Joyce Meng's Blog

A Visit to Anhui Province

Skye Gilbert, one of our Givology fellows, had a chance to visit a village in Anhui Province. Her reflections are captured in this photojournal:
January 3rd, 2009
Ma Xin is incredibly embarrassed. “My village is poor,” she says. “There are no famous sites to see and it is very cold.” She is telling me this even as we board the train, after planning this trip to visit her village for two weeks. I have heard it many times, and reply, Ma Xin, I’m not going to your village to see the sites of China. I’m going to meet your family and the people that you care about.” She is excited and nervous- she will have the prestigious position of guide and translator in a part of Anhui Province that hasn’t seen a foreigner in its recent memory. She will share in the gifts of food and hospitality that are bestowed upon me. Her face reveals a constant battle between excitement at the honor her village will accord her, and shame that I will see their poverty.

When we arrive, her two parents welcome me with local xiaochi, or snacks. We play game wih the local children before sitting down to dinner. Over dinner, Ma Xin reveals that both of her parents are primary school teachers. Together we decide to offer their students the opportunity to learn English from a foreigner, as I have been an English language teacher in China for the last three months. They seem at once excited and unsure, so I reassured them of my sincerity and dropped the subject.

January 4th, 2009
We spent the day touring the village, meeting Ma Xin’s grandmother and some of her former teachers. The children in the streets stare at my, mystified by the color of my hair. Finally, at dinner we meet the principle of the village primary school, the boss of Ma Xin’s parents. Over dinner, he tells me enthusiastically that he would like me to teach each and every one of his 200 students, ranging from ages six to twelve. We talk about how we will fit all of that into one morning, two class periods. He encourages me to teach the students some English, but has no idea what their level of English is as their former English teacher did not know the language well and no longer comes to the school. That night Ma Xin and I develop a tentative lesson plan for the older children, and briefly discuss what we can teach the younger children. Ma Xin will act as my translator for any instructions I have to give, as we are sure that the children will not know more than basic English.

January 5th, 2009
I arrive at the school around 8:30am. Two hundred kids are streaming into he schoolyard, but all movement stops as soon as I enter their line of vision. Slowly, the kids form a small circle around me and I wave and smile. They solemnly stare at me, just out of reac. I walk to the teacher’s lounge, and they follow me as if we were all participating in a parade. The bell rings as I enter the lounge and the students, remembering themselves, scatter.

Grouped into their respective classes- one class per age group, the students stand in a formation and march into place before a flagpole. The small children cannot yet form a straight line without fidgeting, and twist this way and that as the older children stand silent for the raising of the Chinese flag. The smaller children have sores on their cheeks from the cold. Because the school is south of the Yangtze river, its classrooms do not have heating and so the children wear five or more layers and sport sores on their hands and cheeks. They seem oblivious to the sores, and indeed to the cold. I cannot imagine the level of discipline it takes to ignore such physical discomfort in the pursuit of education.

After the flag-raising, the children return to their classrooms and I head to the twelve year-olds’ class. I arrive and say, “Hello!” Silence. I look questioningly at Ma Xin, then encourage them to say “Hello!” back. I ask, “What is your name?” and while two or three students can respond, the other thirty or so stare at me blankly. I am shocked. In Wuhu, the city in which I teach just five hours South, twelve-year old students can not only respond to “What is your name,” but they can also discuss the weather, hobbies and daily life. I am amazed that in just a few years, the children of this school will be forced to compete with the Wuhu students in a national college entrance exam. I cannot imagine how hard Ma Xin must have worked to go from this primary school to pursuing an English major at college. It seems that even without the harsh climate, these kids have the odds stacked against them.

I spend twenty minutes teaching these children Hello, How are you? and What is your name? and then conduct a Q&A about American culture. I hardly vary my lesson between age groups as all are starting near square one. I stopped writing on the board five minutes after my lesson began when I realized that the students did not understand what I was writing.

When I finished my small, simple lesson, I was escorted to a meeting with all the teachers of the school who were interested in primary education in America. I told them what I cold, but had a difficult time imagining how they could possibly apply American teaching methods in a classroom devoid of all except electric lighting and desks. How could they engage six year-olds in art projects without art supplies? How can they teach English without a regular English teacher? How can they get students excited about reading when they can barely afford to buy books? And yet the school accomplishes things that no American school currently does. It teaches its students to ignore the cold that blisters their faces, to write with puffy hands, to master one of the most difficult written languages in the world, to study in conditions that most children in developed countries will never contend with.

The meeting finished, and as I prepared to leave the school, I noticed many children crouched down low to the ground. “They have recess,” explained Ma Xin. “But what are they doing?” I asked. “Oh, they’re picking up litter, cleaning the school. I’m really glad I don’t have to do that anymore.”

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