Old People and Young People

I’m sitting casually on the steps to the speaking platform/flagpole at Sanzhuang. It’s a clear, bright blue day as always. On the step above me is Zhang Jin Wei, a sixth grader who I taught as a fifth grader. Zhang Jin Wei’s body’s too big for him, but he’s too young for his age. He has a lego-head-shaped-head—and a haircut that almost makes you think he might be balding, even though you know it’s biologically out of the question. He’s profoundly awkward—a characteristic alive and well in each and every sixth grader, past, present, and future. He talks in spurts, his speech moving not in step with neural synapses, but the rapid thump of his circulatory system. In short, he’s a kid. But, Zhang Jin Wei is also a profoundly smart kid. In a class dominated by intelligent and focused girls, he’s the only boy that even cracks the top ten.

He seems to search for an out of our conversation before it even begins.

“Zhang Jin Wei, did you have any problems with your research?” I’m asking about our CORE project. It’s his third year with the project.

For anyone who might not know, CORE is an uncertain acronym, but the generally accepted iteration is Community, Outreach, Rediscovery and Engagement. It’s a project started five years ago by Teach for China fellows in the Heqing region. The goal is to connect kids with their homes in new ways and try to lead them toward thinking about how to improve their villages without sacrificing the things they love about their villages. Over the years, we’ve raised hundreds of thousands of RMB and given winning teams a chance to go to cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. This year, the theme is Old and New. Students were asked to go into their towns and compare old and new methods of doing things and think about what the development has meant. For example, a washboard vs. a washing machine or traditional Chinese medicine vs. modern “Western” medicine.

P1000928

Zhang Jin Wei dances around my question.

“Well, there was, I mean, there was one, there was one time we couldn’t get information.”

“That’s normal. What happened? Maybe I can give you some resources.”

“Well it was during the interview. We had to interview people, right?”

“Yeah, you couldn’t find anyone? You can always find someone. They don’t have to be an expert.”

“No, not like that. We, we, found a guy. This old guy in the village who knew about Chinese medicine.”

“That’s a good one!”

“Well, not really.” He struggles through a laugh. “We went to his house, you know, on Sunday afternoon. And we knocked on the door and opened the gate. ‘What is it? Who are you?’ he said. And we told him that, you know, we were there to interview him like we planned the other day. He said OK, he remembered. He said that he just wanted to finish watching a history soap opera and he would come speak with us. He said he’d be done 马上 (ma shang).”

horse-chinese-red-vector-1733832

马上 (ma shang) is the most deceptively deployed word in Heqing, and I’m led to imagine other parts of China, too. The word literally means “On a horse’s back.” It apparently originates from the Warring States Periods of Ancient China. A messenger approached one kingdom’s general with news that one of its strongholds was under attack. The general, who had been doing training exercises with his troops, replied 马上 (ma shang), implying that he and his men would not leave their horses’ backs, but proceed immediately to battle. Or something like that. 马上 (ma shang), of course, implies immediacy. ‘I’m on the horse. Let’s do this thing.’ But, it’s usually used like this: ‘Sure, I’m on a horse, but that doesn’t mean I’m going anywhere. I’m just going to hang out on the horse for a little while.’ The most flagrant abusers of 马上(ma shang), are, of course, 面包车 (mian bao che) drivers. These guys drive van cabs. 马上(ma shang) is their natural, knee-jerk reaction to the question, “When are we leaving?” or “Are we there yet?” or “Where are we going?”

warring_states_period_403_bc_–_221_bcf8482d252ea4a7d1dcb5

Zhang Jin Wei continues, “Well. We waited like 30 minutes at his door and we went in to check if his show had finished.”

“Were you nervous?”

“A little, yeah. But, we waited 30 minutes. I thought he was probably sleeping. He wasn’t sleeping. He was smoking a cigarette and watching the news. We asked if we could do the interview. He said 马上 (ma shang). He just wanted to finish watching the news and he would come find us. He told us to go outside. Then, like 15 minutes later we checked again—because he didn’t come out. This time he wasn’t even watching the news! He was watching a show about 象棋 (xiang chee—‘chess’)! And Zhang Run Jing asked him if he could do the interview and he said maybe now is not a good time. He was going to go take a nap and we should go away because he had to take a nap.”

