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As soon as we neared our destination, an ash grey three-story cement building and a flagpole with the official red flag of the People’s Republic of China waving proudly at the top came into view. The words “Huangfan Elementary School” were written across that building.
Twenty, maybe thirty, boys and girls, who to me looked around 7 or 8 years old, were smiling and waving cheerfully at us as we pulled up. The girls in bright dresses and braids bound with red hair ties reminded me of myself when I’d gone to school in Beijing.
I paused for a second before stepping out of the car to find large, brightly sparkling eyes looking up at us. My greetings were returned by timid yet friendly “hellos.” The principal introduced himself as Mr. Gong.
With all of the children behind us, we were led upstairs into a classroom on the second floor, stopping only when Mr. Gong wanted to show us a framed poster with the names and headshots of all the faculty and staff on it.
Complete with four fluorescent light fixtures and a small white ceiling fan, the classroom itself seemed quite modern to me. Above the blackboard, hung a large red banner that read, “Welcome!” Several more red banners with inspirational quotes such as “Study well and always strive for the best” on them decorated the room. At the very back of the room was something I was not accustomed to seeing: a ranking list with the numbers 1-59 and a student’s name beside each number. Sixty numbered desks were arranged in rows of eight.
While the students quietly took their seats, we sat down in the front of the room next to two other school officials dressed in collared shirts and khakis who were already waiting for us.
As all the attention was focused on us, I suddenly felt very awkward and exposed. I frantically started going through what was supposed to be an informal speech I’d prepared for today again and again in my head. So many wild thoughts raced through my mind. What if I mess up? What if I forget what I was going to say and just stand there like a lame-o? What if they think I sound like an idiot? What if…
I hardly heard a single thing when the principal gave an overview of the school.
For the whole duration of the principal’s speech, my heart kept on getting stuck in my throat. I really hope I didn’t look as distracted as I really was. It wasn’t until a student representative, Wenjia, began to speak that I let myself relax a little. It was just her simplicity and the serenity in her voice that spoke to me.
Then it was my turn. By that time, I was completed relaxed. For some reason, I felt like I was one of them, almost as if I’d finally found where I truly belong. It was like finding out about an identical twin living in another country. I was able to speak confidently, explaining my classes, which include English, math, science, history, Spanish, art, music, and gym, and a few of the things I was passionate about like violin and tennis. By describing what it’s like to have a sibling, play a team sport, and learn in a discussion-based classroom setting, I was able to give a sense of what it is like to live in America. At the end, I thanked everyone for listening. The applause I received for that speech was one of the most meaningful I’ve ever received, more meaningful than for any violin performance or history presentation.
As Jefferey and I went around passing out the pencil cases, pencils, and the basic sports equipment we’d bought for them, not one person neglected shake our hand or look us in the eye to say “thank you”. There was also not a word of complaint regarding the color and who got to pick first as there would have been at my school.
Afterwards, the kids were so enthusiastic about showing us their dorms and giving us a tour of the rest of the school that we could not refuse. As I walked down the long white corridor and peaked inside one of the numerous rooms on either side, I found myself looking at another classroom much different than the one we’d just been in. This one was much less spacious and the wooden desks were the old-fashioned kind and way more beat up. It finally struck me that the school had chosen the school’s best classroom for our visit.
The third floor consisted of all the dorm rooms. Nineteen boys and girls shared a room the size of my living room and a bathroom. Ten Egyptian blue metal bunk beds, with paint pealing off the sides, were arranged in ten rows of two. On each bunk lay a thin mattress and a perfectly made bed. The different colored sheets lightened the atmosphere. In addition, there were total of four large wooden cabinets, presumably for storing clothes. In the bathroom were six squat toilets and four showers separated by wooden boards. A neat row of cups containing toothbrushes stood on a metal rack on top of the sinks. Walking out of that dorm, my mind immediately went to my own room and the bathroom I have all to myself.
After visiting the student dorms on the third floor, we trudged back down to the first where the “library” was located. Two flimsy, empty bookshelves with a few outdated magazines was all there was. This was an elementary school that couldn’t even afford one copy of any of the four great Chinese classics! To be Chinese yet not to have read these novels is like living in a country without knowing who the president is.
Outside, there wasn’t much of a schoolyard. In fact, besides two pull-up bars and a cement wall , the yard was completely empty. With no tennis court, basketball court, or badminton net, I wondered how they could even use any of the sports equipment we’d gotten them.
Holding on to their new, colorful pencil pouches, the students from Huangfan Elementary walked side-by-side with my brother and me. Wanting to know more about them, I struck up conversation with some of the girls. I asked them want their goals were and what they thought the future held for them. Their answers were almost identical. They believed that a person determines his/her own destinies and they said that they would study hard in order to get accepted by top universities.
In addition, I discovered that breakfast usually consists of hot tea and a bowl of plain congee served with preserved vegetables, lunch was cooked vegetables with rice, and dinner was the same. Milk, eggs, and fresh fruit, things that we take for granted in the U.S., were considered a treat and only consumed on holidays or during the New Year. It felt like this whole time, the teachers and the students were trying to hide truth from us, from the Sunday-best outfits to the exceptional sanitation to the nice classroom.
Huangfan Elementary defines where I was originally from and it is still part of who I am. I almost felt like one of them while I was at their school. If I hadn’t been so lucky, if my parents hadn’t worked their way into a better life, I could have easily been one of them; I may very well be another girl boarding at Huangfan Elementary School who yearns for milk and eggs and fresh fruit. And it was with this thought in mind that I vowed to never again take my life for granted and to always give my love wherever I go, knowing that it will always make a difference.