When I assigned winter homework during the Chinese Spring Festival, my students groaned. Winter homework assignments are something Chinese students always have to do in junior high and high school, not in college!
But for my students, I think it’s important that they keep their minds focused on a little English so they won’t forget all they’ve learned during the semester. I don’t give a lot of homework but just enough for them to stimulate their language skills once again so we’ll have something to start off with during the new semester.
This year’s winter homework centered around International Women’s Day (IWD), which is celebrated March 8. It’s an international holiday as declared by the United Nations in 1975.
Most people in America don’t know anything about Women’s Day but it’s a very big deal in Asia and Europe. In my former placement in Luzhou, the school would always recognize its women teachers through flowers, afternoons off, fully paid for evening restaurant dinners, or fun afternoon activities.
In my new placement in Longzhou, however, our Women’s Day went by unnoticed.
March 8 was Monday, the first day of classes for the new semester. Probably the administrators were too busy with the hectic opening of school to care much for us women.
Not so in my classroom.
In my classes this week, we began our Women’s Day unit by going over the history text of the day and being introduced to some famous American women which students were to have looked up on the Internet during their holidays. This was all part of their homework assignment.
An Assignment Completed with Care and Love
Yet another assignment was to write a 200-word essay entitled, “A Woman I Admire.” Students were directed to write about any woman, alive or dead, famous or not, whom they respected and admired as a good role model in their lives.
I honestly didn’t expect many of them to finish this assignment. After all, it’s a lot of effort to write in English and they were on holiday. There were no expectations on my part for essays to pile up on my desk when I asked everyone to turn them in.
Imagine my surprise when out of 250 students, only 12 had not completed their writing. The rest had filled their “A Woman I Admire” sheets with carefully written English words, neatly organized paragraphs and word counts that went anywhere from 200 to 450.
Obviously, this topic really hit home.
And seeing just how much it hit home has been one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life here in China.
I’ve spent the past 5 evenings this week reading over each class’s essays. It’s been an amazing journey of women’s lives in rural China.
Sure, there are those who copied life stories of Helen Keller, Oprah Winfrey or Madame Curie from previously found English materials. These are women they have studied in their junior high English books or pulled off the Internet as a quick way to finish the assignment.
But a majority wrote about women who touched their own lives in a personal way. Stories about mothers, grandmothers, cousins, aunts, neighbors and teachers piled high on my desk as I eagerly read over every one of them.
What was shared with me was remarkable and inspiring.
Each essay was a private glimpse into the lives of Chinese women, many uneducated, who have overcome incredible difficulties to raise families and struggle through the poverty of a China we don’t often see or hear about in the West. In America, we have so many programs and government aid projects to help struggling women raise their children and live a better life. But in China, these programs are still very few and far between. Women from the countryside are often left to fend for themselves, especially when husbands die or have to travel across country to get factory jobs in order for their families to survive financially. It’s hard for us in America to comprehend such a destitute lifestyle or such hardships.
Seeing such courageous, kind-hearted and generous women bare themselves before me, page after page, is probably the greatest gift my new students in Guangxi could ever have given me. They have so many life lessons to teach and it seems my students have heeded them well.
My Students’ Essays: Rural Women in China
In honor of International Women’s Day, here are a few excerpts I now share with you, as written by my English majors here at Guangxi Normal University for Nationalities. (Students’ chosen English names have been used rather than their Chinese names.)
By Jill: When I was little, I must live with my grandmother because my mother and father are going to work for our family. One day, I came back from school, crying. My classmates were making fun of me because of my old clothes. For Children’s Day, I must participate in a performance but my family was too poor to buy the necessary dancing clothes for me. I felt very sad. On hearing this, my grandmother immediately didn’t think twice. She went to sell her only chicken so she can buy the special clothes for me. At that time, I really loved my grandmother’s sacrifice. I miss her so much.
By Lani: When I was young, my father left our family to find work. My mother had to work also so we would have money for our daily living. She must leave my older brother to take care of me. He was only 3 years older but couldn’t look after me well because he was only a child, like me. One time, I caught a bad cold because I fell to sleep on the dirt floor in our home. My elder brother was outside, playing with other children. He was so careless that he didn’t pay attention to me. At night, my mother took me to the hospital. There was no car or bus so she must walk for almost four hours with me on her back. When I was helthy, she cried. She thought she wasn’t a good mother but I don’t think so. I know she loved me more than herself. I know this all the time now.
By Tina: The woman I admire is my sister. My sister is 22 years old but she is very short (midget). She I only 1.45 meters high. Her dream is to be a teacher. But perhaps her shortness is a problem, although she is always saying this is not a problem if she has good knowledge and ability Because of this, she studies very hard. Every vacation we are at home, she reads every day while I am going out with my friends or watching TV. She is always doing her homework. My sister is an important person in our family. We love her and are proud of her.
By Cherry: She is just a common woman, named Fu Youyin, my best friend’s mother. When I prepared to go to college, she realized that my family is poor so she gave e some money and asked me to study hard. In this while, tears filled my eyes. She was just a worker. Every day she got up early to go to our town far from her home to work. She worked long hours and her pay was very low. Even though she had hard work, she gave me this money. I believe in her. She will listen to the voice in your heart with all her ears. Her action is like a bright lamp in my life.
