By Ruth Jeng
Translated by Mabel Wong
It is hard to imagine a poor family so destitute, that the only meaningful possessions are the family members themselves.
Shabang, a 15-year old high school sophomore from the Greater Liang Shan Mountain area in Shichuan Province in China belongs to such a family and he is one of the children sponsored by the PEACH Foundation. We had traveled to his home on behalf of the foundation, to investigate whether he was truly qualified for the sponsorship or not.
Stepping into his home I was not really surprised by the austerity that greeted us. Shabang was after all accepted for support for a reason. However, I was not prepared for the heartrending simplicity of this house these people spent their lives in. There were only four blank walls, plastered with clay and soil, which made one wonder what was holding up the roof. The floor was yellow earth and albeit uneven, it was not lumpy after all the years of treading. There was a small stove in a corner I presumed to represent the kitchen and a few straw-mats on the floor formed the bedroom, the rest was barren.
Over the years, I thought I had seen the poorest of the poor and could not be moved by the circumstances of any poverty-stricken peasant family, but a bedroom equipped with nothing but a few straw mats was a new dimension of destitution for me. Even the unfortunate Ms.Wang of Tai-An village has a wooden box with a wooden bed inside in her so-called bedroom which is literally a huge wooden box.
Although the bed box was made from drift-wood is was luxury compared to Shabang’s straw-mat.
Suddenly I noticed a bouquet of wildflowers in a cracked wine bottle with a broken rim sitting by the straw mats . White, yellow, violet and blue flowers standing tall in the improvised vase.
My eyes filled with tears as I asked: “Shabang, where did these flowers come from ? “
“They were picked from the meadows” said Shabang, who has a dark, shiny skin from years of hard labor under the sun.
“You like flowers?”
Shabang nodded his head, his thin lips pressed together and his eyes sparkling, his way of answering my tedious questions.
“Shabang, Auntie is so touched that even under these difficult circumstances, you still love life and enjoy the beauty of …..” My throat choked and I could not continue.
Meanwhile, Shabang’s sister Shafang, 14, had returned from fieldwork. She had been helping their parents to earn a living after finishing the second year of elementary school, about an equivalent of grade 2 in US schools. She seated herself on a piece of log and observed us quietly.
I asked her if she would like to go back to school if that were possible and she nodded enthusiastically, as if the opportunity might pass her by otherwise.
Turning to the parents, I asked: ”Mr. Sha, if the foundation pays for her tuition, can you assure us that we will have your cooperation and she will not be told to stay home to help earn a living?” The parents agreed gladly with a happy smile.
In the isolated regions of China, multiple births are a way of life. Generally, the poorer the family, the larger the household. They do not worry about the fines, since they have no money and cannot pay. Nor are they concerned about possible penalties, because farmers are considered self-sufficient and are not subject to the employment sub-divisions. Farmers feel it is prudent to have more children than livestock. Independent, smarter and almost as strong as a cow, a child is a one-person workforce.
In the schools, the dropout rate is staggering. A class, which starts out with 100 students, will graduate 20 of them six years later. The teachers maintain that most parents send their children to Grades 1 and 2 to learn to write their names. Aside from that, school is perceived as a Day Care Center and the parents are freed from looking after a child. At the third and fourth years of school, the children begin to perform light tasks, such as pasturing cows or pumping water. By the years five and six the children have developed their skills and the parents find it even more difficult to let them go. Some illiterate parents having suffered destitution and lacking common knowledge insists that education is useless. Consequently, many villages are without even a single middle school graduate.
Right away, my colleague Anli and I set off for the nearest elementary school to register Shafang.
We boarded a seven-passenger minivan heading for Ku Pai Elementary School. It was a very bumpy ride of 45 minutes.
Ms. Wang, a teacher and our guide sat between us and-at many times- as she turned to speak to one of us, the van hit potholes and Ms. Wang was thrown up to the ceiling.
Having been brought up locally, she had returned home after graduating from college in Cheng Du. “I wanted to come home to help out. Our village was so poor and miserable.”
