Below: Video Introduction of the “Care for Learning and Community” Girls Scholarship Program
Despair and Hope in a Girls Scholarship Program
“Extreme poverty is not only a condition of unsatisfied material needs. It is often accompanied by a degrading state of powerlessness.” – Peter Singer in The Life You Can Save
Every year intelligent and extremely hard-working girls in China pass national exams and are accepted into high school, only to decline their coveted acceptance because their families cannot afford the tuition. These students have no choice but to leave their families, head to the city, and find work – in a factory, giving massages, selling pizza, etc. Having these girls’ formal education come to end dashes their hopes of pursuing dreams that they often speak to us about. In 2006 three HKIS students (Gary Chan, Mercedes Chien, and Brian Li) and myself partnered with the Concordia Welfare and Education Foundation to create the CLC scholarship program to enable 100 girls in a town called Deqing in northwestern Guangdong Province to continue their studies at Xiang Shan high school. In 2009 a group of HKIS alumni (Jennifer Wu, Kane Wu, and Jasmine Lau) established a university fund, which has allowed ten students this school year to further their studies at the college level.
Over the Easter weekend four HKIS students and I traveled 8 hours by train and bus to the town of Deqing in the relatively poor northwestern area of Guangdong Province. Our goal for the weekend was quite straightforward: to record footage of our visits with scholarship winners at school and their families at home to produce a video that can help raise more funds for the girls. In May these students will show their documentary as part of their Senior Project presentation.
However, having returned to Hong Kong, I have struggled this week to make sense of my experience. As I have returned to my teaching, meaning has come slowly. Twice I have heard myself explain about the trip, “We found ourselves in life and death conversations.” Reflecting later, I realized that for my listeners such descriptions must have seemed hyperbolic. Could conversations about girls’ scholarships be truly of such import? During the week, however, I came across the quote above from Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (2009). It was then that I began to pull the pieces together. For in these conversations I sensed the powerlessness that leads to despair, and perhaps even to death, as it played itself out right in front of my eyes. At the same time, I felt the power of Singer’s argument – that our response, including our financial contributions, can make a difference that saves lives.
Having arrived Thursday night, we took off early Friday to visit two families whose girls are in our scholarship program. In addition to our Hong Kong contingent, two scholarship recipients who remain part of our program at university, joined us on our home visits. We met three mothers in our home visits, all of whom gave us much to consider about living a life of rural poverty in China.
The First Home
Having driven only ten minutes from the hotel, we pulled off the main road heading north out of Deqing and drove a short distance down a dirt road, stopping in front of a home with a walled courtyard. The mother was out in front of the home doing household chores. With little emotion, she met us, asked us to come into a room inside the courtyard, and poured us tea.
As we talked, we discovered that about ten years ago while she was at home she received a phone call sharing the tragic news that her husband had been killed n an explosion in a restaurant kitchen. In a moment, she had become a single mother with three young children in her care. In the months that followed the mother, an illiterate woman, became so depressed that she considered suicide as a way out. However, her concern for her children prevented this drastic step. Now ten years later, a sense of melancholy still seemed to shroud her village home. She said that she had no steady job, surviving only on odd jobs in the village. She owes several thousand dollars to loan sharks and worries that someone may actually carry out threats against her.
We tried our best to provide encouragement, but the only true comfort was brought by our two university students, for they had experienced the same overwhelming odds and despair, and yet their dreams remain alive. Seeing one of the young women, Ocean (on the right in the picture) relate her own story as a source of hope represented a remarkable change, for only a year ago I vividly recall her sitting in a hotel lounge weeping large tears about her own difficult circumstances.
The Second Home
Returning closer to Deqing town, the second mother we met seemed of a different social class. She greeted us warmly and shook our hands. Her silver wire-rimmed glasses, neatly trimmed hair, and black, collared shirt brought to mind a middle class woman. Perhaps she was a teacher or worked in a local government office, we wondered. Whereas the first woman seemed nearly defeated by life’s circumstances, the second woman seemed resourceful and engaging. Our conversation began pleasantly, as we inquired about her family, including her daughter, who is receiving one of our scholarships and attends Xiang Shan high school.
