I am writing this letter to mention briefly about my recent visit to Langzhong, Sichuan, and nearby towns, based on observation and experience I had during my time spent there. This visit was facilitated with the kind help of OCEF and especially by OCEF representatives Yunbao Zhuo in China and Weiya Fang in US, who helped arrange all this after weeks and months of planning/organizing.
During my visit, I was fortunate to visit some schools in the countryside near Langzhong, and also to visit homes of some of the students who study in these schools. I have read about countryside in China in the books before, but this was the first time I had the chance to see for myself and appreciate the life there. My trip also helped me appreciate the real impact on the ground of the work OCEF has been doing towards education in rural China for many years.
My trip started from a small suburb west of Portland, Oregon, called Hillsboro, and took me first to Beijing. Then from there to Chongqing, where I met OCEF representative Yunbao Zhuo and we both took train to Langzhong. At Langzhong, we met with Principal Tang of Hongshan Middle School, who took us to our hotel and for dinner. Next morning, Principal Tang drove us to Hongshan Middle School. The school was quite far from Langzhong city, and road along most of the way was going through ups and downs in altitude and going through remote areas. We then reached the school, probably after about 45 minutes or so.
Hongshan is a small town and the school is located at such a high altitude that from there you could look down on the town and beyond quite far out. The school was decent in size and infrastructure, with enough classrooms, playground, dormitories, canteen, etc. During my visit, I learned that both students and teachers live in dormitories in school and they go home during weekend (I am told this is very common in schools in China, especially in the countryside). They eat meals in the school canteen. We visited some rooms in students’ dormitory, which were actually quite cold, partly owing to that walls and flooring were of cement and windows were open, but it seems that heater in the rooms would be helpful for students to stay warm during the winter season.
This school had 98 students as of now, but in the past at one point it used to have about 300 students and was used till high school grade. But, with urbanization and factors involved with that, now the school has fewer students and serves Grades 7-9 (this is more or less happening all over the world, the reconfiguration of societies with the rapid urbanization). We had the opportunity to interact with students in one of the classrooms and learn from each other. We also had the opportunity to hear personal stories from some of the students about challenges they go through, especially challenges brought to their personal life with the rural migration towards cities and changes that brings to family life in rural areas.
Stories related to parents migrating to cities in search of work and leaving children in the care of aging grandparents, internal family conflicts taking a toll on children’s well-being, economic realities and poverty are too many to count in the countryside. Seeing these places makes you appreciate their remoteness from megacities like Beijing, not just in terms of their physical remoteness but the life being lived, and they indeed feel worlds apart. But one thing the remote countryside has in abundance is the warmth and humility in the character of the people living there.
We visited the home of one of the students at Hongshan Middle School. From school, we drove some distance and then paved road ended. Then the student led us on a dirt path for few meters before we reached her home. It was a small house built from a mix of mud, cement, bricks, and metal sheets and had very modest amenities in the house. When we arrived, her grandparents were sweeping the front yard and they warmly welcomed us. They finished cleaning most of the yard so they could arrange stools for us to sit. They showed us around, their animals, their house, the vegetables and fruits they grow in their farm, etc.
Despite having meager resources, they offered us to take some of the corns they grow. They also offered us the largest of grapefruits they grow to eat and insisted on us taking some. Most of the conversation I couldn’t understand without translation, but one couldn’t but be humbled by the experience. They couldn’t have been nicer in their hospitality and generosity. After spending some time, we took our leave and I thanked the grandparents for all they had been doing to make sure their granddaughter would go to school, be able to continue her studies and have a better and more comfortable life than they could have.
Later that day, we had the opportunity to visit another nearby school, Zhu Town Central School. This school was a bit bigger than Hongshan Middle School. It was also in a small town and had similar situations as Hongshan Middle School. We had some nice interaction with the students. One of the English teachers in the school told us some stories about the students and the challenges they go through in their family lives. We also had the opportunity to visit the home of one of the students and see the conditions they live in and challenges they face. This student’s father had passed away and his mother had left home, so he was living with his grandparents and an aunt was helping them out. Their house was very modest and had meager resources, but they also couldn’t have been more generous and kind in their hospitality. We spent some time with them to hear their stories and see their house, and then we thanked them for hosting us and we took our leave.
Experiences like this make one humbled, seeing the resilience of the people in the countryside, the hardship they go through, and at the same time that they couldn’t be kinder. I think we in the society, those of us who are in a bit better and more comfortable position, owe a deep gratitude to the parents and especially the grandparents in these remote places who do their best, despite the odds stacked against them, to make sure their children and grandchildren get the education to have a better life than they could ever have had. In this endeavor, the small contribution made by organizations like OCEF is also commendable. They may not solve the larger problems faced by their fellow brothers and sisters in these places, but try the best to assist them on their journey towards a better future, and I sincerely thank them all for their efforts.
As a parting advice to students, I gave them my best wishes and encouraged them to focus on their studies and work hard, but also have fun and play along the way. Even though they go through many challenges and hardships, it is heartwarming that they have support from their teachers (who also act as parents and guardians in need), their friends, a close-knit society, and organizations like OCEF. As they grow up, many of them could come across different people, cultures, traditions, knowledge, ideas, etc., as this world is much more diverse and complicated than what they have seen so far. I encouraged them to keep their minds and hearts open, and they would find many interesting and beautiful things to experience. They should never stop learning, no matter at what age in their life or at what stage in their career they are at, but should always be curious to learn and cherish the richness and diversity of this world and humanity. This would make them more mature in their thinking and more humbled and kind in their behavior. They should consider themselves not just a member of their community and society; they are growing up as a responsible world citizen who is part of a larger humanity.
I bow to their innocence and resilience, and wish them a meaningful life ahead.