The first walk with the dog around our little college campus brought so many smiles and waves.
“Ni huilaile! (You’ve returned!)” greeted Little Flower and me at every turn from everyone: the entrance gate security staff, the students whom I had over a year ago, the administrators on our building office tours, my colleagues, my neighbors, the activity center’s elderly mahjong players, the grounds’ workers and the snack shop ladies.
There was always a slight pause after that initial welcome, everyone sizing up LF.
“Xiao Hua zhen pang-ah (Little Flower is fatter),” they voiced in their musical Sichuan accent.
“Ah, that’s city life,” I replied with a knowing smile. “Very lazy.”
Everyone laughed, nodding in agreement.
And so it is that I have arrived back in Luzhou, with the Yangtze River at my doorstep and small town provincial life all around me.
A New Campus Emerges
Our Luzhou Vocational and Technical College has certainly blossomed since I’ve been gone. Three brand new buildings now grace the campus. Two are the much-needed dormitories, although we still have over 500 living in old classroom buildings for a cheaper dorm fee. Even with the additional dormitories, the school continues to enroll too many students. (As always, the push for more money by educational institutions is always a strong one.) A new cafeteria building, 4 floors, has just opened yet is still under construction . I spoke to one student who said it had gone up in just 5 months.
I can believe it.
In China, laborers work 24 hours, around the clock, to finish construction projects. They toil all night under bright lights placed high on cranes so they can see. Despite this, it’s still rather dark. Some are migrant workers from distance provinces while others are farmers in the outer lying areas, trying to make ends meet by taking on other jobs. They live in speedily erected brick shacks at the site itself. There are no showers or toilets, and their beds are planks raised up on cement blocks or bricks. Their damp bedding is wadded on top. Cooking is done outside, stir frying vegetables and meat over barrels lit with coal block cylinders. Not a very easy or comfortable life, especially in the rain or the chilly damp fall and winter.
Little Flower and I always stop by to visit with workers having their siestas but we haven’t yet made our rounds. It’s all this rain. It’s plagued Luzhou for over a week now, we’ve been told. The mud is ankle deep and is forcing us to stay away until sunnier days.
The poor students who live in dorms near the under-construction cafeteria are wading through the muck, negotiating puddles and balancing themselves on wooden boards placed along their walking routes. They aren’t very happy about it, needless to say.
When the dining hall is completely finished, it will certainly be a palace compared to what students have been using for years. The three cafeterias previously used were merely small halls and cooking facilities that certainly were strained to feed the 7,000 last year. I think everyone will enjoy the better atmosphere and quality food the new dining facility has to offer.
Freshmen Students Arriving
There is a great rush to get the cafeteria finished because the new students have not yet all arrived. New students at this school start 3 weeks later than returning students.
I recently learned that there are 5 levels of higher education institutions in China. Each one has rules stipulated by the Chinese Educational Bureau when new students begin. High level 4-year universities (such as Sichuan University or Beijing University) have their incoming freshmen start with the upperclassmen. Specialized 4-year universities, such as the Luzhou Medical College and the Luzhou Police College, have freshmen start a week later than others. Branch school universities (such as our school’s branch division of Qing Hai University) have their freshmen start two weeks later.
That leaves 3-year colleges and vocational schools (this would be my school), which are in the bottom two. Our freshmen start 3 weeks into the new semester with two weeks of military training first. This takes them to Oct. 1. October 1 to 7 is China’s national holiday, in celebration of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) being established in 1949. After the holiday, the freshmen will then begin their formal college studies.
With the freshmen yet to come, despite school already being in session for over a week, our campus continues to hold the spirit and excitement of the start of the school year. This week, and the next two weeks to follow, our youngsters fresh from countryside homes are arriving. They don’t land as in America. There are no parents pulling up in cars full of dormitory things. No huge suitcases being hauled along sidewalks. No TVs and couches lugged up stairs or shopping ventures with mum and dad to the local Walmart for those initial food supplies.
It just wouldn’t be feasible in China to haul in all our U.S. university needs and necessities. For one thing, students attending this college are too poor to have or buy so many things. For another, Chinese dormitories are crammed for space with 8 to a room, in bunk beds pressed against the walls. Everyone has a small school desk and stool. No closets, no places to put stuff, one shared shelf, no bulletin boards and no TVs, although computers by some with money are starting to appear. Since dorm room electricity goes off at 11 p.m., however, electrical items don’t come in handy late at night.
