Some Kind of Love

When I was a young boy sometimes my mom might give me the last piece of cake or chocolate. Even if that cake was hers. Even if she hadn’t taken a bite and I’d already finished mine, she’d probably give it to me, even if I didn’t ask. This extended beyond the realm of food, I’m sure, but as a little fat kid these are where my memories were created and endure. I often thought about these acts, which—yes I will say again—extended far beyond chocolate. I always immediately accepted the offer. It just seemed like the only possible choice. And I would always think how much of a sucker my mom was and wonder what the hell was wrong with the woman. Chocolate—it’s good. Sometimes she would even claim that she didn’t like the cake or the French fries or the chocolate or whatever it was. She wasn’t going to eat it anyway. It really never made sense to me. I couldn’t fathom the lunacy of it. I certainly couldn’t fathom the real meaning of it.

Mr. Loeb,

          Thank you for teaching me English. You’ve taught me a lot besides English, like how to complain less and be more tolerant. It was a very happy time together, but you will be gone tomorrow. We might never see each other again, and there may never be another foreign teacher at Sanzhuang. Will you come back and bring your family? You are forever welcome. If you cannot come, I will come see you in America.  

        – Liu Hui Cui (Haley)

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The end of an era

The day I left Sanzhuang it wouldn’t stop raining. In fact, it hadn’t stopped for weeks. The cloud cover spread so deeply and densely silvery-gray that I couldn’t see beyond the bright pink school buildings that clung on our little mountain campus. I spent the day making decisions about what would and wouldn’t follow me into my new life. Kashmir sweater. Yeah. Toothbrush. Yeah. Punching bag. Yeah… no. The students mobbed me and seized anything they could get their hands on. I’m delighted when I remind myself that one of those London, Paris, Rome, Sherman, CT t-shirts is floating around rural Yunnan, China, being worn by someone five sizes too small. I wonder if they get the joke.

I left in late afternoon. The school—teachers, students, cafeteria women, and a few locals—broke off into two columns of about a hundred a side that snaked into campus. I walked through—getting the Mao treatment—as I rolled my suitcase behind me. Almost all students and some teachers were crying. I was crying too, of course. It was a beautiful moment, probably the most poignantly emotional of my young life. As I reached the school gate, the lines collapsed and many students came over to me, hugged me, and through varying degrees of tears told me to come visit them before middle school next year. I said, “I’ll try,” because saying more than two words risked taking me from sniffling to flat out bawling, and even though these were my last minutes here, I still felt like a teacher, and teachers can’t cry.

Mr. Loeb,

            Please be forever happy and healthy. Find a wife early. You are my best friend.            

            – Li Zhi Jie (Kobe)

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Mr. Loeb Artist: Xie Zi Xing (1st grade)

 

I left Sanzhuang and got onto a train bound for Shenzhen. 40 hours. It did feel like I was being blasted away (albeit on a sluggish Great Leap Forward era locomotive). The sheer length of the journey out of here—3 days and 7 different forms of transportation—makes the break that much sharper. It doesn’t simply feel as though I’m moving locations, I’m moving in time, too. Dimensions, really. Looking out the rain-stained window as the green-gray Chinese countryside dawdled by, I suddenly felt deeply moved by the events of the day and the years leading up to it.

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Peace

Mr. Loeb,  

            You’re leaving school soon and going home. We are sad because while you have been here we have given each other so much. You have wanted us all to be happy and care about school. I want to say thank you.

            These two years have been easygoing. You’re class is always calm and easygoing. In your class, even the students who never speak have the courage to speak. Like me. You make us feel courage in ourselves to speak.

            Before you were next to us everyday and it felt like it would always be that way. But, now we will part ways. It makes me, this happy student, very sad.

            So now, I just want to say thank you. I will miss you.

            -Duan Shun Jiang (Sally)

Some people might look at the tears and processional formation as some form of validation. I buy that way of thinking. The acts of kindness and gratitude signal that I have, in part, accomplished something worthy of appreciation. But, in those last moments and the last weeks, I really began to feel something new. For the better part of two years, I’ve been giving my cake and chocolate to my students. For the better part of two years, they’ve been taking it eagerly. This can be frustrating. But you give and give and give because that’s the only thing you can do. The thought of not giving is unfathomable.

