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I Want To Be A Rich Person
Journey of Love -- Part I
I Want To Be A Rich Person
By Ruth Jeng
Wang, Rong Hwa, female, 14 years old; mother paralyzed last year; father hit by a boulder on the job; annual income about 2,000 yuan RMB (equivalent to US$250)
I am quite familiar with her case -- I've studied the file three times. But now, here I am sitting in front of her, scratching my head, unable to squeeze out a single question.
It is October 2000, my third trip to China. I am traveling with four other members from a Bay Area organization to visit students who are granted scholarships. Our group aids needy children in rural China to secure an education in the junior- and senior-high-school age bracket.
Hwa sits there coyly, wearing a little smile. Her body is slightly leaning forward, almost on the edge of the chair. We are sitting at the front end of the classroom. Adjacent to the back is a sleeping area. This type of live-and-work arrangement certainly cuts the commute time down to zero. I'll say that for it. The desks and chairs are worn out. The sleeping area is constructed from wooden planks to form primitive bunker beds. The quilt bedding, made from remnants of cloth with floral patterns, bring a touch of vibrancy to the gloomy room. At a glance, I would say the sleeping area could house 20 people at most.
I ask Hwa how many students there are in a class. She says 75.
"Are there enough beds?"
"No, there's not enough. At night we pull some desks together and make them into beds. Only the boys sleep in the classroom," replies Hwa, still staring at my right arm.
"Then, where do the girls sleep?" "In the girls' dorm."
"How many girls in a room?" "Fifty."
I go on to ask her about the fees for schooling. In China’s rural villages, which are still destitute despite prosperity in the cities, children have to live in the schools starting in junior high. There's not much available transportation between homes and schools. It's not unusual for a one-way commute to take more than two hours, one hour on foot and another hour by bus. Nominally, schools do not charge for tuition, but they do assess various types of "ad hoc" fees: political awareness fees, youth moral fees, common area sanitary fees, and so on. This forces many poor students to quit school. The foundation that I represent grants scholarship to children whose average family income is at or below US$300 per year. It costs around US$85 a year to send a child to junior high, or US$260 for senior high. Therefore, it is an absolute luxury for these children to get an education beyond elementary school.
Then I ask Hwa about the cost of meals. She says "none."
"How come?" That is too good to be true, I'm thinking.
She says, "I go home once every week. Each time I bring a small sack of rice to school, and the kitchen staff steams it for free."
"What goes with rice?" I ask.
"I bring a jar of pickles from home." She says.
"What?" I am puzzled by the answer, steamed rice with pickles for a whole week?
"You mean....you say... you bring rice, the school cooks it, and... . and... you eat pickles?" I am stuttering to finish the sentence. She nods.
I suddenly find my face flushed with heat and my throat choked. I have just stumbled on a secret meant to be kept from an outsider like me. I can't look at her eyes; I am too embarrassed. I almost dread the prospect of learning more details about her food. What is there to know about the variety of pickles? How elaborate can pickles be? I cannot even stay with this topic; there is so little I can do for her. I can't picture an adolescent girl living on just rice and pickles, day after day, year after year. I am sick to my stomach. My guts are wrenched.
I finally stir up the courage to ask about her mother's illness. She picks up her head, making eye contact for the first time. Her cloudy eyes are sunken, lacking a young girl's usual sparkle and brightness. A smile does bring out the dimples on her cheeks, but only to reveal more of her gauntness.
"Auntie, can we not talk about this? I don't want you to feel worse." The corner of her mouth slightly trembles, and I can't tell if it's a prelude to a smile or to a sob. She knows I am at the verge of breaking down into tears and if I cannot bear to know what she has been eating, how am I going to face the cruelty of her mother's paralysis? With an awkward smile I conclude this interview with a girl who is way too mature and considerate for her age.
