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Archive for December, 2011

Zhang Yibin was a shy student at Helong Middle School in Shantou, Guangdong who rarely participated in class. Read how Jennifer Tan (Fellow ’11, Brown University) was able to change his beliefs about himself and his education.  

Ross (Zhang Yi Bin 张奕槟) is one of the 78 students in my class. On the first day of

Students from Jennifer Tan’s class at Helong Middle School

class, I noticed him right away–he was the smallest student, sitting by himself with his notebook open. I crouched down next to his desk and asked him for his name. He just looked away and pointed at his notebook with three Chinese characters written on top. I asked again and he whispered in my ear without looking at me, “Yi Bin.” I smiled and walked away. After a few days of class, I realized that Ross had a very poor foundation in the English language, but he concentrated hard in my class, copying everything down as quickly as he could. After a week, I announced that I had chosen Ross to serve as the class’s subject representative. This was abnormal, as class representatives are typically chosen based solely on grades, and Ross’s grades were far from the best in the class. I hoped that giving Ross the responsibilities of serving as class representative, which include helping me to collect homework, would help him open up. I had no idea how much my decision would affect him.

By the beginning of October, I began buke 补课( supplementary study sessions) every day after school. Almost every day, Ross and his good friend, Marshall, would come into my office with their notebooks, English workbooks, and English textbooks in hand, asking me to review the day’s materials or to learn more vocabulary. I was energized and inspired by their eagerness to learn. They spent more than an hour with me every after school session working on grammar problems and writing creative sentences with the words we just learned. In September, Ross averaged just 71 out of 150 in my class. In his last exam, he scored 102 out of 150. In class, he constantly raises his hand to answer questions, and even frequently volunteers to perform dialogues in front of the entire class! Ross inspires me to work harder for all 77 of my other students.

Recently, his Chinese Literature teacher (another Teach For China Fellow) showed

A banner hanging in Jennifer’s class

me an entry in his diary. The prompt was: “Your teacher calls you into his/her office. What happens next?” Ross wrote a creative piece about how nervous he had been to be called into the office by his English teacher, and how sweat had trickled down his forehead as he walked to the office. The story continued: “I didn’t know what to do so I just addressed her and stayed silent. She told me that she wanted me to be her class representative! I couldn’t believe it! I was scared at first! But after a few days, it didn’t seem so hard to help her! When I was younger, I did not work very hard in school, but my teacher told me that she believes I could succeed if I work hard, so this year, I am going to work very very hard! She makes us read the giant banner in our classroom every day: I will work hard, I will succeed! I think this is true!”

I was touched by what Ross wrote. I didn’t know that I could have such a big impact on another human being in such a short amount of time. Ross isn’t a high-achieving student; not yet, at least. I know that if he were in a different class, he might not have been encouraged as much. In another class, he certainly wouldn’t have received after-school sessions to reinforce difficult material. Most of all, the teacher might not have told each and every single student that he/she believes in them. I Teach For China because I truly believe in all my students, and if I could help Ross believe in himself, I only have 77 more to go.

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Teaching in rural schools gives Fellows the rare opportunity to participate in local customs as members in the community. In rural Fengqing County 凤庆县, Yunnan, a teacher at Luodang Middle School 洛党中学 who is of the Muslim Hui ethnic minority recently got married. When the wedding took place, Kristen Faiferlick (Fellow ’10, Middlebury College), Laura Zulliger (Fellow ’10, Davidson College), and Xu Qiuwen 徐秋雯 (Fellow ’10, Peking University) were all on hand to support their friend and colleague.  For Kristen, the occasion was “one of the most moving things I’ve experienced since coming to China”

This past week, Laura, Qiuwen and I had the pleasure and honor of attending our coworker and friend’s wedding in Yingpan, several hours from Luodang. The bride, Ma Ruxia, has been a close friend, mentor, and guide ever since the three of us arrived at Luodang over a year ago. Watching her take this momentous step in her life was perhaps one of the most moving things I’ve experienced since coming to China.