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Roadside selfie

In many ways, it’s not that kids do not appreciate, but rather that they don’t know how to express their appreciation. It’s not like a client having a case of Moet mailed to your house at Christmas or a coach giving you the game ball. It’s much more subtle than that. In fact, sometimes their numerical success is the only testament to what you’ve done. That’s a fact increasingly true in education, and very unfortunate, but not a discussion for today. But, as I walked away that final day, I felt so full of love. And there was no doubt in my mind how real that love was. Here is a final word, from one of my most difficult students, a student suspended from school multiple times in my two years, a boy whose parents aren’t at home, who has said things to me that belong only in comment sections, who is brilliant, and who I know will forever be at odds with the system he is in. But, maybe, he’s changed a little.

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Me and the guys

Mr. Loeb,

             I know I am difficult, but you always forgive me. Sometimes people don’t forgive me. I feel grateful to you for that. These two years I’ve given you countless trouble, but you always forgave me. In all the time you taught me, I learned a lot that I didn’t know before. I’m going to add you on WeChat. Please accept my invitation. Above, I said I was really difficult, but don’t forget it’s not just me! Kobe, Jack, Jacob, and Jordan are all difficult too! Goodbye, Mr. Loeb. Wait for me to get big and grow up, maybe I will come see you in the US.

            Thank You. We Love You.

             -Li Hua Lin (Joe)

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Goodbye, Sanzhuang

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Education Inequity: The Village in the Valley

“Basically, it’s kind of like this for teachers: Your scores suck, they move you to a less ideal situation. So, let’s say you end up at one of the top schools in the capital, but you can’t hang. They’ll put you just outside the city where the classes might be bigger, the kids might be tougher, and your life will just be generally more inconvenient. Let’s say you screw it up again. You can’t improve the scores at that school either. They’ll move you further out, to kids with fewer prospects, and you might be a bus ride or two away from the city. The process repeats itself, until you’re the only teacher in the little village at the crest of the mountain, where everyone speaks deep dialect, the kids will never ever leave, you’re getting some rice and a piece of hog fat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and you’re two days down a rocky, windy, fog-shrouded, vomit-inducing mountain road from anything that resembles your old life.”

Kind of like the English professional soccer system, I thought.

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“Shit. So what happens when you screw it up at that school?”

“They just kill you. Nah, I’m kidding. Nothing. If you haven’t already, you’ll probably get your wits about you and get yourself out. Otherwise, I guess you’ll just stay at that school forever.”

“So, essentially, if you’re a bad teacher, your punishment is to go teach where they need good teachers more than anything.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much the story.”

“Man. That is fucked.”

“Such is the world we live in, no?”

I’m reclined under a bunch of palm trees in a tiny village in a valley. A mango tree peeks out from behind the palm fronds. Every once in a while a ripe green mango will thud to the ground. It’s sticky, sultry out here. The kind of hot that makes you think of porches and fans. Mr. Peng is about 5’1” with a frame of ample proportions. He’s got that kind of roly-poly physique that you can tell is a product of lifelong consumption of naturally delicious food—fresh mangoes, house-raised chickens, and lots and lots of rice. Mr. Peng’s largesse did not come from empty factory calories that maneuvered their way into all kinds of weird places and make the body look like some sort of depressed dumping ground for preservatives. He actually looks strikingly like the Buddha around his neck, but with a beautifully full head of black hair.

Mr. Peng and his wife are teachers at the middle school here in the village. They also run the local hotel, which is across a concrete parking lot from where we sit, eating fallen mangos, bayberries, and drinking some kind of mysterious booze that tastes like a mixture of nail polish remover, rice crispies, and urine. Or what I assume those things taste like. Mr. Peng’s family is obviously quite wealthy for this town. He shows me some pictures of his mother and father in-law on vacation in Singapore and France with one of those flag-waving tour groups. People here do not go to France.

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A nearby village across the Yangtze

Being a teacher in the village is backbreaking, he says. More than anything else, it’s the constant perception of hopelessness. Daily hopelessness mixed with long-term hopelessness. There are 1500 students at the middle school and 81 teachers. At first glance, that might not seem so crazy. We love the “student-teacher” ratio metric, and 18.5-1 isn’t all that bad. Keep in mind though, that “teacher” means a lot more than “teacher.” Responsibilities extend far beyond the classroom, in both a literal and abstract sense. These “teachers” are also security guards, administrators, and, ostensibly, parents. In that regard, 18.5-1 is actually insane.