George RR Martin

Naptime, bitches. 

“Wow! That’s difficult. Doesn’t sound like fun. What did you do?”

“Well. We decided that there are three places to get information: Old people, books, and computers. And Zhang Run Jing, he has a computer. So, we just looked up the answers online. We found them pretty 马上 (ma shang).”

Advertisements

Unforgiving Progress: An Early Requiem for a Community

We’re really close to the sun here. Not in a metaphorical way or anything. You’re not about to get hit with some Icarus parallel. Like, literally—relatively—the sun is close. That’s why, especially in the winter, days are that perfect kind of weather where you don’t even notice weather and nights give you hallucinations of Leif Erickson shoving sno-cones in your face and whatnot. It also makes the morning bright AF. On cloudless mornings (and most right now are) you’ve got to mentally prepare yourself for solar beatdown. Having the complexion of a roll of unused toilet paper, it’s dangerous out there for me.

Unknown

My face, whiter than toilet paper.

Day 1 of the weekend. I told fifth-grader Yang Hua (English name Tom) that I’d meet him outside his house at 8:30 in the morning and we’d hang around his village. Stupid—that’s how I felt about that promise at 8:00 a.m. Two years ago at that time I’d have just hit stage 4 of the sleep cycle. Wouldn’t get a crack at the world until noon. I remember in college this one kid wanted to meet up for a group project at 8:30 am on Sunday. I think I must have said something like, “You’re a sick fuck, you know that?” before we kicked him out of the group. But anyways, I’m older now and I’ve created responsibilities for myself. It’s one thing to stand up an 8:30 am class, it’s another to stand up an 11-year-old kid.

P1000925

Sanzhuang Village

I got up, slunk into the brightness, and walked down the mountain to Yang Hua’s house. He lives in the first mini-cluster-village of the big-big village of WenXing (When-Shing for you foreign devils). As such, he’s attended school at SanZhuang—where I teach—since first grade because, even though he lives in WenXing, SanZhuang’s elementary school is 10 times closer to his house than the WenXing iteration. I thought that was a nice, strikingly un-bureaucratic arrangement for Yang Hua. I walked down through SanZhuang on my way. I passed a bunch of my students and this old farmer who seems to pop up everywhere in my life. Whenever I walk past, he announces to someone—or no one if someone is not there—that “It’s Mr. Loeb, the American teacher, Mr. Loeb is coming down the hill!” And laughs merrily. It’s kind of weird. I can’t tell if he likes me or he’s doing some Paul Revere type shit.

Yang Hua is waiting in front of his little village. I’m immediately washed with a pang of relief-guilt. Really happy I didn’t let myself doze. I suppose I have grown up. The way these things work: Clusters of houses, almost quite literally right on top of each other and then vast expanses of cropland before another cluster of houses quite literally on top of each other. It might make personal-space-loving Americans scratch their heads—and it took me a while to make sense of it. “But… but… where’s your backyard.” I might ask. “This is all our backyard.” Accompanied by a sweeping of the arms. Not even a single “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again,” sign. How barbaric. Gives me the creeps, it does.

P1000927

WenXing scenery

Yang Hua and I meet up with another one of my kids—Gao ZhiBin (who I creatively named Zeben, in honor of a TFC teacher I kind of knew). And then two 11-year-olds and me walked across the entirety of the big-big village of WenXing in the infinite brightness. We village-hopped, if you will. Remember, all of these clusters are separated by big plots of rice, wheat, and tobacco. Throughout the walk—which took a few hours—we ran into pretty much all of my WenXing students. About 10-12 come to SanZhuang each year. WenXing’s own school only has grades 1-4. So, its students—like students from other surrounding rural villages—come to SanZhuang for 5th and 6th grade. WenXing is small and, like most rural Chinese villages, getting smaller.

Quick modern history/rural economics lesson: WenXing is and has always been an agricultural village. There isn’t much in the way of concrete documentation, but from what I hear from locals, it was kind of what you picture when you think about rural China back in the day—and probably a little worse, given its mountain-hugging location. Up until the 70’s, poverty was the rule, the concept of “our” was law, and life was a grind. Most people will tell you that it’s been getting better since the mid-70s. A slow, upward trajectory that has been nothing, mostly, but good. Education got better, students stayed in the system longer, a new road sprung up every few years. Most people over the age of 30 probably have four, five, six brothers and sisters. But rarely, if ever, do they have more than two kids of their own. Even though the one-child policy does not apply to farmers or minorities, economics do. The advantages of having six children have been erased by incipient prosperity.