There are, in fact, plenty of devoted teachers like Ms. Wang, who offer themselves for no other reason but the benefit of the children. They care deeply about them and often, when a child drops out, they will walk for miles to attempt to bring the child back to class. Sometimes, when the parents cannot afford to pay for the tuition, the teacher will pay it.
A teacher’s work is never done, they say. Morning starts with self-study at 7:00 a.m., then to the classroom until 10 p.m., followed by more self-study. Weekends are much the same and many teachers find themselves practically living at schools, where several weeks can pass before their short trips home.
Once we arrived at Ku Pai Elementary, we explained our intention, paid the tuition of a mere Yuan 120.- (US $ 15.-) and received the new textbooks. As I handed the books to Shafang, I felt an indescribable exhilaration. A fourteen-year-old girl is returning to elementary school to attend second grade. Granted, it is six years later, but it is not too late!
Figuring out her future, I became very excited. I could almost see her sitting in a classroom of seven-year olds attending second grade together. Or a twenty-one years old Shafang surrounded by teenagers in a class of middle school!
“Shafang, when your classmates are seven or eight-year olds and you are fourteen, will you feel embarrassed ?”
She shook her head with a smile.
“Good girl. Shafang is a brave girl,” I said, “Auntie has faith in you. I only wish I could be there when you graduate from college!” I had become so excited I clapped my hands like a second-grader.
After her registration, when we wanted to drive her home, she told us that she has a younger brother at the school and wanted to wait for him. Since it was close to noon, I offered her 30 Yuan for lunch. She said it was too much money and said that 1 Yuan was plenty. When I tried to hand her 30 Yuan several times, she merely kept shaking her head without saying anything. I finally accepted defeat and gave her 1 Yuan instead.
Since it would take Shafang 90 minutes to walk home for lunch and –like most students – she cannot really afford to buy lunch, many schools have changed the time of starting classes to 9:00 a.m. and close at 3 or 4 p.m. The reason for that is that it allows the students to skip lunch and instead have two meals at home.
The Greater Liangshan Mountain area, an autonomous ethnic region is located on the southwestern portion of Shichuan province. The Yanyuan County, 2,500 meters above sea level lies on the southeastern border of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The locals describe the climatic conditions as “four seasons within a single mountain.”
Yanyuan County was originally founded in the sixth year of the Han Dynasty, 135 B.C but was not officially named until the seventh year of the Qing Dynasty and remains so today. In ancient times, Yanyuan County was at the crossroads of the “Silk Roads” and had enjoyed the prosperity for a long time.
Lugu Lake is a popular tourist destination in the prefecture, who shares the lake with the neighboring county of Ningloung of Yunnan Province. The shores of the lake are home to the Musuo people. The Musuo are an aboriginal tribe noted for its exotic matriararchal system. There are no marriages. Men can come and go as they please; children will be cared for by the mothers as many of them do not know their fathers are. Men do not possess assets; women do. It is called “A kingdom without husbands and fathers.”
Yanyuan County has a population of 300,000 of whom 60% are of the Yi ethnic group and the rest a mix Mongolians and Tibetans. The Greater Liangshan Mountain area was a slavery society which changed after liberation to Socialism, wiping out feudalism altogether.The new government commended this and museums were built to commemorate the thousands of years of slavery.
Sadly, over the decades, peasants carelessly chopped down the forests and allowed the soil to erode. As we were driving along, we were shocked by the deplorable scenery of barren hills, bearing nothing but boulders and the desiccated terrain showing no signs of life under the stark blue sky.
On our trip back Ms. Wang filled us in on the details of the upbringing of Shabang. Both his parents were illiterate but decent farming people, whose livelihood depended mainly on the weather and the local climate was unforgiving in those years. Many children are forced to drop out from the schools.
Mr. Sha had to look for other employment. He decided to turn to home construction. During his work he one day accidentally fell off a rooftop. But in order to avoid anxiety in the family he insisted he was fine. In time the injury to his back got worse and makes it impossible for him to do any heavy labor.