Mr. Peng says his students are always fighting, “falling in love,” and smoking and drinking on campus. What can we do, he says. There aren’t enough of us. He consistently laments problems of space. The next morning, he takes me to the school.

“This is where the basketball court used to be.” He says, pointing to a pile of rocks and dust awaiting construction. “I can’t imagine there’s another middle school in all of Yunnan without a damn basketball court. How do you think that affects the kids? Why do you think they’re fighting and sneaking off with their girlfriends and boyfriends between periods and during class?” He looks at the rubble, slides a rock under his foot, and shakes his head. “But what can you do?”

The school is actually pretty peaceful, kind of pastoral. One might even call it serene. The plants are well manicured, and though there is that omnipresent construction of modern China, there aren’t really any big machines. Just a few guys in reed hats squatting around some craggy looking tools. It’s the weekend, after all. No one here but these workers and a few teachers assigned to “guard” the school until Monday. The buildings are stacked almost literally one on top of another.

Mr. Peng passes into the courtyard. “Last year when the education bureau came, the school picked a few teachers and told them what to say. The rest of us not to say anything. That was really difficult for me. But, they came back a few months ago and the school didn’t say anything. I took the chief aside to look at this passageway. It’s the only one that leads from the courtyard and the classrooms to the cafeteria.” He motions to a footpath between two buildings the width of maybe two-and-a-half average-sized doorways.

“1500 students.” That’s all he says and I understand. “And the chief was surprised, and a little shocked. But he really cared. A couple weeks later they made another passageway over on the other side. Everyone felt a lot more at ease after that.”

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Me and some students

We walk around the grounds. The school is nice, it really is. It doesn’t have that run-down one-room schoolhouse feel that one might want to associate with a “poor” school. Mr. Peng tells me that the situation is pretty awful for the students. Students spend three years to complete middle school in China. At the end there’s a test that decides whether they’ll go to the next level. Mr. Peng says that the amount of year three students is about half that of year one students. I don’t think I need to spell out what that means. Of that number, he says perhaps 40% will pass the test to go to high school. So, maybe a quarter of the ones that started will continue–to high school, that is.

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Gao Fu Cai with his pet goat

“English is the biggest problem.” English is historically given the same weight as Mandarin and math on both the high school and college entrance tests. There are very few countries that do this—treat foreign language like a core subject— and there are certainly a vast array of countries with infrastructure better suited to such a heavy emphasis on foreign language. For starters, the other language on the test—Mandarin—is more often than not basically a second or third language as it is. As I see it, the prominence of English is the single biggest flaw in the current system—the biggest contributor to inequity, but is, fortunately, slowly being changed. “Many of the kids just lie on the desks during class. What else can they do? They have to study English, but there is really no one to teach them. The English teachers, they work hard, but they don’t speak English. If they were here today—the kids—you’d be the first English speaker they’d ever met.”

Just think about that for a minute. That’s like trying to learn math from someone who doesn’t know the times tables. It’s not the teacher’s fault, though. They surely want nothing more than for someone to teach them how to speak better English. Compare and contrast with the big cities on the east side of the country, where there are armies of well-trained local teachers and plenty of foreigners ready to do the job. Mr. Peng said the highest English score at the Middle School last year was 82%. I cannot imagine what that kid did to get to 82%.

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There is an assumed inherent “fairness” in this system of standardized tests—in ours too. In any system with standardized testing. The wealthy kid in the city is getting the same questions as the poor farmer’s daughter. But, it’s not about the questions. The same question, of course, may mean very different things to you and I. The paths we take toward gaining proficiency to answer that question will certainly be wildly different. The test may not be designed to be unfair, but it will become unfair as time goes on. Same with the American system of loading up on extra-currics and being “well-rounded.” The system may not be designed to be unfair, but those with the ability and resources can make the system work for them. If tomorrow, by some glitch in the structure, the world’s most prestigious and lucrative job became car-washer, by the end of the next few decades, the next generation of car-washers would be, on the whole, minted from the upper reaches of society. It will always be that way unless the world really changes or something.

You can make your changes at the climax of the system. You can try to change the end results by changing the ­end result. But, frankly that is some stupid, stupid stuff. The end result is a framework for how best to prepare. You don’t level the playing field when the game is over, you know.

