The Lost Paradise
By Ruth Jeng
Translated by K. Wing Wong
British novelist James Hilton once described a paradise filled with mystique in his book, The Lost Horizon. From it, "Shangri-La" has been a yearned-for utopia on earth, yet where is it?
Deep in the valley of the northeast mountains in Yunan province is a region known as the Li-Jiang ( Beautiful River ) district. It is surrounded by the beauty of nature, and has developed into a place rich in multi-cultures and ethnic backgrounds. To many western explorers, it is their "Shangri-La".
In January 2002, I visited Li-Jiang's "Shangri-La"!
From Li-Jiang district, the travel led me through this picturesque route up along the natural contour of a mountain blanketed with bright green trees. From here, the river fed gently into a clear lake. The riverbanks were ribboned with willow trees, while the mountain ridges contrasted each other into the clouds above. Terrace farming took the fertile slopes, with cottages and villages juxtaposed with their shadows into a cohesive meander.
Within half an hour, we arrived at Tai An (Peaceful) Village. The population was about eight thousands, with two thousands or so living on the foothill and the rest scattered in a 50-kilometer stretch further in. The village's administrative office was lodged at 7,500 feet above sea level, while the average elevation of the mountain ridges is 10,000 feet. All villagers farmed with an average annual income of $800 Yuan. They grew potatoes, corn and rice. There was not a single restaurant. The busiest street was this state-built road that led directly to the first turn of the Yangtze River- The Tiger Jumping Canyon.
Although my mission as volunteer here was to give the village children an opportunity to receive education, it would be proper to honor a largely ceremonial protocol by paying respects to the village officials and other village officials who praised our volunteer work. After our polite exchanges, we began to work.
It took about ten minutes to start up this old jeep after much frustration. It survived through several sizable potholes on a narrow lane along the way before we finally arrived at the entrance of the only middle school in the village.
There were over two hundred students here, and 80% were boarders. They slept in iron-framed double bunk beds with ten students tightly packed in a room. Compared with other schools that housed forty to fifty students in a big room, this was not bad. It was rather run-down. There were cracked walls, and mattresses were filled with stacks of hay. Broken windows and doors were nailed with wooden boards. There were puddles of water everywhere, and the air was rotten.
Passing by an abandoned house, one would notice bricks everywhere inside. The principal explained that was a kitchen where students cooked their meals last year. I could immediately visualize two hundred students each taking two pieces of bricks and a broken pot, hollering in a smoke filled house.
I was concerned that the students would be distracted from studying with having to cook three meals a day. The principal anticipated my question with his answer that this year the school's kitchen would be used to cook for the students. Students who could afford to bring rice and vegetable would share with those who couldn't afford to bring any. I openly applauded the principal's wise and fair policy so that all students could have hot meals to fill their stomachs.
At this time, a girl just arrived at school. As a way of saying "hello", I asked her what food she had brought to share with her fellow students. She opened her bag of apples, and the staff urged her to share one with me. I took one that looked rather stale, and could not resist my curiosity to learn that it was three months old. I hesitated if I should return it to risk hurting her feeling, or to accept it knowing that I would not eat it. I decided to put it in my bag anyway.
I represented Peach Foundation on this trip to find out if the economic need exist to help children's education in this farming community. With our limited budget, we could only offer thirty scholarships.
After leaving Tai-An Middle School, the village elder took me to the Tien-Houng (Rainbow) Village with 600 families sharing one water-faucet. I requested the officials to take me to visit several families representative of the local economic situation. After hiking for a while, we arrived at the top of a hill at the home of Wang Si-nu.
Si-nu was the only daughter in a single-child family. This situation was rare in poor farming region where having three or four children in one household was common to provide the necessary farm labor. The one-child policy did not work in poor farming communities. First, they didn't have the money to pay government penalties imposed on families with more than one child. Government officials could not enforce such a policy as the farmers were self-employed and there was no employer who could withhold wages for such penalties. With barely enough to eat, there was no money for school. Without an education, the only way out was to farm. This vicious economic cycle repeated itself for many generations.
Si-nu's house was merely a big box nailed together with wooden planks. The ˇ®bedroom' was a narrow partition with the bed made up of boards just wide enough for one person. On the bed was a torn blanket with cotton fillings. At the corner was a pile of potatoes. The room was so small that I could only take a photo by standing outside. Next to the bedroom was the kitchen that had a semi-covered ceiling. The broken cooking wok was the only thing worth something.
Si-nu's parents were from the Miao clan and did not speak Chinese. Her mother gave me a block of wood half the size of a loft of bread. With my eyes embarrassingly staring at it not knowing what to do and trying to disguise my search for help towards the elder, he told me that it was a stool, and asked me to please sit down.
With the block still in my hands, I wanted to sit down and rest after such a long walk; but was dauntingly worried how I would get up on my feet later. I decided to sit down after all, and Si-nu's mother returned a smile, knowing that the guest from afar had accepted her offer and gesture of goodwill.
