significant differences from the Han.)

I wake up to a robust chorus of roosters. Silver light has barely found its way over the mountains that frame this small valley. I go downstairs to wash in the steaming water from the hot spring, and listen to the spattering rumble of the first tractor jeeps, the hack of butcher's knives. In the warming sunlight I look up to see that the mountains (which were dark and blue when I arrived in the night) are endless ripples of cultivation- green, amber, tan and yellow layers of sustenance. It is overwhelming to contemplate the hours of human labor; stooping, digging, watering and picking; that have combined to carve so much sustenance into just one mountainside.

I walk through the village and rows of fields to the school, already in session when I arrive. Xiang, the local PEACH representative, helps recruit all of the PEACH students at once and organizes them in the teachers' preparation room. After a brief introduction I distribute and start helping to translate the letters. I take the opportunity to speak with a few as they finish.

Kong, a 15 year old ninth-grader, was particularly open and brave, and eager to speak with me. She pointed north and explained her home was on a distant mountaintop. She says that it takes her about two hours to walk there, and then exclaims she loves to "climb the mountain". Her father had the chance to study through 5th grade, but her mother only through second. Sometimes she helps her mother read the paper, but laments that they don't really have that much time together. Her brother is 20, and helps farm. He had to stop studying after sixth grade because "the money was all used up." She is pained by his lack of opportunity, insisting that he is very intelligent and loved school. " But he really shows concern for me. Whenever I go home he does all the work and won't barely let me do anything, so I can study. He wants me to study hard so I can grow up and be a good and productive person." She describes her hopes of going to a prestigious university, and eventually going to the U.S. for graduate school to become a scientist. I ask how her parents feel about her plans and she insists that they really support her, and also hope that she will one day be able to 'make valuable contributions to society.' She immediately turns the conversation to PEACH herself- "I have so many plans, and because of your support I can work towards them. Really, I will study so hard and I know I will succeed. I won't disappoint you, please believe me."

Suddenly her enthusiasm turns to sternness beyond her years, and she asks if she can tell me about her friend. "When I was in primary school I had a best friend with the same last name as me. She was so smart, and got excellent grades. I didn't do as well as her in school, and she would always help me. She never got impatient, and put forth her sincerest efforts to make sure I understood. But then, when she was eleven her dad died. Her mom couldn't manage to farm and earn enough money for tuition, so she had to quit school and help at home" Her voice quivers as she outlines what she feels is a nearly unbearable tragedy. "Really, at that time if I was able to, I would have given up my own studies, and worked to support her studies. But I was too little, I didn't have any ability to do anything to help, she had to stop school and there was nothing that we could do about it." I know this is a common story, but I am particularly compelled by Kong's description. My joy of meeting the students that PEACH supports is momentarily pinched by the necessary realization that there are still so many...

My next conversation was with Xue, a 14 year old girl. She currently lives with her aunt, who does random part-time labor. She started with very simple explanation of her home life, studies, and friends. When I asked why she didn't live with her parents I could feel her strain to maintain a cool tone. "A while ago, because my parents were having extreme economic difficulties, they got involved in some illegal business." They were imprisoned, so Xue and her sister moved in with different family members. These family members could provide them with basics, but also had their own children to care for and the cost of tuition would be too much. I asked if she had any contact with her parents- she used to, but her mother died in prison last year. She has been writing her dad but hasn't heard from him in months. I can feel that we have discussed this enough, and meekly ask about her studies and hopes for the future. I can see her grow confident again as she outlines the future she now, with the chance to study, as the opportunity to pursue. She wants to attend university and find a 'stable' career. More than anything she wants to return to her village after university, in hopes that her father will one day return and they can be together.

Xiang had explained that we would have to travel to the government offices in town, about half hour away, to register my presence in town. This is the required legal procedure for foreigners in China, but he is the only one of my hosts that felt it was necessary to take this measure during my short trip. Li, one of the teachers, joins us for the ride, and on the way explains to me about the hierarchy of professions in the school system. All of the professionals, including principals, vice-principals, curriculum designers, and financial managers, are also teachers. There is an expression in Chinese "wai lai guan nei" that means "the outside manages the inside", which represents an undesirable practice in China. It would be inappropriate for a principal to manage a school without having the level of contact with students and teachers that teaching provides. In this way, he is more likely to understand and protect the interests of everyone in the school. When I asked how people came to occupy their positions, he explained that the system is currently changing. Before, people were simply designated by higher powers. Soon, teachers will have the opportunity to apply for higher, more well-paid positions. The schools are hoping to improve leadership by allowing for a more competitive application process.