Education inequity is not something I think that much about. It doesn’t rule my life. I am a teacher at a school. I have to plan classes and grade homework. But, I do think about it sometimes. And, as a teacher, it is almost inconceivably sad.

I think that many people in positions of influence, wealth, privilege etc. hold, consciously or not, a feeling that those on the underside of the coin are somehow not entirely self-aware of their condition. This provides, again consciously or not, an alleviation of responsibility and guilt. This is super dangerous. It is the act of confusing disenfranchisement, voicelessness, and cyclical inequity with ignorance. And it is simply untrue. The moment where Mr. Peng was unable to talk about the problems at the Middle School was a rather in-your-face example of this. But, it’s all around. And the most voiceless in any society are kids. They are also the most impressionable, the most malleable. They are far and away the most prescient “return on investment.” If you want to change the flow of the cycle, school is really the only place to start. That is, of course, if you want to change it.

The strongest impression that I get whenever I think about inequality in education is pure and utter, purely, utterly pervasive faultlessness. It’s like a Syrian civilian whose bombed out house happened to be trapped in the middle of an ideological civil war or a poor Bangladeshi farmer whose home and livelihood has been washed away as an abstract upshot of far-off and endless industrial revolutions. There is nothing they can do. In fact, there is nothing they could do. It is not that they are not aware; it is that they are not allowed to speak. My students can study hard–that will improve their chances. It really will. Their situation is by no means hopeless. They can beat the odds. But there’s nothing they can do now about all the developmental landmines they’ll come across. Surely, that’s a responsibility that falls elsewhere.

“So that’s the school.” Mr. Peng notes as we leave through the gate. “What do you think?”

“Hard to say. I mean I understand everything you said. But, as a school, it looks nice.“

“It does look nice, doesn’t it.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Basketball Court

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

Noodles LLC

I’m sitting on a rickety plastic stool. I’ve fallen off this stool seventeen times in the last year. I’m shit at sitting in stools. I’ll leave China without ever mastering the skill. I do my best. Life is hard. A tower of fried rice noodles lands in front of me. I lean forward, shifting the impossibly fragile ass–to-stool balance, and lovingly serenade the noodles with vinegar. It begins—my weekly reunion with the divine noodles, the only food in the world that I would ever repeatedly risk breaking my ass and the subsequent public embarrassment for. I’ve told their story here: https://tloebchina.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/stuck-in-ambrosia/ 302659

The chef, a tireless middle-aged woman with that Indira Ghandi-esque shock of white hair, sits down at a table next to me. She pulls a baleful of chives out of a bag and sets them on a cutting stone. She leisurely begins to chop.

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“How much longer you got here, Mr. Luo?”

“Three months, more or less. How about you, boss?”

She laughs, as though the thought of leaving her corner stall is the funniest joke she’d ever heard. “Probably longer than that.” She says. “I swear to you boss, I’m going to miss your noodles more than anything else. Far, far more than any living thing.”

“They don’t have Er Si (Are-Suhh—these particular noodles) in the USA?” We’ve had this conversation seventeen times in the last year.

“Boss, they don’t even have Er Si in most parts of China. I’ll tell you what. If they did… If we opened up this place in the middle of New York City, we could get $15 for a plate like this. I’m serious.”

“How much is that in Renminbi?” She asks, never drawing attention from the task of chopping chives.

“A hundred, more or less.” She laughs, because 100 Renminbi for a plate of her simple noodles is too much too handle—like when a you tell a kid to guess your age and he says 1,000 years old and thinks he’s blown your comedic mind.

“A hundred for these!” She holds up a fistful of uncooked Er Si—uncooked, it resembles shredded paper. “That’s… that’s stupid.”

“I’m telling you. No one has even seen Er Si before. You… we open up a little shop and do exactly what you do now. Fried Er Si and Er Si soup. We don’t even have to charge $15—a hundred. We could charge like $10—sixty RMB. I’m telling you, just the fact that people in New York have never heard of it will mean they’ll buy it. Er Si, LLC. Er Si Limited.” She tossed some cut chives into a ceramic bowl.

“How much would the stall be?”

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“I don’t know. Maybe $15,000 a month. So, 100,000 RMB” She roars with laughter, waving the imposing cleaver back and forth. “100,000 for a place like this. For a month! My god.”

“No, smaller than this. No seating, either.” No stools.

