From July 1st-4th, HKIS alumni, students and friends held the 5th annual English and Leadership Camp at Xiang Shan High School in Deqing, China, a town in northwestern Guangdong Province about an 8-hour train and bus ride from Hong Kong. Since 2007 HKIS students have helped to raise funds to allow girls who have passed national exams, but cannot afford to go to school, to attend the best high school in the district. This year sixty girls attended the three-day camp.
One of the joys of this trip was to see my former students, now HKIS alumni, running the trip from start to finish. Given that the group numbered 25, this was no small feat. Two of the alumni, Jenn Wu and Jasmine Lau, took this project on in high school, and five years later both girls remain committed to the cause.
The summer camp is the highlight of the year for the local students because they get to practice their English through entertaining and interactive activities. Jenn (far right) has been a leader of the camp for all five years. To Jenn’s right is Ocean, a local student who was in the program when she was in high school and returned from university to help with this year’s camp. Ellen (far left) will be a senior at HKIS and is taking over the program this school year.
Two other former students, Charmain Kwan and Jaime Shih, have also contributed for years to the project. These alumni have even started a university scholarship that has allowed ten of the girls to continue onto university.
Jenny, Ocean, and Sunny (left to right) proudly show us their campus on day one of the trip. All three attend ZhaoQing University and are studying to be teachers. Jenny will teach English, Ocean will teach Chinese, and Sunny will be a kindergarten teacher. All are able to attend because of the university scholarship program started by HKIS alumni.
I woke up this morning wanting to tell two simple stories about two women I met last week in Deqing, China. My desire to share these stories comes unexpectantly, since this morning my family and I will soon be whisked to the airport for a long-anticipated vacation to Thailand and Burma. Yet these stories have their own authority – and they speak when they have something to say.
I share these stories not only as a significant part of my work, but more importantly as a dimension of my own identity. While my time at a favorite Thai beach resort will be highly pleasurable, it will likely be indistinguishable from our previous visits; by contrast, these two stories are already abiding sources of reflection and inspiration for me.
Visiting the Chan Family
We drive east out of Deqing along the wide West River with rolling green hills flanking either side. The late afternoon sun bathes the scene with summer’s vitality, and a memory of riding along the Rhine River comes to mind. Despite the heat, southern China’s summers energize me, and I enjoy nature’s fecundity. Twenty minutes into our ride we enter another district, literary “Nine City”, and turn left down a paved road towards the home of one of the girl’s homes. There is no place to turn around, so we drive another half mile to the local primary school, manage a U-turn in the underbrush, and head back to the home.
Entering a landing outside a two-story concrete structure at dusk, we are greeted by a woman with short dark hair. Her thin physique and the roughness of her hands suggest to me that she is probably a poor rice farmer who can’t afford to eat meat very often. Knowing that her family receives a scholarship because of difficult circumstances, I internally brace for what we might see and hear. Yet Mrs. Chan flashes a smile, and a playful, even bubbly look appears in her eyes as she welcomes us.
We enter a small, unadorned room with a wooden table and chairs. Her daughter, Chan Man Jan, still wearing her green and white school uniform, pours us tea.As we talk, her story becomes clear. Mrs. Chan lost her husband some years earlier, leaving her with a son and two daughters. She has worked to give her children a life she could never have. Despite these challenges, there is a strength within Mrs. Chan that elicits admiration rather than pity. Somewhere in her own imagination, I sense, she held a vision of specific possibilities for her children.
Supporting three children single-handedly is extremely difficult for unskilled woman in the rural China. Fortunately, she lives near the main road, which has opened up an opportunity many farmers don’t have. Every evening at 5 PM she rides her bike a few minutes up the village road, crosses the main highway, and comes to a small hotel and restaurant where she washes dishes.
How many days a month do you work?
What is your monthly salary?
Later we calculate that she receives a little more than 3 RMB/hour (@ 0.50 US) for her labor. By comparison, across the border in Hong Kong, which just introduced a minimum wage law in May, all workers are guaranteed an hourly wage of 28 RMB ($3.5 US). The hourly minimum wage in the US, I recall, is now more than $7.5 US (68 RMB).
Following her work, she rides back home in the dark. She heads to bed and wakes up at 8 AM to begin her daily chores of tending the family rice plot, fruit trees, and vegetable garden. She has two rice harvests, in August and November, and one fruit harvest a year.
How much do you make from your harvests?
3000-4000 RMB, if the weather is favorable.
Taken together, in a good year Mrs. Chan makes no more than 14,000 RMB. Yet she is trying to support her three children through school, the tuition of each is 2700 RMB/year.
What will your oldest son do next year?
He wants to study medicine in college.
He must be a very good student.
He does okay.
How about your daughter, Man Jan?
She really likes science.
How does she do in school?
In her class she scored #23 out of 2000 students.
I quickly calculate – that puts her nearly in the top 1% of students at the best school in this district! A surge of emotion flows through me, perhaps a small parcel of the energy that animates this woman’s relentless daily struggle for her children.
How does your youngest daughter do in school?
She like science and does well, too.
Three bright, gifted children!