I sat closed to the ground, listening to the exchange in their Miao dialogue between the officials and the family, while Si-nu stood by the side. Si-nu was seriously ill last year. Without money for medical help, she took a one-year leave of absence from school. This year, she repeated her fifth grade. Naturally, she was more mature and taller than the rest of her classmates.
Tien-Huong village was 3,000 kilometers above sea level. Air was fresh and clear as far as you could see. It was warm in January at around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The snow-capped mountain Yu Lung Xue Shan ( Jade Dragon Snow Mountain ) was visible from afar. The hat-shaped snow capped the mountaintop against a clear blue sky. I felt so close to the sky as if I could touch it with my hands. Down below across the horizon was a prairie punctuated with small dots of cattle and sheep scattered all across my view. Was this, after all, the "Shangri-La" paradise that I was dreaming for?
I sat there, for I could not get up anyway, and asked Si-nu if she wanted to go to middle school, high school and college. I asked the elder to translate for me to her parents: "Mr. And Mrs. Wang, I represent Peach Foundation from the U.S. Our mission here in Yunan is to provide scholarships for the children of poor farming families to study, and to help them complete middle school, high school and college education. After graduation, she can take care of you and not worry about making ends meet. However, Peach Foundation needs your cooperation to let Si-nu complete her education. If she had the ability, we would do whatever it will take to work hard together to fulfill her dream. Is that all right?"
I began with a soft and mild tone. As I got more emotional into my expose` from where and how I was sitting, I felt a lack of strength in my tone to match with the message I was trying to deliver. I cracked my voice with exhaustion after it was all said and done. Out of the corner of my eye, I was distracted by a puppy so thin and bony, that I couldn't resist asking what, if any, it usually ate. The answer was whatever people ate, which was mostly taro and vegetable. What a pitiful vegetarian diet, I thought, for the dog!
After saying goodbye to Si-nu's family, we hiked to the other side of the mountain to the Sung Zi Yuan ( Pine Seed Garden ) Elementary School. This was a small village with grade levels from first to fourth grades. There were about thirty students sharing two classrooms. First and Third grade alternated the use of one, second and fourth grades alternated the use of the other. When the first grade was in session, students from the third grade would take up self-study time instead.
The students were playing in the courtyard. They were excited and shy when I arrived. When I took out a camera, they giggled, hid and run. Their appearances were filthy, like a group of miners just got off from their shift. Some dressed in their fathers' clothing long past below their knees.
The dim classroom took me a while to adjust to a dismal picture. What kind of classroom was this? The floor was covered with soil. The clay walls were cracked and broken. Old and torn books with pages cured up at the corners were scattered everywhere. The desktops were mutilated with holes and the bench chairs obviously marked with evidence of over use. The blackboard had lost its black layer. Tears found its way all over my face. I quickly put on my sunglasses to masquerade my emotions from the officials and the teacher. I didn't want them to take advantage of my softer side for more scholarship funds than we could afford to give. Peach Foundation budgeted for only thirty scholarships. This budget must not be changed!
I quickly dried my tears, turned around and calmly asked how the teachers were compensated. The two teachers had graduated from middle schools, and they earned the equivalent of U.S.$10.00 per month. To supplement their living expenses, the elder explained that sometimes the teachers had to take leave on alternate days to farm for a living. Under this circumstance, how could the students advance academically?
It was a tough ride back from Sung Zi Yuan ( Pine Seed Garden ) Elementary School to Tai An Village, on a rock filled lane flanked with barren slopes. The elder said that the soil was so bad that even corn or potatoes could not grow here. The jeep crawled and bumped along at about 5 m.p.h. I held tightly onto the railing. My guts felt up-side-down one segment at a time, while my whole body occasionally bounced off the seat almost hitting my head against the rooftop. I tried to strike a conversation at the beginning of this ride, but surrendered in silence instead to the constant interruption of the bumpy ride, cutting short my sentences into incoherent sound bites.
On the road, all I could think of were Si-nu's so-call living quarter, the soil ground of Pine Seed Garden Elementary School , the filthy appearance of its students like miners after a hard day's work, I was overcome with those suffocating images. My heart was filled with such a feeling of guilt that as soon as we arrived back in town, I told the elder: "We can increase the number of scholarships by ten, making it a total of forty".
Whew! This bumpy ride took only one hour, and the thirty scholarships had increased to forty. If this ride had taken three hours, couldn't imagine how many more scholarships we would have granted beyond our budget!