At the government headquarters:

We step through a weeded courtyard, passed wooden slated windows and into a cold and lightless room. The secretary entered in dirty jeans, a pink jacket and a ponytail to bring us tea. After a few moments two officials showed up with apologies, their hair askew from either a lunch over liquor or an afternoon nap. My host jumps up to offer them cigarettes, and after some light exchanges they settle into a solemn discussion. Their words quickly slip from Mandarin into the habitual tones of their dialect. I fell from about 70 to 20 percent understanding, gripped my steaming teacup and examined the room. Like many places in China, It seemed to be somewhere between construction, repair, and dilapidation. The top of the wall is white, the bottom chalky green. The white drip marks on the bottom would normally suggest it had been recently painted- but the chipping paint revealed the age of the job. It seems that mid-construction the job was deemed sufficient, and abandoned. I am accustomed to this quality of work in China, but still can't help noticing when it appears even in a region's prestigious government offices.

Each man took turns pulling out shiny red packs of cigarettes, and reaching through the thick smoke to pass out another round. This frequent gesture seemed to fuel the conversation, and soften its solemnity. After about 20 minutes one official politely translated the gist of their conversation into mandarin. First he assured me there is no need to be scared, (I suppress a smile, something about his presence; maybe its the colorfully mismatched socks; doesn't suggest a threat) but they would like to ask some questions and get very familiar with my situation. He then began an explanation paved with assurances of how appreciative they were for PEACH's services, and that I should take the time to visit their school. However, it was their responsibility to adhere to the appropriate procedures. All of my time and activities in the village would be monitored, just in order to protect everyone's interests. They ask what my purpose is- after a simply idealistic explanation of my interest in Yunan's educational development, they still seem unsatisfied. They are forced to get a little more direct (an uncomfortable approach in many Chinese dialogues) before I realize they want to know if I am making any money doing this work. They seem relieved when I explain that all of PEACH's volunteers work at their own expense, and no one is making a profit. One official asks to see my passport, and after scrutinizing all of the irrelevant pages he seems satisfied, brushes off the ash and hands it back.

Leaving Yangbi (also outside of Dali) for Wanquan, a fairly inaccessible village in the mountains.

After the (travel) negotiations we finally loaded up and prepared for departure- we sit idling in the street waiting for who or what I'm not sure, until an couple of guys, one with a bag of potatoes and the other with a broom and bucket squeeze into the back seat. I fasten my seat belt as we maneuver through the tight alleyways crowded with people and goods, and then finally break out of town and speed towards the river. The pavement lasts for about 2 miles, until we are rattling along broken slate and gravel. The driver beams as he handles his '92 jeep on the inhospitable terrain. He just shrugged and laughed when I asked why he didn't go to school passed 5th grade, stating he preferred machines, and driving. At 21 he makes his living driving, is about to marry and seems more than fulfilled. He explains that we are on the road to Burma- I believe it. Outside the shaded corridors of Yangbi's buildings, the open garages of welders and hair dressers, the sun is suddenly almost overwhelming.

I love that about this part of China- one evening I'm crouched around a basin of coals in my down jacket, and a little over a day later I'm sweating in a t-shirt, hugging a road sloppily carved from a deep red hillside and fringed with the thick fauna of banana trees and flowers. The opaque jade river far below is beautiful but daunting, but I trust my driver's love and confidence for his job. I'm soon distracted by his relentless curiosity "how much is gasoline in the US, what are funerals like, what kind of yell do you make when you are really surprised?" When I tell him I have a 4-runner at home he hits the brakes and insists that we switch spots. No one else in the car can drive, and I think they are both captivated and slightly terrified when I take over. I slow to creep passed pigs, workers, yaks and washouts until they get impatient (they assure me I don't have to make staying on the right side such a priority) and we switch again. My driver can handle these roadblocks like they are permanent fixtures. He finally points to a few tendrils of smoke on the distant terraced hillside, and explains that is our destination.

Our approach to the village is announced with shouts and greetings between villagers on the street, in the houses and on the mountainside. I ask if we can look at the hospital, a graying building perched on the crumbly hillside. 'YEAH, sure, no problem!' We wander into the courtyard, and soon are surrounded by about 15 people - I can't tell which are farmers, nurses or patients. I am introduced to one, in an unraveling olive green sweater, as the only doctor. I hear an infant cry, and peek into some empty rooms. There are a few beds against the walls and piles of tangerine peels on a stained concrete floor. I glance in the medicine storage room, some glass bottles with clear liquid on sparse aluminum shelves, a single IV bag.

We move up the mountain toward the school, and meet the principal. He is glowing as he shakes my hand, and introduces the other staff members. We talk briefly over tea and sunflower seeds, while one of the teachers organizes the PEACH students. After an introduction I distribute their letters. I can't read much emotion in their solemn expressions, but they all immediately show an acute focus in trying to understand each word. I leave the English teacher in charge and move to the office where I can speak with the principal individually.

