My teaching placement in the far south of China (2009-2011) had me teaching in a very small town called Longzhou at Guangxi Normal University for Nationalities. A majority of my students were of one of the ethnic minority groups in China, of which there are 56. Those in my area included Zhuang, Yi and Miao. This likewise composed those living in the small city itself.
Longzhou, a population of around 600,000, was just 45 minutes from the Vietnam border. This small, rural town was walkable from one end to the other in any direction, which landed you in a rustic landscape of skyrocketing tall, lush mountains with plains of sugarcane or pineapple fields.
Longzhou’s sizzling temperatures had me taking 3-4 showers a day during the most miserably hot time of year, which pretty much started in March and continued to November. Winter’s coldest was 50 degrees.
My bedroom had an air-conditioner but the other 5 rooms in my campus apartment (very large and spacious) did not. My first purchase was a fan which I kept going 24-7 in my outer sitting room, especially when guests came over for a visit.
When I first arrived, I learned how to stay as cool as possible. Like a majority of my apartment neighbors, all teachers with their families, we left our doors wide open into the stairwell to get a good breeze blowing through. Granted, it was mostly hot air but at least it was moving and not stagnant.
I was the only foreigner within 50 miles of the area, and the only foreigner on the campus.
Solidifying My Reputation as the Welcoming Foreigner
With my door wide open those first few weeks, I had quite a few come up the stairs to linger outside of my doorway, trying to catch a glimpse of the foreigner in her new environment. Everyone was curious about how I’d decorate, the things I brought with me (they were shocked by the 100 boxes that arrived in the truck from Inner Mongolia, my previous Amity Foundation teaching placement) and dying to know just what kind of a person I was, if I spoke Chinese, if I had family coming, how old I was and all the usual inquisitive ponderings that come with a newcomer to your neighborhood.
As soon as anyone slowed down to peer in, I made it a point to invite them in to take a look. I’d chat about myself, sigh over all the stuff I had, tour them through the rooms (no matter how unorganized or messy they were), invite them to sit for a drink or, if they refused, insisted they return for my open house in a few weeks. This open transparency immediately gave me the reputation of being a kind, friendly, social person who was happy to have visitors.
Becoming Auntie Connie
I’m not quite sure how it happened but there was one girl, age 10, who lived in a shop connected to the school. I remember her standing at my doorway, perhaps coming back from visiting a friend upstairs, and looking in as so many others had done. I quickly waved her in, toured her around, filled her pockets with candy and sent her on her way after welcoming her back whenever she had time.
She appeared the next day, a Saturday, with 2 friends in tow. One of those was an older boy (14) who was keen to practice his English. He called himself Joe and announced his friend would be called Amy, since she said she wanted an English name.
And so it came about that every Saturday morning, from 10 – 12, Auntie Connie’s home was open to fun and games with Amy’s entourage, all my 小朋友 (Little Friends). Joe was always present. (Amy, center, brings two friends. Joe is to her right.)
An 11-Year Friendship: Following a Young Man’s Life Struggles
The story of Amy I will save for another day but let’s talk a bit about Joe. (Seen here in my home, to the left, here with Tom, his classmate and best friend.)
My 3 years in Longzhou had dedicated visits by Joe, sometimes with invites for his classmates to join him and sometimes just by himself. When I left Longhou in 2012 for my new placement in Luzhou (my current one), Joe and I stayed in touch via WeChat.
I’ve been following his journey through his high school and college years, with his graduation from the university having just taken place last May.
For Joe, the last 9 years have been a frustrating, seemingly unfair life struggle.
His senior year in high school had him taking the gaokao, the 2-day nationwide college entrance exam, along with all his other classmates. For two years, Chinese students prepare for this test in. Weekend classroom study hours are mandatory, as are late night and early morning in-school sessions. The scores of the gaokao determine which university a student can enter or even if a student can enter a university.
Joe failed miserably.
His score was so low, 340 out of 750, that there was no hope of him ever getting into a 4-year institution. The best he could hope for was a 2-year trade school which would not make him very marketable in the outside world.
The heartbreak was that Tom, his best friend, did extremely well and would be enrolled in a medical college to prepare for his future as a doctor.
Joe’s only other option was to try again, with a repeat of his senior year since that is the only way to take the test a second time.
There was no guarantee he would do better but with advice from his teachers and his parents, he decided to go for it.
Another year, another excruciating study regime, another chance at reaching his goal.
His second score? A tad over 400, which placed him once again in a desperately low category.
I can’t tell you how devastating this was, not only for Joe but his teachers, parents and even me. When I received his text message, sent 2 weeks after he discovered his test score due to his low spirits, I called to console him.
Rarely do students take on a repeated 3rd year of high school study that senior year to once again take the gaokao. It is almost unheard of. And Joe was now 20 years old. How embarrassing as a young adult to be living at home, no work, studying with 17-year-olds while all his former classmates were enjoying their junior year of college.
A 2016 Decision Made, With 2021 Rewards Now being Reaped
After a good amount of moping, with dubious family members and teachers wondering about his future, Joe enrolled in his 6th year of high school. He became a role model to those who were not great in their studies or whose test scores were low no matter how much they tried. His teachers and school leaders often pointed to his commitment to never give up, to keep trying, to strive forward and not look back at past failures.
In 2018, Joe’s gaokao score gave him the ability to finally enter the university. He chose to study accounting, and last May, 2021, with half of his senior year being virtual due to Covid, he graduated.
Joe was recently hired as an accountant near his hometown area. Just this month, he traveled to visit his classmate in the big city of Chongqing, which is actually just 2 hours from where I live! What a shame that I was not in Luzhou and able to join him for a day. I would have been able to do so, too, because Oct. 1- 7 was China’s National Holiday week, a yearly public celebration which all can enjoy.
He filled his WeChat messages to me with happy notes and pictures of city tourist sites, delicious food, his hotel accommodations and shopping items he bought. Of course, there were poses of him and his friend as they enjoyed their first holiday as working gentlemen and not poor college students. (Joe is on the right in picture 1; left in picture 2).
Receiving his messages, and seeing his obvious joy after so many setbacks and disappointments, made my heart sing.
Well done, Joe!! You are an inspiration to so very, very many.
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” ―Thomas Edison
And this one from Confucius:
“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” ―Confucius