Fellows Kristen Faiferlick and Laura Zulliger with the bride

Ma Ruxia’s wedding took place over the course of a week. To celebrate a wedding, most Chinese couples usually host a giant dinner for their friends and family at a local restaurant, wherein everyone comes to eat, drink, and toast the bride and groom. To be frank, most foreigners are rather unimpressed with this sort of wedding ceremony, considering the fact that we’re accustomed to both eating and actually seeing the ceremony performed. Additionally, we tend to associate weddings with music and dancing, both of which are unfortunately absent in Chinese weddings.

However, Ma Ruxia and her husband are both Muslim, which meant that the dinner was slightly different from a typical Chinese wedding. First, nearly all the dinner guests were

The wedding feast

also Muslim, so the food served at the dinner was all halal. Second, the the dinner was served in the courtyard of Yingpan’s beautiful mosque, situated just next door to Ma Ruxia’s home. As the “dinner” stretched from afternoon until sunset, we all ate far too much! As the dinner slowly wrapped, up, the evening sun setting over the hill cast a warm glow over the children playing in the courtyard and sparkled against the star and crescent above the mosque. The children running and singing, the laughter of guests, and the cool breeze blowing through the trees reminded me how thankful I am to be in such a beautiful place sharing such a special day.
After the guests slowly meandered out of the mosque courtyard, Ma Ruxia invited us into

Yingpan's mosque

her home, where we spent the rest of the night chatting, cooing over her wedding photos, and playing ma jiang with our local teachers. It was a wonderful night, and I think I’ll look back on it for years as one of the best times I’ve had with the friends and teachers from Luodang Middle School.

The next morning, we all rose early for what was, to me, the most interesting and touching part of the wedding. Around 7:30, a group of elderly men entered the home to perform the religious ceremony that would bind Ma Ruxia and her soon-to-be husband, Zhang Lei, in eternal partnership. Usually, the room this ritual is performed in is closed to everyone but the religious leaders and the couple, but Ma Ruxia invited Laura and me in to film and take pictures. I felt incredibly blessed and lucky to be close enough to see and hear the entire ceremony.

The ceremony began with the leader explaining the significance of being Hui Zu (Muslim)

Flower petals, seeds, and money play an important part in a Hui minority wedding ceremony

in China. He explained the importance of being proud of their culture and heritage, and the importance of observing halal and raising their children to observe the same Muslim codes of behavior. He spoke about social and spiritual significance of marriage, and how the couple would be expected live their lives from that point onwards. As the end of the ceremony drew near, he sang a song in Arabic, which filled the tiny room with a deep, resonating energy. Finally, a second leader lifted a basket from the table, which was filled with flower petals, coins, and seeds. He tossed them lightly onto the head of the newly marriage couple, then sprinkled the items all over them to ensure they were covered in luck and prosperity. It is said that anyone who receives these coins will also find luck, so several other guests reached into the room to grab the fallen coins from the floor. After the couple was showered with luck and prosperity, they left the room for the most bittersweet part of the entire wedding.

In Chinese culture, a woman belongs to her family and serves her parents only as long as she lives under their roof. Although marriage ceremonies and attitudes have evolved into many different forms in recent years, Ma Ruxia was very much affected by the idea that she would be leaving her mother for a new one. As she prepared her things, the cars waited outside to bring Ma Ruxia to her new home and new mother. Suddenly, without warning, she burst into tears. They were brief, but told of the great internal battle she must have been experiencing internally. Marriage is a time for happiness, but it also represents the final step from adolescence into adulthood. Watching her as she left made me wonder about all the emotions she was feeling as she left home, and how she would feel in the weeks and months to come. She quickly recovered, smiled, and led the parade of guests down the road to the waiting cars, which would take the couple and their close friends to Genma, where another dinner party would be held, this time for Zhang Lei’s friends and family.

The entire ceremony was both emotionally stirring and mentally challenging for me. Unlike the marriage I may someday enter into, Ma Ruxia and Zhang Lei’s marriage was arranged by a matchmaker. As a member of one of China’s ethnic and religious minorities, Ma Ruxia had struggled to find a suitable boyfriend for years. She could only date other local Muslims, of which there are few in this area. A matchmaker arranged a meeting between her and Zhang Lei, and although it wasn’t love at first sight, they learned to appreciate and care for each other. Zhang Lei knows that he has found a precious gift in Ma Ruxia, and I trust that they will value and love each other.