But, now it’s clear that the prosperity curve is starting to press up against the limits of reality. Alas, an hours-long agricultural community cannot sustain economic growth forever in its own little organic semi-vacuum. To be sure, this is also the case for cities, countries, and, sorry, planets. There are essentially no #millenials here. People aged 18-30 are almost invariably working in cities, living not amongst rice terraces and family, but in tiny little cupboards in cities like LiJiang or DaLi, with 10 other young people—and, mind you, making 10 times what they’d be making if they weren’t. This is demographic engineering. Whether policy or not, like the one-child law, it seems to be the logical course of economics meets life. After all, subsistence-or-close-to-it farmers do next-to-nothing for the proliferation of societal cash-money. Move those people to the city, pay them 10 times more (still very little), make them consumers, and convert the inefficient land that they used to farm and live on to Big-Agri-Central and shit like amusement parks (and way down the line perhaps 1,000 times pricier second homes for the grandkids of the people who left the village). Show me a “developed” nation where that story hasn’t played out. I dare you.

P1000929

Students messing around in the stream

But, not today. Each village-cluster (nine in total) is still sufficiently full of life. Every time we cross a field and enter a new village it’s kind of like entering a new country. People—especially old people—speak of the villages like that. I remember one guy warning me in my first days to “never trust a person from (the village right across the street)” as though the cobblestones represented some sort of irreconcilable moralistic divide. There is a dominant last name in each village, too. This makes sense. These are generally places people move out of. Outsiders with weird names like Loeb, rarely settle down here.

P1000704

We cross into the central village—the wealthiest of the nine. The village committee building is here. There are also three small convenience stores, shelves stocked haphazardly, cash stored in a creaky drawer—all bills tossed in with each other, ancient-looking men sitting outside on stools sucking the life out of cigarette bongs (and, sadly, themselves), and a brand of friendliness that doesn’t exist in places with garbage and traffic lights.

I buy the kids some lukewarm “iced” tea and they lead me up a side-alley to Zhang LiPin’s house. They pound on his door and scream his name. This is actually how people coordinate rendezvouses! I always thought Charles Schulz was full of shit when he wrote about this kind of stuff. Moments later an irritated old-woman-voice echoes from the other side of the door. “He’s not here. He’s ‘being an honored guest.’” The kids shrug and we keep walking. “Being an honored guest,” a phrase that carries with it that unnecessarily inherent formality that a lot of Chinese phrases do, is always hilarious in this context. First of all, because everyone is friends around here, people are always going over to other people’s houses for events—from funerals to weddings to liver-destructions. So, this is a super common reason for someone being unavailable. But, the word/phrase is used interchangeably for kids and adults. The idea of an 11-year-old, let alone a four-year-old “being an honored guest” cracks me up.

P1000931

Alleyway in WenXing

Zhang LiPin wasn’t home, so we walked to the next cluster. We called on another kid, Yang JianWei, who was home. His dad, shirtless and roundbellied, scrambled to receive us. He frantically looked for a teacup, and when he couldn’t find one, emptied, washed, and refilled his own tea-bottle and offered it to me. He ran into the courtyard and grabbed a few sticks of milky-ice (cream) from the freezer and handed them to the boys. The spontaneous acts of hospitality, incredible. We stayed for a moment—not long enough for my tea to cool—and walked back toward Yang Hua’s house. We would eat lunch there.

P1000934

Gao ZhiBin, Yang Hua, me

On the way back we stopped at the school to play basketball with a couple more of my students. The hoops were droopy and the ball flat. The school is only a few rooms—a real community operation. There are 43 students in total, grades K-4. My school’s own Principal, Mr. Yang, who happens to be from this very village-cluster of WenXing, said there were well over a hundred kids here 20 years ago, when his son—who know lives in the city of NuJiang—was a student here. One of the kids laments his fate as a fellow-townsman of Principal Yang. “He’s my principal seven days a week instead of five!”