Haunted by Hwa's poor diet, back in my hotel room I keep thinking about the solution to malnutrition. The next morning I finally figure it out. The solution is that the children can eat pickles in the weekdays but, when they're home on weekends I will advise them to load up with tofu. Tofu is made from soy beans, rich in protein and inexpensive to buy. I am so damn smart!
The next day I interview Zhang Guo: "Male, 13 years old, seventh grade, father deceased when he was four; mother, a farm worker, makes 800 yuan RMB a year (about US$100) and is the sole supporter of four children."
In his autobiography, Guo writes, "When I was in first grade I broke my left thigh. I quit school. I sought medical treatment in Chongqing, and managed to recover from the injury one year and 5,000 yuan later. Mother had gone to every relative and friend for help. I can't bear to see her being rejected by one after another. I'm only thirteen, but I think I've tasted enough bitterness of life."
When I first meet Guo, I am surprised by his build. He has the height of an eight-year-old, barely reaching my chest. He sits there, embarrassed, looking down at his hands.
"How many people in your family?" I already know the answer but want to break the ice.
"Five," he says, head still down, looking at the desk full of holes and dents.
"Who are they?" "One elder brother, two elder sisters, and mom."
"Aren't we missing a sheep?" I'm trying to be funny.
"And there's me, too." He raises his head and giggles. I laugh, too, as if we both feel that we've outsmarted each other in a game.
Guo has always been a high achiever, ranking first in a class of 90. Residing in a rural village he stays at school on weekdays and goes home on weekends. I ask him about the cost of meals. He says there's no expense. He, too, brings rice and pickles to school. Good, I think to myself, now I can practice my tofu solution.
I say to him, "When you go home on weekends, would you ask your mom to make you lots of tofu? You know, tofu is very nutritious. My daughter Xiang Xiang is 11, and she's as tall as I am. You know why? She likes tofu. She doesn't like meat."
"But... but, we don't get to eat tofu except during New Year's."
Wham! I feel like someone has just punched me on my chest. How can I be as naïve as Marie Antoinette -- just let them eat tofu cake?
"Does your family grow soy beans?" I am trying to hide my embarrassment with a question. He says, "yes."
I continue, " Excellent! Tofu is made from soybeans. Ask your mom to boil some soy beans and add some salt to it. It tastes even better than tofu."
"But... but... we need to sell our soy beans." Guo acts as if he needs to apologize for his answer so that it won't sound argumentative.
My heart knots up like a cotton ball. I bite my tears through my teeth but I will not give up. I am determined to find a way to solve the malnutrition problem. Staring at him for a few seconds, I spit out my solution: "Can you ask your mom not to sell it all but to save some -- just a little bit -- for you?"
Immediately I hate myself for saying that. What's the matter with me? What kind of a stupid idea is this as if Guo's family is not capable of figuring this one out on their own?
"All right, I will ask Mom..." Guo, looking up at me, says this calmly.
I know very well he's given up trying to explain the soybean situation to me. Just say "yes." Why argue with this stupid old lady? If mom could have saved some for her children, why wouldn't she?
I decide to change the subject; I am totally defeated in the area of food.
I ask, "Guo, so tell Auntie, what do you want to be when you grow up?"
Suddenly he becomes stiff, his body twisting, his hands rubbing.
"It's okay that you don't know, no problem. When I was 13, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up," I tell him tenderly.
All of a sudden he picks up his head, saying out loud, "But I know!"
I almost jump out of my chair by his loud voice. I laugh, "Okay, then tell me."
" I...I... want to be... a... a... RICH PERSON!" Immediately he lowers down his face with shame.
Among the children I have interviewed, most of them pledge to serve their country as their goal when they grow up. When I hear of such a lofty mission, I cannot help telling them, "It is a very commendable goal, but shouldn't we first try to feed ourselves and take care of our parents -- then, if circumstances permit, serve our country?"
When I hear about Guo's dream of becoming a rich person, I am as astonished as if I'd just heard the opening of the Beethoven's Fifth for the first time. What kind of poverty and desperation drives a 13-year old child raised in a communist society to dare even to dream about something so dishonorable?