For many Americans, December has always been a time for Christmas carols and tinsel on trees. This December, however, I feel blessed to have witnessed something even more important than Christmas: a lifelong union which will bring a close friend a lifetime of happiness.

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Gareth Collins (Fellow ’10, University of Michigan) and another Fellow at Dazhai Middle School 大寨中学 in Yunxian, Yunnan recently visited the home two female students from their class. Because their parents work away from home, the two girls live alone at the top of the mountain, and must provide for themselves in addition to attend school. Read their incredible story here.

Tonight, Dazhai is lit only by the lunar eclipse and the countless stars (and the dull glow of my battery-powered Macbook), as we are once again without power. Usually I would be preoccupied with how much of an inconvenience this is for me, but I learned today that I have very little to complain about.

Gareth's student Zhang Xinghui lives alone with her cousins at the top of a mountain

A few hours ago, Richard and I returned from a very meaningful home visit. It’s one thing for students to tell you how far away they live, and another to quite literally walk in their shoes. For Cindy (张兴茴) and Isabel (张兴芳), two of our class’ brightest students, walking home means a three-hour trek up into the mountains. Today we experienced their weekly reality first hand, snaking our way up an uneven dirt road and taking shortcuts through steep, rocky paths. It was exhausting, but the beautiful terraced hills, plunging valleys, and gushing rivers more than made up for it.

We were lucky to have several students as guides and company. Riley, another of my top students, enjoyed racing to the front of the group with me, so we found ourselves chatting together much of the way up. After a year and a half as her first English teacher, I’m amazed at how far her English has come along. She can understand much of what I say, as long as I speak slowly enough and confine the words I use to vocabulary we’ve studied. Though my shoulder still hurt from briefly dislocating it earlier in the week, her youthful energy almost made me forget all about it. I taught her the phrase, “time flies when you’re having fun”, and before we knew it, we’d arrived at Cindy and Isabel’s modest home.

Gareth's student Zhang Xingfang lives alone with her brother and cousin at the top of a mountain

Cindy and Isabel are cousins, I learned today, though their similar Chinese names should have been a dead giveaway. They are only thirteen, but because their parents work outside the home, they’ve been left home alone to fend entirely for themselves and for Isabel’s younger brother. They live in a broken-down shack at the peak of the mountain we had just climbed. They do everything without the help of adults: cleaning, cooking, washing clothes, and feeding their younger relatives, which wouldn’t be so hard if they didn’t have to grow most of the food they eat, gather wood to burn as fuel to cook with, and hand wash everything, including themselves, using one ice-cold water spigot. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? Westerners hear all the time about unspeakable hardship and tragedy the world over, usually from the comfort of our sofas or the distance of our computers and e-readers, but here I was, experiencing first-hand the difficult reality of two of my kindest and most successful students.

They were overjoyed to have us visit. I tried to reciprocate their happiness the best I could, but on the inside I was deeply saddened, not only by the unfairness of their situation, but by my own ignorance of the conditions under which they lived. I kept thinking of how my life had been at their age, and how carefree it had been by comparison. I had been self-centered and blissfully oblivious, as every kid deserves to be. I certainly hadn’t done anything special to deserve such a comfortable childhood. But what did these girls do to deserve any of what they got? They were born in the middle of nowhere, that’s it. And despite it all, they are thriving.

We said goodbye after a hearty meal–food always tastes better when you help to make it yourself; we brought a lot of stuff we had bought at market day up with us–and my head was swimming with thoughts as we meandered back down. A truck took a corner too tight and smashed its wheel on a rock as it passed us by. I put down my backpack to see if I could help but quickly realized the problem was much too serious for me to do anything about. Sometimes I feel that way about students like Cindy and Isabel and the adversity they are forced to face. The extent of the poverty here is truly daunting, and the world often seems too short on empathy to do much about it.