We retrace past the little haphazard shops and the same ancient dudes loving on the steel cigarette bongs and the fields, fields, fields. Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin playfully attack each other with fallen branches. I notice Yang Hua’s shirt is too small for him. Gao ZhiBin’s, too. They don’t notice, though.

P1000943

We get back to their village around two. The way back always feels shorter. On the way there, you never know where the end is. There’s an “uncle” sitting on a stool by the table. Always stools here, of course. I guess there’s a thrill in eating whilst trying not to injure yourself, or something. The uncle smokes a cigarette and nod-smiles at us. Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin mess around with my camera for a few minutes, before a pack of tired looking middle-aged women enters the gate and sits down at the table. I look up, confused.

IMG_0441

Food, literally, on food

“It’s the busy season,” Yang Hua informs. “They’re helping us with our crops, so we’re having them over for lunch.” The honored guests smile and nod and continue jabbering in deep, deep dialect, far beyond my comprehension. Yang Hua’s dad comes out with a few trays of freshly picked, freshly cooked, freshly fresh dishes—the only kind there are here. Pig’s stomach, milky potatoes, corn and green beans, leek soup, whole little fishes, and that thing that starts with an r and ends with an e. He greets me and offers a Dali beer and a Yunnan cigarette. I take the beer. He tacitly impugns my nicotine-free “masculinity.”

I eat gleefully, say thank you, and walk back up the mountain in the brightness. “Come visit us anytime, anytime.” The boys say. “See you on Monday,” I tell the students—more sullenly reminding myself than them.

It’s funny whenever I do this. I feel deeply nostalgic for something I never had. I feel like I’m vicariously experiencing a lost life—one spent on private property, one spent in cars, one spent with phones and distance—a decade on. Life has been good for me, to be sure. But, it was never like this. For some reason this is how I’ve always pictured “society”—close-knit, name-knowing, honored-guest-being, continuously, endlessly hospitable… neighborly. With a fuck-ton of corner shops. As many corner shops as corners.

And this place will probably be “running its course” by the next time Halley’s comet comes through. And I wonder why that has to be. Are the concepts of prosperity (the money kind) and simplicity, neighborliness, tradition, and community really so diametrically opposed?

It’s hard to argue that they aren’t.

Why does it always seem like we can only choose one or the other? Truthfully, this sense of community is something we’re always hungering for in theory—country, religion etc.. And I suppose when you think about it in that sense, the concept of community is OK until you consider its insidious exclusivity—an apparently fundamental characteristic to its existence. But, practically speaking, real, physical communities seem to be perhaps the greatest victim, among many, many positives, of prosperity. I would never argue that Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin are better off staying put—my alleged purpose here pretty much represents the inverse of that notion. Surely, in most ways, they aren’t better off. But, remember from time to time, that progress and wealth are not no-strings-attached plusses. There are some things you’re gonna have to lose first.

Over-Resourced: Why People are Always more Important than Things

The first time I realized teaching might be hard: Four of five minutes in to my first class. It was a beautiful September morning. I took my PE class down to the basketball court. I hadn’t intended to teach PE, but the school compelled me to. The night before, I decided I’d teach them how to play knockout—a favorite (and simple) childhood game. Sanzhuang had a pretty nice basketball court—which has since become an absurdly nice basketball court. We had basketballs. The weather was nice. What a perfect moment for throwing orange spheres into orange rings. But, by the time I’d assembled all of my students in a long, wending procession starting at the foul line, I became aware of a problem. I had no idea how to teach the game. Especially not in Mandarin. The students awkwardly rocketed balls off the backboard for about a minute before I told them to just do what they wished with the rest of PE class. Some of the boys continued tossing around basketballs, but most kids just sat on benches doing nothing.