However, when we asked about her younger son, a twelve-year old boy, immediately her cheerful disposition vanished and her eyes darted from us to a lower corner of the room. Worry quickly overtook her upbeat disposition as she shared the story of her son’s blood disorder, a costly burden for the family. Like the first family, we came to find out that her husband, too, had passed away, having been killed in a traffic accident. The husband’s family took no care of her and her two children, and she had to leave the family home. Fortunately, her elder brother had taken her and her two children in. We tried to comfort her as well, but the abrupt turn from friendliness to overmastering worry made me wonder, too, about her own ability to handles the stresses of her life.
The Third Home
The next morning we made our third home visit. The spunky grade 10 student whose home we would be visiting moved to sit with me on the bus. In a combination of Cantonese and English, she asked me if I had ever ridden in a plane and what it felt like to fly. As we drove north of Deqing and climbed higher in elevation, far further than the previous two home visits, I feared what we would find. The short paragraph description I had before me said that this student’s mother, an 86-year old woman, had adopted her late in life. Recently her house had been flooded and she had been forced to seek refuge in a room in an abandoned school.
As we stepped off the bus, a brilliant April blue sky and a cool breeze welcomed us to this remote village not far from the Guangxi border. We wound our way through the village homes until, much to my surprise, we arrived at a newly built, two-story village home. The young woman opened up the door of her new home and we walked into a gray concrete structure with a few chairs and a table. Generous natural light gave this new home an unusually upbeat feeling, but the mother was nowhere to be seen.
As the student went to find her mother, we climbed to the top floor veranda and saw the destruction of a next-door home destroyed in the flood. Beyond this home we could see the school where the mother had lived temporarily.
Then we looked down from the veranda and caught our first sight of the mother, bent over but walking easily, as she passed through her small courtyard towards the front door. We hurried down the steps to find this older woman standing next to her small table, asking her visitors to sit first. I noticed that she had a full head of hair, but still had some darker strands mixed in with the dominant gray. A smile graced this woman’s lined face, and her physical strength and emotional energy filled the home. Her buoyant and caring disposition made her seem far younger, and I could see the young girl’s spunkiness had been “passed down” to her through her adoptive mother. I was told that I was the first Westerner she had ever met. The picture of us holding hands and smiling in her small courtyard suggested to me that this mother may have provided an emotional strength lacking in the other two girls’ families.
Only two weeks before the trip I had used the Champagne Glass Analogy to help students consider global inequality, but, like my students, the reality of this income gap only strikes home when I meet people in the lower half of the glass. On this trip I felt the heavy burden of financial debt, the impotence of being unable to provide for your children, and the gnawing worry that accompanies parents’ long days of intermittent work. When I retreated to the hotel after the first two home visits, I felt stunned by the sad reality of these life circumstances. At the same time, there were moments of hope, especially seeing those whom we had sponsored only a few years ago now putting a hand on a shoulder, telling their own story, and promising to guide younger students into the future. Despair is a given in poverty-stricken areas such as Deqing, and again I felt this forcefully. Yet this sadness only comes from witnessing the unfortunate circumstances of the girls and their families in search of a way to help them.
Having been back now in Hong Kong for a week and continuing to teach about globalization, I have experienced that service trip “half life” that students always speak about: the fire that one feels in meeting those that are suffering is slowly extinguished over time. Yet writing about these home visits has helped me to hold in mind those conversations that I had in three village homes last weekend. I know that the people that I met continue in their struggle to remain positive, to study hard, and to hope against hope for opportunities that my HKIS students simply assume to be ever-present. With a moment’s reflection, I can bring to mind the listlessness, the fragility, and the fear of the first two home situations, and I can smile with relief that there is a healthy, vibrant 86-year old mother in a remote village that has a new home. Despite having re-acclimated to my Hong Kong environment, a week later I am left with a renewed sense of urgency to keep teaching, to keep raising funds, and to use the energy of surplus hope available in my community to compensate for the challenges faced by families I now have met in not-so-distant rural China.
Sponsoring one girl’s high school education for one year costs 2700 RMB (400 US). If you would like to support this program, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org