It’s easy to get stuck in that way of thinking, anyways. Afterwards, Richard and I spent an hour or so in the dark talking at length about how we could raise some money to help put these girls through high school and maybe even college. Obtaining a high-quality education would totally transform their lives and empower them to do anything that they set their minds to. That sounds like a trite cliché, but after spending hundreds of hours with these amazing young women, I know in my heart that it’s true. I will update this blog as our plans progress. I hope to have a convenient and accountable way for you all to contribute to this cause up and running sometime in the next several months.

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Emily Cole (Fellow ’10, Brown University) spent a memorable Thanksgiving visiting the home of home of her students in a remote mountain village in rural Yunnan. Her account, and accompanying pictures, provide an intimate look into daily life in this remote community. 

Leah (刑承月) is on the left, and Yang Wen Qing is on the right.  Both

Emily Cole's student, Xing Cheng Yue 刑承月, "Leah," on the left

were my 3rd grade students, and both are from the same mountain village.  Leah’s hometown is about a 2 hour hike into the mountains.  During the week, she lives with her grandmother, little brother, and little sister in a simple house in one of the smaller villages on the outskirts of town.  Her younger brother is in the first level of preschool at our elementary school, and her little sister will soon attend the school.  Though China has a one-child policy, citizens from the peasant class and ethnic minorities are allowed to have more than one child.  Most toddlers I’ve met here are very shy, but

Leah's younger sister

Leah’s little sister cuddled up to me the minute she met me and loved looking at the world through the viewfinder of my camera.

Last year, Leah struggled both socially and academically.  She had a an infected lesion on her head, forcing her to wear a hat because her hair had fallen out.  She has a really cute grin and an even cuter giggle, but last year, she was lacking in both.  This year, her injury has healed and she’s become more outgoing and less self-conscious.  While I was at her house this weekend, whenever she sat down to do her homework, she’d get up every ten minutes to feed the goats, take care of the cows, or run next door to play with Yang Wen Qing’s puppies. Corn harvesting and drying season is in full swing, so her parents were out working most of the day.  During the school day, she has teachers and classmates who can nag her to get her work done, but on the weekends and at home it is hard for her to focus.  This year, her English grades has improved, but her math and Chinese grades are still among the lowest in the class.

We didn’t have class on Friday, so I walked up the mountain with her and a gaggle of

Leah's home

girls who live in the same area.  I spent the night at her house in a room filled with pottery basins filled with water where they stored their fresh fruit.  The ceiling was a straw-filled tarp nailed to the ceiling, chock full of mice.  The next morning when I asked about the mice, Leah said “Oh, our house is full of mice!  They love to dance and fight in the ceiling at night!”  I couldn’t agree more, there was definitely a lot of dancing and fighting going on while I was trying to sleep.  The top floor of her house is an open attic where corn was laid out to dry.  All of the houses in the village were covered with piles of bright yellow corn drying in the sun.  The compound has a cement courtyard in the center.

Feeding the goats

One one side is the house, with a smoky, dimly like kitchen in a separate room that always has a small fire blazing.  On the other side are the cow, pig, goat, and chicken pens.  I slept to the sounds of her goats jingling their bells in their pen, the cows moo-ing throughout the night, pigs grunting, and roosters crowing at all hours of the night.

 

 

 

We woke up early the next morning and I went hiking around the mountain with the girls, watched Mickey Mouse cartoons in Chinese, ate persimmons with Leah's sister, found strange flowers and berries on the mountainside, and played with Yang Wen Qing's puppies. It was wonderful.

Time to trim the ol' bangs

Puppies and students, what could be a cuter combination?

The girls snacked on this while I politely refrained. The small fruits are more sour than War Heads, with the texture of an unripe peach. And then, to improve the flavor, they dip it into a mixture of hot pepper flakes, MSG, salt, and chicken bouillon powder. YUM! They said they like it because they are mountain girls, and mountain girls like sour things, obviously.

Leah stoking the fire in the morning. While I didn't have turkey for thanksgiving, Leah's mother was generous enough to kill a chicken which we had in a delicious sour soup for lunch.

 

 

 

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