IMG_0426

Basketball Court

IMG_0231

Assembling the basketball court

The school I work at is far from short on resources. Read that again. We may be located in one of the poorer parts of Asia, the students themselves may not come from propitious beginnings, nor is there any semblance of a service economy. Agriculture is still the unchallenged reality for most everyone. Those who do not ascribe to that reality will almost certainly leave. But, the school is different. We have a… deep breath, brand new basketball court—the nicest in the county. Deeper breath… there’s a just laid 100-meter strip, a PE room with all the stuff you’d expect to find in the American iteration, plus some swords and a lot more shuttlecocks, a room full of like, 30 computers, a to-the-touch whiteboard and speakers in each classroom, plenty of printers, a spotless and stocked cafeteria, a high-quality security system with 16 color cameras, a slew of drums and trumpets, a campus environment that looks more like a botanical hyper-Zen garden than a school, an art room with easels, Wi-Fi everywhere, a washer machine, and a fully outfitted experiment room—beakers, sinks, Bunsen burners.

Well, that last one is only hearsay. I’ve never seen it. I don’t think it’s ever actually been open. Here’s the thing: Almost none of this means anything. If you sat Ben Franklin—widely considered intelligent by scholars—down in a room with a switched off laptop and a stable Internet connection and said go, what would happen? Probably not much. If you put 10-year-old LeBron on a court with a ball and said go, what would happen? If you threw a youthful Pierre and Marie into a room full of radioactive shit (shit: to be read as a synonym for things), beakers, and Bunsen burners, what would happen? Probably something less than ideal. If you put a bunch of super-intelligent, highly trained and motivated men in suits in a roomful of screens, tickers, and phones, what would happen? Well… never mind.

can-stock-photo_csp11172611

Radioactive disaster

At first thought, one may be tempted to conceive their image of a rural school with an eye on things. Ruddy-faced kids wearing tattered up clothes. Scuffed chalkboards. Bowls full of nothing more than rice and watery broth. Maybe some roosters clucking somewhere. And, for some reason, always early morning fog. And, one wouldn’t be wrong. There are thousands of schools that fit that formula. And, I suppose that’s where paradigms are made. But, Sanzhuang isn’t one of them.

There are advantages to nice things. First, they look nice. They make for a comfortable environment and win approval from visitors. Second, they add to GDP. Sure, it’s true in a macro sense, but microeconomically speaking, local businesses are getting money and jobs are being created. And everybody loves jobs. I don’t mean that business thing in a cynical way here, but perhaps you can read between the lines and see how it might be a problem. Third, in many cases if you don’t have them—things, you can’t do stuff that you’d like to do. And, in most cases, they will at the very least “improve the experience” above things of less nice quality.

But, things don’t mean anything, especially to a school, if no one knows how to use them. This is not a gripe against my school. What Principal Yang has pulled off is nothing short of miraculous. The renovation undertook at Sanzhaung since I arrived in summer 2013 is stunning. What’s more, it’s not like Principal Yang or our administrators really have a choice. All these things are way, way, way easier to acquire than people who know how to use them. But, an Olympic swimming pool won’t do you much good if you don’t have a guy on the side telling the kids not to inhale under the surface.

IMG_0425

100-meter strip

The reason I think this might be hard to grasp, at first thought, is that the two notions tend to go hand in hand. MIT probably has really great things and really high-paid expert types. Your local CC probably doesn’t. And all the way down the line to preschool. Reasons for this: quality people are attracted to quality things and quality paychecks and in a weird way, vice-versa. People generally stay in or near the communities in which they were raised. But, now I find myself in a strange situation. We (really, truly) have everything we need and more. Education spending in Heqing County makes education spending in the States, in proportion, look like a sad joke. But, no one knows what to do with it all.

When I was a kid, our (public) school had an art teacher, a PE teacher, a music teacher, a separate guy for band, a computer teacher, a speech coach, a whole Special Ed staff, a teacher for “gifted” students, a school nurse, a science teacher, and a group of administrators whose job description certainly did not include time in front of a class. If you are a teacher at Sanzhuang, you are literally expected to be all of those things (plus surrogate parent). Yes, I have seen teachers help students administer IV drips.

P1000919

computers

Oh, and in addition to the above responsibilities, you’ll have to teach one or two of math, Chinese, and English. And those are the only classes that actually matter. But, still do your best with the music, and the Special Ed, and the needles. I mean, can you comprehend the burden that would be required to even remotely execute the wearing of all of those hats?