“Wow. Pshh. Where would we even get the money? You’re rich, right? You have the money?”

“No, I don’t even have enough for one week. We’d go to the bank.”

“Ha!” She motions across the street, where the Yunnan Rural Credit Union and their floppy disks and nice, but incredibly robbable security guard are located. “The bank doesn’t even have that much money.”

“Yeah, well boss, we wouldn’t get the money from that bank.”

No, we wouldn’t. We’d get it from a much less robbable, less nice bank.

“And then we’d open more Er Si stalls. And we’d have them all over the country. You wouldn’t even need to cook anymore.” She scooped up the last bit of chives with the blade of the knife and shook them into the bowl.

“I don’t know, Mr. Luo. You sound like you’re a little bit crazy. Er Si Limited, it’s too much. Why would I want to have a restaurant and not cook?”

“You’d be rich!”

She laughs, dismissingly. I finish off the last of my vinegar-soaked delicacy—the boss’s crispy hypothetical golden ticket to prosperity. I lovingly rub my belly. And, as one does at the close of any satisfying meal, stare longingly at the thick, lonely, barren oil on my plate and recline. A mistake. I slide off the stool and land ass-first on the dusty concrete.

“Fuckin’ stool.” I gripe in my native language. “Boss, you gotta get some new seats. It’s dangerous out here.” I advise from my position on the ground. 302659-1

“Mr. Luo, if I got new seats, we’d never get to see you fall off.” She cackles.

I think she has a point, a point at my expense, albeit still a point.

All that stuff I said above, I was only really barely joking. Obviously, the boss isn’t going anywhere. She’s got kid(s) (shhhh), can’t speak a word of English, and, more importantly, seems pretty damn happy. But, if I could somehow weasel her recipe and synthesize it for the American palate with stuff like Maltodextrin and Yellow 6 Lake, success is a given. Fast, cheap, and exotic noodles from a part of Asia that’s pretty close to Tibet, has trend dripping all over its oily curls. There isn’t even an English Wikipedia page for Er Si. In fact, the only page, the Chinese page, is five sentences long—with 20% of those sentences explaining that drinking cold water after eating Er Si can cause diarrhea (not necessarily true—sometimes hot water is enough). No one knows about this stuff, and it should be the most popular noodle in the world.

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But, the boss is right about the stools. It wouldn’t be the same without them. It certainly wouldn’t be the same without the cigarette bong offered as a courtesy to guests. Or the dust. It definitely wouldn’t be the same with health-code regulations. The ingredients, that the boss or her friends probably picked—those couldn’t change. Shit, everything good about this is un-replicatable. What’s more, the thought of having an Er Si LLC on every corner, the thought of Er Si having a Wikipedia page, the thought of writing a blog about Er Si—it seems like a betrayal.

You can’t recreate anything. Especially not this.

Not That Simple

Pressure is a mountain on a mountain. Every day the kids rise at 6:45. They get up, wash their feet, brush their teeth. They slouch on top of cold, rickety desks and stools by 7:10, exhaling exhausted waves of fog in unison. They hardly stop until 8 pm. They’re in bed by 8:30. They have fun, when they can, between classes, at meals, in the quiet hours before sleep when they whisper so the teachers can’t hear. They play on the weekends in spite of their schoolwork, but some don’t have a chance, and some won’t let themselves.

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Fun is an enemy. No one would ever say it, but it is. It’s a distraction from the goal. That goal, taken in a big sense, is a matter of contention. The scaled down goal, though, is an exam in the middle of January. That is your measure. That is your worth. That is your goal. From 6:45 in the morning to 8:30 at night, this is where your energies should be focused. Your ability to reach the goal, today, is something like a minor plot point in a meticulously sequenced novel. It figures to have outsize, but unforeseen, reverberations on the climax. Every moment you edge closer to the goal, the pressure gets tighter. Lost time is magnified. You’re 10 years old. Everything you want contradicts accomplishment of the goal. It’s really, really hard to make sense of it. But, you’re not supposed to.

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I’m wearing a button-down plaid shirt and a purple/navy tie. I’ve got some frosting on my sleeve. My pants are tucked in, more or less. I look unintentionally… like a clown.

It’s the last day of school. I set a big cake down on the desk and the students cheer wildly. I smack the table. They stop. Before we eat the cake I wanted to tell them about the goal.