He comes from family of local farmers. Both he and his little brother attended university. When I asked why his older brother didn't have the opportunity, he pointed out that that was during the cultural revolution- nobody studied. He was lucky to make it to University just as Deng Xiaoping was promoting education. When I asked why his sister only studied to third grade he reminded me of the Chinese phrase "Chong nan, qing nu" ('girl light, boy heavy' is a direct but poor translation) It wasn't such a priority for women to study then. "Some people still feel like this. That we have so many girls that can study with us now is no small achievement" He still has a younger brother in school, and he is now providing his tuition. He is also supporting his wife's nieces and nephews in their studies. When I ask about his own daughter, in first grade, he says he hopes she will at least get her BA, and hopefully more. "There is too much competition now. It is very difficult for people with less education to find good work". I ask about the greatest challenges for both students and educators in this region, and he outlines several issues in the same order that teachers at the other schools have.

"We live in a mountainous region. Most students' families are peasants, and are very poor. They often can't afford even minimal schooling expenses (China has compulsory education, through ninth grade. This education is supposedly free, but there are various fees attached, for board, books, insurance and miscellaneous costs, that still make it too expensive for many farmer's budgets.) Transportation is also very poor, which makes it too hard for some kids to come to school. Sometimes if their families are having a really hard time, they need their kids to help them work at home so don't let them continue to study. Most people value education, and would like their kids to at least complete junior high. Even if they are to stay here and work the land, they should be able to read, and have some basic knowledge. But it is just impossible for some."

Another problem they are struggling with is the lack of materials. "The country is changing its curriculum. Now it is important to know about computers, and use modern technology to learn about the world. We could never afford these things. We don't even have enough books. This makes it really difficult for any of our students to pursue higher education, when they are so far behind the others" (Regions like Wanquan don't have their own high school- students have to go live in the closest city if they make it into high school. Many of their peers will have a stronger academic background, having attended schools with better facilities in their earlier years.)

I had expressed interest in visiting some of the students' homes. For most, whose homes were only accessible by hours of walking that would be impossible during this short stay. One of my meetings was interrupted by the announcement that they had brought one of the student's families to me- I went outside to reciprocate the smiling greetings of a small, thin framed man in tattered blue Mao uniform. I only have to ask one or two simple questions about his grandson's situation before he launches into a long and detailed account of his family history. I am relieved and grateful for his openness- I feel invasive asking people about the hardships they have, or are, enduring. He talks about both small difficulties and major tragedies in an unwavering tone that suggests they are inevitable facts in the course of life.

Several years ago, when Yue was only three years old, his father died of an illness. "What kind of illness, I'm not really clear" he comments. His mother remarried and had another daughter, but several years later fell ill herself. "She had to go to the hospital, and have medicine. But after a year, all the money was used up. She couldn't get treatment anymore and she died. Her daughter could live with his father, and his other daughter. Those girls were old enough to go to school, but he couldn't afford it. Yue was left, with no one to watch him. He had already studied through third grade. He came to live with us, and my other daughter. Our advantage is we live close to the school. He could still live at home and eat all his meals at home, so we could save a little money that way. We were also able to change his identity card to this village, so we didn't have to pay the 'outsider' fee for school.

In China people have identity cards that note where they were born. It is often difficult to pursue work or studies outside of one's native district. Students have to pay a fee if they study at a different school. The more urban the location is, the higher the fee. More quality schools are located in more urban regions, so sometimes people with the best financial situation in a village will leave to attend a better school. This means that the wealthiest element of the village population takes their money to a more prosperous area. Though it is rare for a villager to afford that extra expense, it exemplifies a major barrier to village development- those that have the means often take the opportunity to leave the village, instead of staying and supporting local infrastructure.

Even after avoiding some expenses, Yue's schooling was still a strain on the families finances, needed to care for both the aging and newest generation." We are just farmers, what we grow is what we eat. I don't understand another way to make money. Sometimes people can do some hard labor, but I am too old for that now. Bosses want the young healthy guys." Luckily, with PEACH's help Yue could continue on to junior high. I ask Chong about his hopes for Yue's future. "That just depends on how he does- if he gets good grades I hope he can keep on studying. But high school is in Yangbi that is far away and even more expensive. We are old now, and unless he gets some support we can't afford that. But I hope he can pursue his studies, and I hope he stays healthy."

After learning about the family history I understand why he emphasizes health several times as one of his biggest concerns for Yue's future. I ask about his own educational background, and he declares that he studied 3 and a half years. He can write a little, but not much. He can read some characters but there are many he doesn't understand. His response to my inquiry of why he didn't continue studying is the same response I have heard many times by now- the road was too bad, the school too far, and there wasn't enough money.