And this is the genesis of unfairness in education. It’s really not a tangible resource gap—although in some situations it truly might be—, the resource gap is demonstrably easier to bridge. It’s a people gap. Again, there are reasons for this. The school’s location might be part of it. It’s in a historically poor area. The teachers it recruits will likely be from the area and have limited education. Those who do make it out, will probably teach in the city somewhere. But, that’s a lame excuse, because I frankly do not see much difference in ability and motivation between the teachers at Sanzhuang and the ones in Sherman, CT. They are both excellent.

At the end of the day, it’s a lack of specialization, training, people, and all the stuff that goes into giving those people what they need to succeed—the intangible stuff, that is. There was a teacher at our school last year named (surprise, surprise) Mr. Yang. He was 28-years-old—the youngest local teacher. He was a talented singer and usually sang the national anthem at all of our school events. Mr. Yang was an incessant complainer. From the day he arrived, it seemed like he always had something to be pissed off about. His third-grade class did poorly—worst in the school. We were friends. One day, I was in the passenger’s seat of his car, driving to a wedding. He seemed typically peeved. I told him, seriously:

“Dude, you’re kind of a downer sometimes.”

“What? Me? Come on?” He chuckled, agreeing.

“Do you not like Sanzhuang?”

“Not so much.”

“Why? It’s a great school? Beautiful, comfortable.”

“They tricked me! That’s why.”

“Who?”

“The school. They didn’t say I was going to be a homeroom teacher teaching English and Chinese and all the other stuff. They said I was going to be a music teacher, specifically and only a music teacher.”

“Really? That’s what you thought you were going to be?”

“Yeah, of course! That’s what I’m trained to do. And now I’m a homeroom teacher and I get to sing the damn national anthem sometimes.”

This is not the school’s fault, mind you. They needed someone to teach Chinese and English to 35 nine-year-olds. Mr. Yang, for his part, is now at a different school—still teaching all the other stuff.

Nowhere is this people problem more glaring than in the discipline of English—a mandatory subject for all pupils in the People’s Republic. English learning begins at Grade 3 here. A majority of local English teachers teach the subject like this: They take a tape, put it in a tape recorder, let it play, and tell the kids to repeat after it. Whether you do this on a tape recorder, a CD player, or through an HD digital recording—that is to say, regardless of what things you have—the effect is, as it were, 差不多 (more or less). On the day I arrived in Sanzhuang, I had this exchange with the local English teacher.

“How are you?”

“Oh, sorry. My English is not good. We can use Mandarin, please.”

She was trained to be an English teacher, and though she is a vastly superior teacher to me, she cannot speak English. Imagine trying to explain to someone how to do long division without actually knowing how to do it yourself? Then, even if you did know it, not being trained to teach it—like me in my first PE class.

I reieterate. This is not our fault. There are only so many hats one can throw on before they start sliding off of each other. That teacher is now a Chinese teacher, by the way.

Recently, my Principal has been dropping some hints, saying things like “Don’t forget that this will always be your school,” or more blatantly, “When you get rich, you gonna hook us up or what?” or less optimistically for me, “How about that friend of yours, the boss, speak to him lately?” He asked about the boss so many times, that I finally fibbed,

“Yeah. I did. He said he had visited many schools in Heqing and there were many that need much more attention than ours. If anything, he said maybe he would give some cash for training.”

“Oh. Ok.” Said my Principal. “Maybe he could help out with the multipurpose room instead?”

P1000920

The locked experiment room… I admit, my investigative journalism ability is poor.

There is a point, and it occurs very early on, when the need for well-trained specialists outstrips the marginal need for things. This happens shortly after a school accumulates enough food, pencils, and paper (real problems for thousands of schools). What’s happened at my school is interesting. It’s gone from being superficially under-resourced to superficially over-resourced, yet ostensibly, nothing has changed. It’s given me the opportunity to witness the point firsthand. Math and Chinese scores are still very high. My English class still does fine. The Wi-Fi is nice. The block called “science” on the schedule is still generally regarded as a good chance to review Chinese vocabulary.

There is no solution contained in this ramble—sorry… But, my point is that the problem holding students back and ratcheting up education gaps will usually not be a resource problem—as attractive, comprehendible, and fixable with fat stacks of as that problem may seem. The problem will almost always be the people one—the one that is much, much harder to address. Perhaps we can see more recognition of that reality.