Two years ago Shabang was digging soil in a gardening session at school, when his left foot was hit by a classmate’s shovel. The injury was so severe that Shabang fainted and was taken to the hospital, where he received three stitches and was kept there for observation. The hospital had no anesthesia and Shabang had to suffer through the operation without anesthesia. He left the hospital after one day to save the school money for his care.
Last summer both father and son went to work in a mine to earn funds for tuitions, when Shabang had another accident. A rock hit his head so hard it opened a wound that sent blood running down his face. Again Shabang pretended to be alright and without seeing a physician went back to work. The scar is now visible on his forehead and as if that were not enough misery, Shabang was hit by a Government vehicle while selling logs on the snow-covered streets. The family spent their last funds to save Shabang’s hand, which was badly injured. The driver of the vehicle, a well-connected official refused to compensate the boy who – at age 15 – had already experienced a lifetime of calamities.
It seems that the poorer one gets, the more miserable and unfortunate one becomes. When I started out on these undertakings, I did not anticipate such tales of inequities or tribulations. I was frustrated and disheartened by my limited ability to observe them without freezing up. I felt suffocated.
Upon returning to the U.S., I received a letter from Shabang, in which he wrote:
Shabang, who is young, talented and with a flair for writing showed us convincingly how poverty robs people of dignity. And what makes me respect him even more is his steadfastness; his great resolve to acquire knowledge. Life itself is the greatest gift given to him who relishes life gratefully.
“When you visited my home you noticed a vase with a few flowers which moved you to tears! You said that even in such miserable conditions the children love and enjoy the beauty of life. Well, we all live in such conditions since the day we were born. While we might want to live a better life, fate wants it otherwise. But even so I am thankful. I feel grateful for receiving life itself as the greatest gift from God!
I hugged her and answered: ’No, not at all, it is you who suffered. If I were at home instead of you, you would not have to work so hard. And I am not miserable in school, because I want to study!’
She pretended to be smiling and said: ‘Not true. I am free and moving around here all day and you are forced to sit still all the time. As long as you are doing well in school, some day I will be living in your big house and everything will be FINE!’ Then she said she had some work to do and took off to the fields.
Living under these conditions had an impact on my schooling. In order to conquer melancholy, I often engaged in lively conversation and joking, so my spirit would be higher during class. My family’s and especially my sister’s longing for education had been a mountainous burden for me and a source of deep guilt.
And now, Auntie has made my sisters dreams come true and my burden disappeared! I finally can be free to concentrate on my studies…”
A mere 15 US dollars can relieve a boy’s gigantic burden, fulfill a girl’s dreams! To many of us in the U.S., 15 dollars is merely pocket change, but their lack of any money whatsoever has become a hidden source of agony in a boy’s life and also made a girl unhappy! An almost effortless task, yet it can alter the future. How can we be not grateful?
When we left Shafang at Ku Pai Elementary, she stood at the gate waving us goodbye; though the van had driven away, she still stood there till the silhouette became smaller and smaller. And when Shabang told us he no longer felt burdened and could concentrate on studying, it seemed what had been suffocating me has long last dissipated; but instead it has reconstituted.
To the so-called accomplishment,’ by bringing Shafang back to school, I don’t know whether I should be smiling or crying. There are tens of thousands of Shafangs in the rural regions of China, working in the fields instead of going to schools. They are robbed of their basic right—education.
As an individual, I have limited capability; as a foundation, we have limited resources. Yet tens of thousands of dropouts, who missed the opportunities to learn, will drift away as the tide to the sea and will never be convened. How can one send more Shafangs back to school with one’s limited time and resources? I am buffeted by such pressing calling; feeling apprehensive is of no help, the only alternative is to diligently send more Shafangs back to school—time is of the essence.
The above essay was written by Ruth Jeng, founder of the PEACH Foundation, and translated by Mabel Wong.
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