I’ve been in Beijing studying and working for about 9 months now. I constantly looked for adventures and wanted to get my last spontaneous trip in before going back home. Two weeks before my flight to Canada I made the decision to visit a rural school in China and an amazing Chinese friend I met by accident on the train.
“Marjorie, come with me! This will be the best memory we treasure for the rest of our lives” — I started convincing my beautiful, petite French friend, Marjorie, that I met on exchange to come with me.
“Where are we going? Do you know this school? Do you know this person?” — She had so many questions for me that I just could not answer.
“It’s the girl that I met on our train ride to Xi’an in October. She teaches at a very rural school…that I have never been to of course. But that’s why I’m asking you to come with me!!” — I kept convincing her…in a very non-convincing way.
“This is crazy. What is something happens?” — The last sign of warning from Marjorie before she finally decided to trust my excited gut feeling.
A few days later we were on the train to go visit a school we know absolutely nothing about putting all of our trust into a teacher I met for only a few hour.
A little bit about my Chinese friend that I met on the train
I met Shi Xiao Ping, the Chinese friend I am referring to, while traveling to Xi’an with all of my exchange friends. We were too stubborn, or too poor at the time to afford sleeper class train tickets. Instead we decided to make a 12 hour over night journey by train, sitting on hard seats. We were surrounded by people that were standing for the entire 12 hours.
Yes, China has “standing” tickets where you can ride on the train for a very insignificant amount and sit in the isle or stand for 20 hours at a time.
The train cart was also full of sacks of potatoes, or other miscellaneous food, and chickens.
Shi Xiao Ping, was on the train with us with a standing ticket. As soon as one of my friends left to talk with someone else, and the seat was free, she sat down next to me. As an English teacher, right away she chatted me up in her broken English and asked if she could practice with me.
For the next few hours we taught each other English and Chinese and learned everything we could about our drastically different lives. She finished University and at 27 years old started teaching fairly poor students English at a rural school. She just married her husband whom she met when she was 19. She was absolutely in love with her husband and said he encourages her dream to travel abroad and to live a colourful life. Every month he puts away money so she can afford a plane ticket.
Unfortunately, because her husband is in the military he is not allowed to travel outside of China. Also, as a military family the husband and wife spend a lot of time away from each other. He is stationed in Xi’an and they met in Lanzhou where they also got married and have most of their family. He often rotates every seven days all around china but will spend most of the time in Xi’an where he bought a house for him and his wife.
She however cannot live with her husband for more the forty days a year because she is a teacher at the rural school that is three hours away from the main city of Lanzhou.
During the weekends she stays at the house of her mother in law in Lanzhou and during the weekdays Monday to Friday she comes to the school and lives with the children. This year during the winter break she will be looking for a job in Xi’an to join her husband but jobs in the cities for teachers are very hard to find.
At the end of the train ride we exchanged numbers. I loved her special and warm spirit. She invited me to come to her school, where she works and visit the children for a few days.
Trip to the rural school in Gangsu Province
A few months later, with only a few text messages exchanged between my teacher friend and I — Marjorie and I finally set out on our trip to visit the Minle Middle School in Gangsu Province.
The Minle village in the Yongdeng country is populated by farmers who mostly produce potatoes.
The landscape is very desert like and seemed empty and dry when we visited in December. There was a bit of snow covering some of the brown hills with chilly winds.
The closest city to the school is Lanzhou which is surrounded by mountains, is separated by the Yellow River and has the population of 2.088 million. The first bridge was build in 1920 and you can only walk across it. The city does not have a subway system.
First we arrived by train to Lanzhou from Beijing, which took about 20 hours. Completely not knowing what to expect or how to find our teacher friend my heart was in panic.
“What if this is a trick…what if we get kidnapped?” — I was thinking to myself.
My heart was pounding and I couldn’t bare the thought of putting Marjorie in danger.
Finally, we saw Shi Xiao Ping waving to us at the train station. We took a public bus in the city, then a long distance bus for an hour and thirty minutes and then another rural area bus.
Three buses later, with chickens running up and down the isles and curious glances from the locals, we arrived at the school.
Shi Xiao Ping was absolutely amazing and so welcoming and comforting. She paid for all of our transportation and food, absolutely refusing to take any money from us. She bought us some traditional food which was described to us as beef noodles, potatoes and “special chicken” along the way and never left our sight during the entire visit.
When Marjorie and I arrived at the school we realized that we were there the first white people that the kids have ever seen and the first foreign friends to visit the school.
Everyone was absolutely ecstatic and we were treated like royalty with care, attention and amazing food. We were greeted by 40 teachers that teach at the school, one headmaster and one director. Eight out of those 40 teachers taught English to 600 students, that have never ever met an English speaking person before.
Right from the beginning Marjorie and I felt so welcomed and appreciated at the school. The headmaster and a few teachers from the school took us for a traditional Chinese dinner at one of the best restaurants in the village. The food was laid out in giant circular platters across the table, with small bowls for each person at the table.
Every time our plate was empty our teacher friend would fill the plates with more food. We didn’t pick any of our own food.