Six months later, I returned to Tai An village. This time, there were over ten volunteers traveling to check on our scholarship program. We wanted to ascertain if the students had received the full amount of the scholarship we sent, and not in the pockets of unintended recipients. The June weather was comfortably invigorating. The principal of Tai An middle school warmly welcomed me like an old friend. The few pieces of broken windows remained broken as before. The hay-filled mattresses still stunk. I stood by the classroom corridor admiring the year-round snow-capped Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yu Lung Xue Shan). Its simple and beautiful shape resembled a sketch from a child. The scene was so familiar as if I were here a month ago.
I couldn't believe what I saw as I stepped into Pine Seed Garden Elementary School . Where was that old run down classroom? My mouth opened wide as I glanced around to find instead, a brand new school with two classrooms and two living quarters for the teachers. The students as usual congregated to play in the same courtyard, curious and shy upon my presence.
I invited the children to post for a group picture at the school entrance. I took out the photo taken six months ago to see if they recognized themselves. They had all grown, still wearing the same clothes. The girl with a horsetail and a red sweater in the photo wore the same red filthy sweater today. So was the boy in a green jacket and another with a hat in the photo. I glanced back and forth between the photos and the children. It was the same group wearing the same filthy clothes, yet very cute and lovable. They had not taken a bath or changed their clothes during this six-month period. I quickly wore my sunglasses to cover up my emotions.
I said invitingly: "Children, come, and let me hug you!" They all scattered like chickens avoiding the embrace of an eagle. I was disappointingly taken off guard, and begged with a louder tone: "Come, let Auntie hug you!"
The boy with the hat came forward, followed by the girl in red sweater. Then it became contagious with all children rushing towards me for a hug. I hugged these little angels in their filthy clothes. My tears dropped incessantly like fallen leaves. The teacher, in his thirties, was touched with the moment's commotion. I said to the teacher "Come on, Teacher, let me give you a hug too" as I went over to him and hugged him. His eyes began to sparkle with tears without a clue on how to react. One volunteer, Xiao Jen, passed me a tissue. Throughout this trip, she was always there to rescue my otherwise tear-shedding embarrassment.
There were brand new desks, benches and concrete floor. Windows on the sides brightened up the classrooms. The education committee members were uplifted in their spirits during my last visit in January with commitments of forty scholarships.
They felt that a group of American Chinese sending financial help from thousands of miles away to help the village's children, had encouraged their commitment to take responsibility to help themselves to become independent. They borrowed $30,000 Yuan to rebuild Pine Seed Garden Elementary School because of our encouragement and insights given them. I was so moved by their accomplishment that I almost volunteered to pay part of their loan. Fortunately, I was able to bite my tongue and succeeded in keeping my mouth shut on such a thought.
Later in this trip, we visited a number of families.
Qing Fang had applied for a scholarship from Peach Foundation. We visited her home to ascertain her family's economic qualification, and to make sure that the applicant would qualify based on a genuine need.
We arrived when Qing Fang and her parents were working in the field. Neighbors helped to locate her. She rushed back and sat timidly on a small stool. After a series of questions and answers, I said: "You are accepted to receive a scholarship".
I did not raise my head as I continued to complete the rest of the paperwork. I didn't keep track of how long it wasˇthirty seconds to a minute? When I raised my head, I was caught by surprise to see her torrent of tears, like a heavy rain hitting hard on the windows in a silent movie. She was crying so hard yet without a trace of sound. I didn't know how long she had been crying, nor did I know how much self-control it must had taken her to suppress these emotions in silence. At this instance, I realized more specifically the significance of my work. I had a clearer focus of my mission.
My work had changed the life of Qing Fang, and the lives of other Qing Fangs. A girl in a poverty-stricken remote location of China now having an opportunity to learn to read, attend high school and possibly to college; would forever changed her life. Her destiny was no longer confined to the hopeless path their parents had taken as illiterate farmers. She would have the opportunity to be financially independent to take care of her parents. In addition, she could help other relatives, and would eventually contribute to society at large.
Our help could be given so effortlessly. Buy one less cup of coffee a week and the money saved would have contributed a scholarship for one year's education expense for one child. Our reward for contributing such a small amount had brought forth the appreciative tears of a teenage girl, and gave hope to her entire family.
It was all worth it. Yes it was! I felt humbled having the privilege to be a part of her pivotal turning point in life.
Thank God for granting me this privileged opportunity to help Qing Fang and many others liked her so that each child could learn and be educated. I held Qing Fang in my arms while pearl-sized tears rolled down on my face, finding rescue in a piece of tissue from our volunteer, Xiao Jen.
People all over the world throughout the years have been looking for the land of Shangri-La , a place without war or hatred. On this piece of land, we find love, tenderness and peaceful accommodation. There is no hunger, rejection or mutual abandonment. This land lives in our heart waiting for our discovery. By having the courage and willingness to know who we are, and to explore the love that exists in us, we will naturally find these virtues that were once lost in neglect.
I was fortunate to have found my land of Shangri-La , the land of virtue, in Li-Jiang District's Tai-An Village, an unlikely remote part indeed, northwest of Yunan province in China!