I told them a story accompanied by a poorly animated powerpoint…     url

“Two old men sat on a bench. One on the left and one on the right. It was a nice day. The man on the left wore a suit. The man on the right wore pants and a t-shirt that didn’t fit well. His pants had holes in them. He said to the man on the left, in the suit…

‘How have you been, my friend?’

‘I’m quite busy. I am tired. It’s nice to sit here with you.’

The man on the right blurted out…

‘My friend, you know, I envy you. Your clothes are so nice. Your house is so big. You eat fish everyday. I remember when we were in school. You worked so hard. We would play and you wouldn’t come out. You have earned your success. I remember how you earned it.’

‘I worked very hard. It is true. And I have had much success. But, you know, I have always envied you.’

‘How could that be?’ The man on the right said, surprised. ‘I have little. I’ve always worked in town. Look at my clothes.’

‘You said it yourself. When you were playing outside, I was studying. You had so much fun. When you passed love notes in middle school, I was too busy for love.’”

The students snickered.

“’Yes, but that was the past. Look what you have gained from all that work. Surely, you are satisfied.’

‘I am satisfied today. But, I will never be able to go back.’”

I asked them:

“Are you nervous for the exam?”

“Yes!”

“Do you have pressure from your teachers and from your parents?”

“Yes!”

“Do you think the test is important?”

“Yes!! Of course!”

“I agree. It is very important. But, don’t forget. There will be a test next week, there will be a test next year, and there will be many, many more tests.”

They sigh.

“There will be many chances. Remember, these tests, your scores, they are nothing but numbers. They are important, but they are not so important. Work hard, but remember, there are more important things than numbers. It may be hard to understand what I’m saying today, but it’s the truth, I promise. Let’s eat some cake.”

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I’m sure they didn’t really get it. But, then again, what do kids really get? That’s their greatest attribute. I’ve seen teachers give them the business. “You cry today, laugh tomorrow. Laugh today, cry tomorrow! Don’t you care? Don’t you want to be something better?” They hear it, but they can’t totally make sense of it yet. The anger, I guess they can make sense of that. The fact is, you tell a child what matters, the values of life and education. You tell them again and again until one day they just sort of accept it. Perhaps—but more likely not—someday they’ll realize it’s not that simple.

It’s very hard, it’s really impossible, for my kids to see outside the exam. I can understand that. The margin of error in their life is heartbreakingly thin. Coloring outside the lines is dangerous. I’m gone in a few months. I can help them on the exam. But, I can’t help them on the vast majority of exams, current and future. I can’t do much for them, tangibly, in the long term. I can’t do anything. But, they’re going to hear and fear about the future a lot. They’re going to subconsciously build a belief that today only matters as a function of tomorrow. They are going to believe it, believe that their only responsibility today is to improve the abstract concept of the future. I suppose if I can provide an alternative take—a fleeting, here today, gone tomorrow dissenting opinion—I have to. It’s good to confuse them. The very thought of a teacher questioning the importance of school or tests doesn’t match up. But, if I believed that that kind of success was the most important kind, I don’t think I’d be a very good teacher.

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Bamboo: The Indispensability of Creativity

“What’s that? I told you to draw a forest. That’s not a forest.”

“Yes, it is. It’s bamboo.”

“What do you mean ‘it’s bamboo’?”

“It’s bamboo, teacher.”

I snatched the drawing and inspected it for a moment before returning it to the nervous little girl’s nervous little desk.

“It’s bamboo. It’s the forest. OK.” I said. And I felt like an idiot. I walked away to go look at another forest.

“Creativity” is the annoying little brother of education—and civilization. It’s a pest. It’s difficult. It’s unimportant. It’s impractical. Most of the time, we just can’t be bothered. The problem with this little brother is inherent in his very nature. Creativity, like the emotions it inspires—wonder, contemplation, stupefaction—is impossible to quantify. That’s why it’s such a bothersome vexation. Human beings are so irretrievably disposed to quantification that we become categorically pissed off when it eludes us. We need to quantify and reason to maintain control. Being subjected to creativity when we aren’t looking for it is disorienting and angering.

The problem with the antibiotic interplay between creativity and education doesn’t need to be discussed at length. Education—to an ever-increasing extent—relies on standardization. Standardization is a nauseating word. Standardization is practicality, ease, and know it when ya see it. Lately, we’ve unleashed it on society with a vengeance. Even creativity and self-expression must be confined to neatly packaged spaces like 140 characters or a Facebook profile. In education though, it’s way way worse.