How students do arrive is, by our standards, as if it’s an overnight. They come pulling small suitcases across our bumpy walkways or they might be dragging along a large, plastic canvas tote which are popular, cheap carriers in China. A few might have their bedding but a majority buy that here. There is a standard bedding supply selling area set up inside one of the dormitories. I’ve been watching students trek up and down the entrance steps to purchase their cotton comforter, sheets, pillow and pillowcase sets for 44 yuan ($6.40). These are sold at a bargain price. It’s a more convenient option than trekking into town to see what the big stores have to offer.
We have some students who are coming across entire provinces (Qing Hai, Yunnan, Gansu) to attend school here. Some travel 40 hours by train and then have another 3 ½ hours by bus to reach Luzhou. Our city is connected only by bus to the rest of China. There is a small airport but those flights are limited to Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. Besides, no student here could afford coming by airplane.
It’s quite an emotional experience to watch new students arrive at our school. Many come with either one parent or both. You can tell by the parent the economic status of the family. A majority of our students’ parents are illiterate, some having little education beyond grade school. Their skin is cracked, toughened and a deep, weathered brown from years of toiling in the sun as farmers. They wear unfashionable clothes, the cheapest that can be bought. They seem quite awkward and in awe of these college surroundings. They stare at happy upperclassmen who parade by in comfort and ease. They gaze at our campus, taking it all in: the beautifully kept lawns, the pretty landscape, the towering administration building, library, classrooms, and dormitories. This kind of life for their child was only a distant, unreachable dream for them years ago. Now they see so many possibilities for their sons and daughters in getting a higher education and a better future. Their faces register pride and at the same time, sadness. Their only child is growing up, now to be far away from home for the first time and no longer under their guidance and care. This is an exciting yet apprehensive time for both college students and their parents.
Making their way through the front gate, these families of three or two begin the trek along the wide walkway toward the cafeteria area. Here, tents have been set up. Signs are posted that announce which department is represented: English, Elementary Education, Chinese, Tourism, Computer Science, Management, Mechanics, Art & Physical Education, and the list goes on.
The volunteer upperclassmen hang out on chairs and tables, awaiting new arrivals to alight at their spot. Luggage piles high as students come in with their parents. They drop off their belongings to either get something to eat at a roadside restaurant outside or buy a few necessity items before being led to the dorm rooms. Mom, Dad and student return carrying newly bought bedding, plastic basins for washing clothes, hot water thermos bottles, cups and toiletries.
The upperclassmen are quick to run to their aid, helping them with luggage and their purchased items. Some dormitories are not very nearby, such as those which require negotiating the mud paths. And some rooms are on the upper levels, going up to the 7th floor. With no elevators, it’s quite a task to get everything upstairs where it should be.
By the end of a day, the volunteer students are exhausted yet still quite lively. They also remember their first walk through the campus gates and those feelings of homesickness, grief, and fear as they waved their parents goodbye. These are hard feelings to forget, ones they have dealt with and understand. Helping their younger classmates adjust by being a friendly, encouraging face brings them great satisfaction.
It’s always a slow, leisurely walk back to the front gate when it’s time for families to part. I watch everyone lingering as long as possible before it’s finally time to say goodbye. Some sit on the lawn together, quietly watching others pass by. Hugs and embraces are not a custom in China. Instead, sitting nearby one another and perhaps a stroke on the arm shows the love held by one another.
There are, however, a lot of flowing tears, not just from the students. They won’t be seeing each other until Chinese New Year holidays begin, usually in mid-January. That’s a long haul for families that have never been parted before.
There’s never much time for final farewells. Many parents will immediately be off to the bus station for their 20 – 40 hour journey back home. They have no extra money to stay in hotels and are needing to return to their hometowns where work is waiting for them. Work means money, and money means putting their children through all 3 years of college. Tuition is not cheap for the poor. Depending on the course of study, costs can be from $434 to $869 a year at Luzhou Vocational and Technical College. Additional fees are needed for books, housing and food. And unlike American students, Chinese college kids at this school don’t waste money doing extras. Recreation for them is playing badminton, ping-pong or basketball with friends, not going out to the bars or taking weekend road trips to nearby hot spots. They concentrate on their studies to make their parents proud. It is the least they can do for all the sacrifices everyone has made for them to get a higher education.
It’ll be another month before I see these young people in my classrooms. Teaching the freshmen is always a joy to any foreign teacher in China. They come with such enthusiasm, cheerfulness and warmth for their overseas’ instructor. For many, it is their first contact with someone from another country. The pressure is always on for me to make our short time together a memorable, instructive and positive one. When stories go home to Mom and Dad about their college life here, I want them to be full of happy experiences.
Being a part of those joyful tales and fun moments makes my life a very blessed one. I hope yours, wherever you may be, is just as fulfilling.
From Luzhou, until next time, wishing you “Ping An!” (Peace)