Today is a tough day to blog about; I don’t know if words can do justice to what we experienced. We spent our morning in a small rural village – Pangliu. It became evident very quickly that the disparity in China between the wealthy and the poor is much more deeply divided than here in America. Although rich in a sense of community the village was very poor – houses with no heat (and winters in Pangliu can drop to 6 degrees below zero Celsius), crumbling walls, windows and doors covered with rugs or blankets, dirt roads, and few motor vehicles. The people though – gracious, humble, and oh so friendly; their children were beautiful and parents and grandparents proudly paraded them into the street for us to snap pictures and speak to them in English.
We first met the village head when we arrived at the brick factory. He showed us the production area (it was outside), the kilns, and the fields where the materials to create the bricks were stowed. There were probably less than 30 people employed at the factory, male and female – all involved in manual labor from ‘mixing’ the materials that would make the bricks to molding them, moving them into and out of the hot kilns (and they were very warm to work in – we walked into them with the workers to get a feel for their environment), and those stacking the bricks. From the factory we walked down country roads to the school grounds. There we were greeted by teachers and students – a small student band had assembled and the children played music for our arrival. We toured their classrooms and spent time with their principal, Mr. Liu Xiao Min, there academic director, Mr. Song Ning Bo, and several teachers. We spent a good hour sitting and talking together over tea; Mr. Bo shared the history of his school (a small rural school with 12 classes (and 12 teachers), and approximately 100 students from grades 1-6) and we asked numerous questions about his curriculum, resources, students, teachers, and the educational system. We learned that another rural school was to merge with Pangliu School next year increasing the total number of students to 240 children. He shared that his teachers only make about 3,000 Yuan per month (that is equivalent to approximately 455 American dollars). Ironically, despite what we would consider a meager salary, teaching positions in China, even in these rural areas, are highly competitive. Children, ages 8-12, were waiting for us in a classroom where they sang to us, tried out their English on us, and generally made us smile.
But the smiles were mixed with tears today. You couldn’t help but feel a deep sadness for the families that lived in this village – seeing them, talking with them really made you realize how ‘good we have it’ and I know, I will not take anything for granted again. Yet, the swelling eyes often gave way to laughter or smiles when the villagers greeted you, shared their homes with you, and generally gave us a very open look into an otherwise very private world. Despite their lack of material goods, they were happy, they were seemingly content, and they took pride in their work, their homes, their families.
We ate lunch in a village home; the food was hands down the best we’ve had yet – perhaps in its simplicity the flavors were even more complex and the freshness of the vegetables complimented by the mix of spices and oils made every ‘chop stick full’ wonderfully delicious. It was hard to believe such a wonderful meal was prepared in the tiny and rather primitive kitchen we saw. We sat on stools around a small round table, close yet comfortable, conversing with a school math teacher, Mr. Sun Xiao Dong – while our hostess and her daughter continued to bring a seemingly endless array of aromatic and colorful dishes to the table.
I left the village today knowing that I will help them in some way, this visit and the children will haunt me – I think we all left with that same feeling. Several of us from Eastern Pennsylvania have begun conversation about what we might be able to do to support this rural school, its teachers and students. That will be fodder for a discussion back in America…
With that, back in the city, after a trek to the Muslim Mosque to watch the call to prayer – what a beautiful mosque it was, peaceful grounds with blooming trees and buildings with ornately carved roof lines; a walk through the bazaar and Muslim quarter, colorful, bustling, and stimulating; and a bit of traditional Muslim faire (spicy mutton, sweet sticky rice, and garlic spinach), I’ll fall asleep to fireworks popping outside my window.