I had a rare daylight epiphany the last week when I was grading the Grade 5 Unit 2 English exam—watch TV, read books, play football (that kind of stuff). Students cheated. That’s not the epiphany. I had that one when I was 4 or 5. I asked myself, though, why are students so locked in when it comes to cheating? Why, even when I stress with sermonizing vigor that the test means absolutely nothing, will they risk embarrassment and a visit from mama and baba? Why, even after being acutely aware that the test means absolutely nothing and cheating their asses off, are they still so profoundly pleased with themselves when they receive a 90%? I for one cannot remember a time when I felt too morally contradicted to sneak a peek across the aisle. The answer to these questions is this: the score matters more than the knowledge. Plain and simple. The score gets you into college. The score makes you academically eligible. The score is the only way to differentiate kid A from kid Z. The score! We’re in hot pursuit of the score. The score is our standard.

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The reason we love standardization (the score) is because it’s explicatory. It supposedly contains a great deal of information. The problem with standardization is that it inherently lends itself towards things that are measurable—in much the opposite way that creativity does. You can measure 1+7 to equal 8. You can measure a lot of other stuff that I don’t even know how to measure. Thus, in our epic pursuit to standardize everything, we are obviously going to marginalize that which is immeasurable. Thus, creativity becomes impractical. It’s been pushed out as a deterrent, an irritating little brother to our civilization’s goals. Because, even though we might kinda sorta know it when we see it, we can’t tell you what it is. And it’s very difficult to slap a grade on.

But, I know what it is. Creativity is fearlessness. It’s having the audacity to 1). Put yourself out there and 2). Question perceived reality. Essentially, you have to give few enough shits to have your personal eccentricities on display and beyond that, to have the effrontery to suggest that everyone else might be missing something. That takes some legitimate backbone. If you’re willing to do neither you will never create. But, that’s only the case because creativity is socialized out of us. We are told about yes and no pretty early on in the game. We are told that 2 + 3 = 5 and stuff like that. We are told that we are looking at a hat instead of an elephant inside of a snake.

I’m not going to argue against 2 + 3 = 5, because original thought should always be tempered with a hint of rationality. 2 + 3 = 6 isn’t fearless. It’s trolling. However, I’ll argue that it takes a prodigious amount of cojones to say, as The Little Prince did, that it’s an elephant inside of a snake and not a hat. Such a notion personally offends people. People will go so far as to fear it—be shaking-under-the-covers scared of it—because such a proposition questions their beliefs and the very foundations of society and puts a shiver in their steady control of the way of things. Impractical is the word they use for things that make them shake at night.

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You’ve got to be long on guts to question society and/or reality.

A few minutes before I told my second grade student that her forest wasn’t a forest, I had shown her a forest—a few forests actually. I gave them six or seven examples of pictures and paintings of “forests.” Each was some variation on a landscape, set at a fair distance, with many visible trees and a predictable streak of light streaming through. Perhaps there was a fox skirting across the dirt ground. I had neatly scored the forest. I never once said, “draw these pictures.” I said, draw a forest. And that’s what they did. And that’s where their mind will surely lead their colored pencils and dark green markers every time someone tells them to draw a forest—for the rest of their lives.Forest_ligh_DAP_Landscape

But not this one girl. She made me feel like a dope. She had the audacity to suggest that it might be ok to call a magnified drawing of a few intersecting sticks of bamboo a forest. Despite everything I’ve said above, I was disturbed by her disruption, her impracticality. It questioned my supposed authority on the matter of drawings of forests. There wasn’t even a predictable streak of light. That made me very uncomfortable.

It would be supremely easy to live in a world devoid of creativity; a world where numbers and quantification reign unilaterally. We would teach our kids everything we know and they’d do the same and on and on. But, it’s imperative to have people around who will stand up and say, “No, it actually may be an oblate spheroid,” or “I know you’re not gonna like this, but your great-great-great-great grandfather might have been a chimpanzee,” or You can make nice sounds if you pluck these six strings in different ways.” Those people were probably the same ones that said, “Yes, it is a forest. It’s bamboo,” once upon a time. We can’t lose those people. We can’t standardize them away. We can’t scare them. We need them more than we know.

IMG_0317 “Forest” by Zhang XueYing