Mrs. Chan (in pink) with her younger daughter to her left and her older daughter, Chan Man Jan, in the green and white Xiang Shan school uniform. We talked for more than an hour inside her home about the joys and struggles of raising her three talented children.
Have you been to Guangzhou or ZhaoQing? [Guangzhou is 4 hours by car, Zhaoqing an hour and a half.]
No. I’ve only been to Deqing.
Were you born nearby?
I was born not far from here – near the primary school [where the bus turned around].
How old are you?
Being only two years younger, I emotionally take another step towards this rural Chinese woman.
We’re about the same age. I have two children. My wife is Hong Kongese. See the girl up ahead – she’s my daughter. She’s 15. And we have a younger son. He’s 8.
There is a pause, and then: “Thank you for helping my family.”
We reach the end of the road where our bus is waiting. We walk across the street and see the small hotel land restaurant where she works. She seems on friendly terms with the owner, and I can imagine that she enjoys the relationships at her work. I am glad for that.
It has been a pleasure to meet you and your family. We wish you and your family good health.
I weigh the experience on the ride back to Deqing. What parent wouldn’t be thrilled to have three children, all so bright and talented, attend school? A son from these circumstances aspires to study medicine and a daughter in the top 1% of the district! She and her husband, too, must be/have been very bright. Yet she has never been more than a half hour by car from her home. She has lost her husband. She works every day for her family’s future. Would I have the stamina, the self-sacrificial commitment to be her? Could I give up my own desire to learn and grow and put that aside for the next generation? I don’t know, but I’m pleased that I can know her story and with others at HKIS support her family.
The next day in class we ask the students to write an essay and provide a variety of prompts. Chan Man Jan decides to write about her mother:
My goal is to go to a good university. So I can get a good job to make my mother happy. Why? Because my mother is a great woman. She works day and night to earn some money for us. Even though she always feels very tired, she never gives up. For example, my mother washes dishes in a small restaurant. Every day she doesn’t come home until 2 AM. In the daytime she is always busy with some housework. She is amazing that she works so hard for the family. She is the greatest person in my life. She hopes that I can have a good future. So, I don’t want to make her disappointed. In order to achieve my dream, I need to study hard. I will try my best to study hard because “Practice makes perfect!” I believe that I can make my dream come true because of my perseverance. “Where there is a will there is a way.”
Visiting an Elderly Home
We drive a short distance from the hotel, walk past a red paper sign that reads, “A Warm Welcome to HKIS,” through an entryway and courtyard, and into a meeting room. About 25 of the elderly are waiting for us, but most striking is that at least half of the residents are blind. We assemble our group and sing in English, “You can count on me like 1-2-3, and I can count on you like 4-3-2.” Our audience receives the song and Jenn’s spirited explanation with joy, some exhibiting radiant smiles.
Following this introduction, we break into small groups – and instantly I sense magic at work. The Xiang Shan girls, whose lives are dictated by test scores, are suddenly set free to share, to encourage, to listen, to hold, to comfort, to laugh. In one room, a group of older blind women sing Communist-era songs with evident glee; in another room a student hands to a blind man a red silk flower that she made last night, describing it for him and helping him feel its texture; in a third room, a man shares something of great importance with two of our students; in a fourth room, one of the Deqing girls, who I know has a particularly difficult and depressing home life, crouches down and stares up intently into the eyes of a woman, providing compassion that I imagine comes from her own reservoir of pain. The instant intimacy, the immediate bond between these girls, who all seem to have the gift of virtue, and these elderly is palpable and moving.
“Mr. Schmidt, one of the women invited some of the Deqing girls up to see her room. Take a look.” I take the suggestion, bound up a flight of stairs, and walk to the end of a hallway. Walking into the room, I see two of the Deqing girls speaking with a short and round blind woman with a thick crop of mostly white hair. I had noticed her downstairs and even then was struck by her smile, but in this smaller setting the smile and accompanying joy fill the room. Like my conversation with Mrs. Chan, there is no place for pity in this conversation.
We descend the stairs and return to the meeting room. The friendly middle-aged government official who first welcomed us takes me over to a signboard that introduces this facility. She points to the first line. In my less-than-fluent Chinese, I make out the broad strokes of what she wants me to read: this home was started in 1895 by an American group. One hundred and sixteen years later, I have the pleasure of bringing HKIS students and Deqing girls together with a group of elderly people. This unusual confluence elicits joy for everyone. As we say our goodbyes, the scope of our weekend’s work has a new horizon – and I sense the power of possibility, the importance of simply doing the work. I am grateful to the official, for this sign conveys a plainly spoken truth: the staying power of service grounded in a tradition.
Sitting in tropical leisure at our favorite Thai resort with Muzak playing gently in the background, I continue to contemplate these stories. Having intimate knowledge of two rural women’s joys and sorrows is of great value for me. The Psalmist’s phrase often comes to me on these trips, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.” Thank you, dear women, for sharing your stories. Such knowledge is wonderful for me.
Many thanks again to the Concordia Welfare Education Foundation, especially Dophin Liu, Guangdong Office Manager, for coordinating the entire program, including this summer camp.