Some 7000 miles away from sunny Southern California, there lies a village in China. It’s almost eerily quiet, composed of only a few winding streets and bookended by greenery and reddish-ochre dirt. You can walk in one end and out the other in fifteen minutes. Everything looks run-down: cracked building facades, perpetually slimy streets, odds and ends piled outside. It seems empty. But every few days, this ghostly place bursts into uproarious life with a fairytale-like market. Tents spring up, shading villagers hawking their wares—locally grown fruits and vegetables, spices and herbs, chickens and ducks. The streets become packed as people flock to the center of town, and the air is ripe with yelling. This is where I lived for two weeks one summer.
That summer, a group of nine students from the U.S. traveled to Jiangxi, a southeastern province of China. We were brought together by the Youth Care Club, a student-run branch of the nonprofit American Chinese Culture and Education Foundation, whose fundraisers sponsor the education of underprivileged children in rural China. We, dazed and spoiled Americans, were to meet some of the people in Jiangxi, teach the children English, and have them teach us what their lives were like. We had volunteered to help at two different ?????? (loosely translated: orphanages for kids who aren’t technically orphans but whose parents are working in the city and left their children behind to be raised by relatives and thus are orphans nonetheless). Materials were bought, a curriculum was painstakingly prepared, and we were off.
The outside walls of the village school/orphanage are yellow-tiled and smooth, rising geometrically into the white sky. As we got out of the car the first morning, three little girls in sandals who had been peering into the building turned to gape at us. We asked them their names and ages—two of them chirped that they were eight and nine, but the third girl did not make a sound, instead staring fearfully. We entered the building. There were children at the table working studiously, perched on stools or rickety benches. Some looked up and whispered, staring at the funny foreigners entering their territory. They were all serious and quiet.
The principal of the school keeps a collection of students’ old work. He proudly showed us the shelves in a back room, piled high with yellowing pages of Chinese brush characters. There were also charcoal portraits, realistic and soulful, as if the pictures touched upon the very nature of the person being depicted. Most of the expressions on the drawn faces were shadowed and weary. It made me sad that the children who drew them must have understood such weighty emotions so young. We were led into a tiny shrine-like room covered in framed pictures. I wandered absently over to one wall only to be struck speechless by a familiar face in one photo—looking out at me was my dad, sitting side by side with the principal in this very building. Sitting on my dad’s lap, smiling and chubby, was a smaller version of me. I had no recollection of visiting there before and was disturbed to realize how my prior experiences in China evidently had such little effect on me. What I remembered was heat and mosquitos and relatives—not seeing in person the students I had spent the last few years helping from across the sea. I always imagined seeing something as heart-wrenching as children without parents, households with no hope, would leave a bigger impact on my mind, yet my trip years ago apparently left none. This summer, though, was different.
Maybe it was teaching and really interacting with the kids, or that I’m just older now, but I will never forget the sheer surprise and pride that rushed through me when I became recognized as a child’s teacher. Many of the students refer to us as just “teacher”. It’s common in China, and although in this case it’s because it’s easier than remembering full names, I felt a sense of accomplishment all the same. Every day, we helped the native kids with their summer homework, gave lectures about American culture (e.g. holidays, tourist locations), and led short English lessons. Most of these children had never been out of this part of China, so we wanted to bring the world to them. It was miraculous watching many of the quiet, sullen kids come to life and talk to us. China’s education system does not have the class participation component that America so cherishes, but in no time these children were eagerly raising hands to answer questions and laughing riotously. That many of the Chinese students actually retained English grammar from our games and lectures seems unlikely, but I like to think we showed them something of the world or inspired them in some way. They have certainly changed my perspective.
On most afternoons, we visited the homes of some students that ACCEF sponsors. Each visit went much the same way: we stepped out of the car onto a dusty road, chickens weaving between our feet. Often, piles of rubble hulked nearby. We were greeted by a parent or other relative, the child hanging back. The elderly people leapt to accommodate their guests, never failing to offer watermelon or some other kind of melon or peanuts or peaches or whatever they had. Whatever they had, they would give to us. Their enormous generosity when they themselves had so little was astounding.
All of the children were far more mature and capable than any of us; they had to take on so much more responsibility than they should have for their age, and they took it in stride. They cooked dinner, washed dishes, did laundry, and worked in the fields. Many of the children seemed reluctant to smile. Even those whose walls were papered with awards and certificates were reticent. No one was rude or bragged. They were simply quiet and determined—determined, I hope, to succeed and escape the clutches of poverty. One of the favorite sayings of ACCEF volunteers is (loosely translated) “education can change your destiny”. The kids with shining academic records seem to have taken that advice to heart, but the worst is the kids with the angry faces and hopeless eyes. I remember one boy who seemed bitter—and he should be. He’s probably old enough to have realized how unlucky his situation is, how unfair life must be to have given him this while we are bathed in affluence and showered with resources that allow us to succeed.
The lives of these people are unimaginable to us—there is no way to truly place ourselves in their shoes. We met kids whose parents had been killed or whose relative had a debilitating illness requiring all money and attention. In one case, a single mother was raising three kids, and the two boys both had leukemia. Most heartbreakingly, they had already found a bone marrow match nearby, but the treatment cost far exceeded their capabilities. ACCEF funds the education of children like these, but it doesn’t solve all of their life problems. One of our projects was to brainstorm solutions to the issue of poverty in rural China using the Future Problem Solving process, but every possibility seemed unrealistic. Massive educational reform? Overthrowing the government? Global communism? The brainstorming process shall continue.
The duration of our stay seemed to be over in a heartbeat once I stepped off the plane into the sunny blue skies of California. My memories of it became distant with time. It seems too important to forget completely though. How could I forget people who let nothing get in the way of their lives? People who understood more and did more than we, the privileged ones ever could. People who had next-to-nothing, but who gave everything. I wanted to help these people—I want to keep helping these people. With some planning and deliberation, the Jiangxi trip will be repeated next year with another group of high schoolers to open another set of eyes. It’s the thoughts of students like us and the dreams of students like them that can maybe change their lives—if not the world.