"What did you do after you stopped school?"
"Would you have liked to continue studying if you had the chance?"
"Liked to or not, that is just how the situation was! I farm now, I don't worry about if I would have liked to study or not"

I am getting accustomed to this kind of response by now, when I ask for reflections on passed opportunities, regrets or wishes. Both young and old seem a bit puzzled by such questions, and just reiterate the inevitability of their situation. He laughs when I ask if they are able to buy the things they need in the village, or have to go to town sometimes. "Need, we can't afford to buy! We eat what we can grow; we use what we can make. Sometimes if there are extra vegetables, we can sell a little at the market." At the very most he goes to town once a year. As far as clothes, he just indicates his blue jacket. From what I understand, he hasn't bought any clothes for a long time.

(Later that evening, we went to visit Yue's home, the only one near the school.) We edge down a steep 'pathway' to the thatched mud walls of Chong's home. The family leaps up with exclamations when we enter the courtyard, the center of the family life. There is a water pump near the wall, and a large flat stone for preparing food. The house's trim is densely hung with ears of drying corn. A couple of chickens gossip in the shadows. The wrinkled four-foot tall woman in authentic Mao costume (the blue criss-cross material across her chest, large hoops in her ears and thick black wrapping around her head) rushes up and fastens strong fingers around my hands. She is gushing with exclamations of their luck and gratitude "and it is all possible because of the communist party!"

My driver leans over and explains that I am a PEACH representative. Her enthusiasm doesn't skip a beat as she rushes to praise the fortune they have thanks to PEACH. After a tour of two bedrooms and the stone cooking shelter, I ask if I can take a picture. They laugh, exclaim, and make a show of trying to determine the best place and pose for the picture. The grandmother unfastens and re-winds her head wrap, patting it like a western woman might pat her hairstyle to ensure it's in place. After pictures and fond farewells, we make it back up the hillside, politely denying the other villagers' invitations for us to sit and rest in their home for a while.

We return to my driver's aunt's restaurant, (a sheltered pavement slab) where I find an entourage of school affiliates, and an elaborate feast waiting on the table. I smile, remembering that it is Thanksgiving. I sit down as they distribute the bowls of 'beijiu' (means white liquor- it is made from other rice or corn, and is approximately 80 proof). The principal lifts his bowl to toast his gratitude for PEACH, and reiterate how happy he is that I could come to visit their students and school. I take modest sips, as every few moments someone feels moved to toast PEACH and seal our new friendship with another drink. They take turns placing the finest bits of ribs, vegetables, and pig stomach in my bowl. I notice a trend I have noticed at the other schools- the principal seems to only pick at the food, ensuring the others get their fill of the best dishes. The dinner is long and relaxed, steaming dishes replace empty ones. I should be nervous (thinking about the road to Yangbi) but can't help laughing as our driver toasts our friendship with increasing frequency and sincerity, and soon even breaks into song. He has time to cool down while sitting with the villagers under the stars outside, and then visiting his grandmother and soon-to-be in-law's, house. Then we bump along towards Yangbi to the Chinese techno remix of 'California Dreaming'.


January 19, 2002:

I just returned from an extended to stay in Wachan, during which I had the opportunity to spend more time at the school with the students. I also visited and got to know several of their families. Spending time with the people whose lives are so dramatically changed by PEACH was awesome. It is no wonder that these students are so bright and diligent. I saw in their parents (or caretakers) determination to do everything in their power to help their children transcend the confines of illiteracy and poverty that make their own lives so difficult. Circumstances including sickness, death, and disaster have brought devastation to these families already meager incomes. Despite their ceaseless work and industriousness with the limited resources they have, they would not be able to afford their children's education on their own. These families that have been exhausted by tragedy and hardships are now glowing with optimism for the future. I felt so humble as they exuberantly lavished me with thanks and the simple gifts they had (especially their hospitality), as it was difficult to explain that I am not the source of their fortune. So far I have done nothing but witness the miracles (I do not use this word lightly) that PEACH has performed.

My days in Wachan were a combination of joy from having the chance to see people's world's so positively transformed, and sorrow sourced by encounters with people who haven't been so fortunate. It was heart wrenching to sit in the chicken-hut home of one woman, whose husband, after years of abuse, gambling and alcoholism, died and left the family drained of all the mother's careful savings. She took out a loan to build a home, which was destroyed in a landslide and left her both homeless and in debt. Her 15 year old son has needed several surgeries, and is now bedridden and in pain, without the finances to continue helpful treatment. Her daughter, once top in her class, is preparing to pull out of school as she knows her mother can't afford her tuition. This is extremely painful for her mother, who sees the only escape from their trials in her daughter's educational success.

I did not intend to turn this into a solicitation with number talk - but I couldn't help thinking that $200 could give this family the hope that I had seen in others. They are just one example of so many people who deserve PEACH's gift, which is so much more than money. It is offering people the chance to develop their potential, find their own success and then share that success with the people that they love.


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