This was one of the most delicious dinners I have ever had. The teachers asked if we were ok with them talking during dinner, because in traditional Chinese families you don’t talk while eating. It is also part of the tradition for the most important guest to start eating first and everyone must wait for the guest to finish eating his or her food before starting to eat themselves. This is why our plates were filled first and our teacher friend asked us for permission to start eating.
We knew absolutely nothing about our accommodations and where we would be sleeping. We were prepared for anything. After we arrived in her dormitory her two students gave us their small colourful stones as presents. We tried to make conversation with the students but they were quite shy. However, their English was quite good.
We were introduced to our rooms which were tiny, low quality but clean and weirdly cute. The teacher apologized a hundred times for the standard of the living conditions. However, we didn’t mind. Marjorie and I were used to these conditions by now after all of our travels. The teachers share a room with one other person in small shelters that don’t have central heating or a bathroom.
Inside the dormitory which was located on the first floor in a building that slightly resembled a concrete shack we had a basin with hot clean boiled water. The students rushed to prepare the coal and wooden stove for us so we could have a way to keep warm while we slept.
The weather outside was absolutely freezing cold but the entire atmosphere of the room was cozy and welcoming.
At night Marjorie and I slept in the same single bed, fully clothed for warmth, head to toe in opposite directions for extra room.
Shi Xiao Ping, our teacher friend slept in a tiny single bed beside us. She was an exceptionally light sleeper and when Marjorie got up to go to the bathroom she offered her a flash light and didn’t let her go outside by herself.
The bathroom was outside and consisted of holes in the ground where you could absolutely see everything if you looked down.
There were about four holes in the ground, so you absolutely shared your personal business with the person beside you.
The children have slightly better living conditions. The school renovated the girls dormitory first which was one of the two big central buildings. The other building had classrooms, a cafeteria and a chemistry lab. The children live in dorms with 4 bunk beds and 8 people. There is nothing in the room but the names of the children on the door, small grey lockers and hard mattresses with blankets. As a spoiled North America, I would not be able to sleep on the mattress, which is basically just a cardboard sheet with a blanket, everyday.
One night we visited the girls dorm room before they were heading off to sleep. We sat in their bunk beds and sang traditional English and Chinese songs together. Describing the feeling is exceptionally difficult.
Sitting around with the girls in their dorm was a beautiful moment. The lights went out signalling that the girls should go to bed, but instead they turned on their night lamps and sang us songs in the dark.
I felt like we were having a secret sleepover and the whole experience reminded me of camp with one exception – a foreign location where I knew absolutely no one but Marjorie.
The next few days we spent with the children in the classroom. We visited all 600 students and went to every single classroom to say hello. In the evenings, when class was not organized, Marjorie and I put together a short English lesson to teach children how to introduce themselves, talk about their favorite hobbies and their dreams. We also answered questions about our home countries and shared interesting facts about France and Canada. At first the children were very shy and polite but after a few days they completely warmed up to us and gave us hugs, asked us to draw in their books and took many pictures.
At the end of our stay the girls were in tears and were hugging us when we said goodbye so tightly that I didn’t think we would be allowed to leave.
Interesting facts about children in the rural part of China:
- Children in China go to school for 11 hours a day and study all sorts of subjects. They study English, Chinese, math, physics and chemistry everyday. They study art and music one time a week.
- The children go to school between 7:00 am and 12:00 pm and between 2:00 pm and 5:00 pm. They also study a subject of their choice in a classroom between 7:00 pm and 10:00 pm.
- All of the children live and study at the school from Monday to Friday. They go home to visit their parents on the weekend. However, it is too time consuming for the kids to travel to school everyday.
- The government sponsors breakfast for every child living in the rural area which includes an egg and milk.
- Even though China has a one child policy most children in the region we visited have a brother or a sister.
- The children are between 13 and 17 years old and spend three years on average in the school until they graduate and go to High School.
- The children play volleyball, ping pong and basketball during breaks and also take turns cleaning up the yard and school.
- The children sing and memorize songs about friendship, Mother China and their love for their family.
- The school holds a ceremony every Monday and Friday to raise and lower the Chinese flag.
- Most Chinese girls from this area get marries at the age of 27 if they go to University and at the age of 23 if they don’t pursue a higher education.
- The teachers at the school have 40 days of vacation a year.
- The Spring Festival is the most important day of the year where people gather with family and eat traditional dumplings
Even if we didn’t impact their lives tremendously, I felt that by giving so little of our time we actually gave the children an amazing experience. These children really don’t have much. They don’t have a lot of games or even free time to play. They spend 12hours a day studying and are away from their families for five days in a row. Shi Xiao Ping said we were the highlight of their year and their time at the school. She said they were excited for so many weeks and were patiently waiting for our arrival. Hopefully out of the 600 children we got to interact at least some of them would be inspired to keep learning English.
Before we left on our train ride back, Shi Xiao Ping stopped us and said.
“You girls are wonderful for coming and I know we made a friendship for like. But I do hope you are careful with trusting people you don’t know in the future. Not everyone in this world is nice”.