" Guo, raise your head, look at Auntie. Look me right in the eyes...." He raises his head.
Looking at his big innocent eyes, I say, "We both have the same goal, and I will help you achieve your dream of becoming a rich person. Rich people all go to college, you know. Would you like to go to college?" He nods.
Because of this talk with Guo, I eventually promised all twenty students whom I interviewed that I will help them to go to college. I am obligated to it.
I continue to ask Guo about his extracurricular activities or hobbies. He says he likes to help his mom out with the farming -- it pleases her. Farming can hardly be qualified as recreational, so I ask if there's anything else he likes to do.
"There is something I love very much, but I have never done it -- does it count?" He becomes awkward again, his face turning red.
I almost crack up. "All right. It counts."
" I want to go outside to play." He says it with hesitation.
I understand what he means by “outside,” not to a playground or a field, but to a big city. The closest city is Chongqing, five hours away by bus.
"It is an attainable goal -- and soon," I coax him. Yet, he and I both know that this dream cannot be realized any time soon. For Guo, something as easy as having a picnic can be as difficult as climbing Mt. Everest.
Including Guo and Hwa, I will interview 20 children on this trip. Every single one of them has been raised in poverty. In fact this is one of the conditions for our charity's scholarship. Sometimes I feel that God is such a snob who stays away from the poor but likes to rub shoulders with the rich. The poorer you are, the more likely your house will collapse; the poorer you are, the more likely you'll have failing health; the poorer you are, the more likely you'll be down to your last luck.
Coming back from the trip, I feel like someone who usually lives in heavenly paradise traveled back from hell. What have I done to deserve such a wonderful life and what have they done to deserve a life of such destitute? Surely I work hard for what I have. So do they, but apparently not hard enough to afford tofu once a week? Is it fate? Is it destiny? Can it be changed?
After returning back to the States, I start a College Loan Program for the Foundation. China is going through a major economic reform, and the unemployment rate is on the rise. A high school graduate simply can't find a job that even remotely promises to make one a "rich" person. A college education is the only way out of this vicious cycle of poverty. I promised all twenty of "my" children that I would loan money to them so they can go to college. I know I cannot help all the children of the world, but I will help 20 and many more in years to come. After these 20 children graduate from college, they will help their families and pay back the money they owe. The same money will be recycled to help another 20 and their families, and so on and so forth. In the end if I do the math right, I may save two hundred thousand people from poverty. When does it end?
There is no end -- love has no end.
Epilogue: Guo's humble little dream of going "outside" to play so haunted me that nine months later I invited 13 children for a one-week vacation in Chongqing. Guo got to realize his dream to play "outside"; Hwa got to sample different food in the restaurants for a change; Dong got his first pair of eyeglasses so he can see better. Living in the rural villages, most of these children had never been to restaurants, let alone to a movie theater or a department store. Even sitting on a toilet seat was a new experience for them. I took them to ride elevators, surf the net, play in the arcades, eat at McDonald's, and drink Coca-Cola. The experience was enriching for me, too. When was the last time any of us was thrilled by the experience of taking a shower, making a phone call, sleeping on a mattress, or walking on carpet? But to them, all these experiences are like walking on the moon. It is my pleasure and honor to share many of their first-time thrills. I tell my daughter Emily, who was 11 years old at the time, that I am concerned about managing such a big group of children on a pleasure outing, and she says, " Mom, don't you worry. I will be in charge--just give me the money."
Written by Ruth Jeng in March 2001. Translated by Tony Lau and Ruth Jeng. Editied by Stephanie Chow. Ms Jeng is the founder of PEACH Foundation, which grants scholarship to needy children in rural areas in China. We invite you to share this article with your friends. If you need more copies, please contact us or visit our Web site. Our phone: 650-525-1188; fax: 650-525-9688.