By Spring: I really admire my second cousin. She is a senior high school teacher. When I went to high school, I lived with during that time. She always tells me I must be friendly to others. One day, I went shopping with her. We bought a lot of grapes but when we went home, she saw an old man sitting on the corner selling grapes. The sun was very strong and he was so old. She said, “We are going to buy some grapes again. That old man is sitting in the strong sun and looks tired. He needs the money.” I was very moved to think my cousin always thinks of others, not just herself.
By White: My mother is so kind. When I was only a child, one day my mother and I went to the fair. There were many different beautiful toys I wanted to buy some, but my mother said we are too poor to buy toys. Then we met a beggar who looked very pitiful. My mother gave him money. I can’t believe she does this! At that time, I hated her because I thought she is kind to the beggar and didn’t love me. Now I admire her actions. A toy is a very small thing and will soon be forgotten. Her actions to the beggar were bigger than my small toy. I really think she is so great.
By Rita: I am so thankful for my grandmother. Although she is 70 years old now, she never stops working. She is also considerate of others. There is a boy in our village called Li Hua. He is my neighbor’s boy. His parents died in a traffic accident. Li Hua was only 5 years old at that time. He had no one to take care of him. He had to hunt for food by himself without any adults to help him. At that time, my grandmother made a decision to feed him and take care of him until he grew up. All the people in my village were very touched when they heard about her decision. They really admired her for taking on such a big responsibility.
By Halla: My father died when I was 9 months old, making my mom a single mother at the age of 18. While I was growing up, we lived a very hard life. We had little money, but my mom gave me a lot of love. At fourteen, I was hit by a car and the doctors said I would never walk again. Every day, my mother spoke to me in her gentle, loving voice telling me that no matter what those doctors said, I could walk again if I wanted to badly enough. She drove that message so deep into my heart that I finally believed her. A year later, I returned to school – walking on my own!
By Bunny: My grandfather’s mother has been dead for 3 year. She was 93 years old and I miss her. I often talked with her and asked her to tell a lot about her past. My grandpa’s mother had 8 children. Six of them were boys and two of them were girls. It was a really big family and the life was very, very tough. My grandpa said that he was always in a starving situation. He never tasted steamed bread, which was made of expensive flour, until he went to work on is own. When my grandpa’s mother was 28 years old, her husband died of a simple disease which we can easily cure today. She told me that she was in a mixture of fear and hopeless situation at that time. She wanted to die. But seeing her lovely children, she told herself that she must cheer up and work harder to bring her children up. What a great mother! My grandpa’s mother was friendly. No matter how difficult her life was. When she saw that someone needed help, she would help him. One day, a beggar went to our house for some food. I didn’t like beggars who could use their strength to make money and get a job so I didn’t give anything to him. But my grandpa’s mother saw this. She went out from her own room and went into the kitchen to get some food for him. I was confused about her doing this. So I asked her, “Grandma, why do you help him? He is strong enough to find a job.” She replied, “Everyone has his own trouble. We should help him now. Maybe we can change his attitude toward life.”
By Sophie: My father died when I was 7 and my mother was only 28. She was quite a beauty. She had several seekers. I have one elder sister and two younter sisters. There were no boys in our family so people looked down on us in the countryside. For most women, if they face such cirucumstances, they would abandon their homes and marry again. But my mother didn’t do that. She said she would never abandon us. She would try her best to earn more money to bring us up to afford the tuition fees for school.
So she moved to Guangdong Province to work in a small factory. We only see her once a year. When she comes home to visit for Chinese New Year, she only buys clothes for us. Her clothes are old and not vey beautiful.
By Cindy: My high school teacher, Mrs. Wei Xiuqing is the woman I admire. She is a responsibility teacher and she taught us English. As a class adviser, she came to school earlier than other teachers. However it’s rainy or not, she always insists on her duty. She told us don’t be late for school when we are students. So she was never late for any classes and she set a good example for us. I think of one day what happened in class. It was a cold day in winter. My classmate catch a high fever while we are listening to the teacher. I didn’t know what happened when the classmate slept on the desk. Suddenly, Mrs. Wei stopped speaking and came to ask the student quickly. She asked another teacher to take her to the hospital and take care of her until the student’s parents came can. After that, she asked us to visit our ill classmate. She really, really is like our mother.
By Wendy: My mother is a teacher. I remember the day in summer when I was a child. That day, her student wanted to leave home to make money for his family because his family was very poor. His father died in a traffic accident and he had two sisters. He was the eldest brother in the family. He wanted to give up his studies and go to Guangdong to work in a factory. After my mother heard this, she talked to him. She told him if he gave up his studies, maybe he could make money for his family but if he didn’t have more knowledge, he would always be poor forever. At last, the student decided to continue with his schooling. My mother gave him some money to help him, even though we also needed the money. She is a good teacher and a good mother.
By Alice: My mother had 7 children in her family when she was young but her father died very early. So her family was poor and couldn’t afford for her to go to school. She didn’t even graduate from primary school. She must leave school to find a job to support her poor family. I think she was not a lucky woman and had an unhappy childhood. Now, ever day she goes to the factory by bike to do lots of heavy work. After finishing her work, she must prepare the meal and do lots of housework. Though she grew up in a poor family, she always puts a positive face to life. When the Sichuan earthquake happened, she took an active part in volunteering to help them by sending things to them. She spent many hours doing this because she said it was her duty as a Chinese to help those other Chinese who need help.
By Buffy: My mother is a farmer. I remember when I was a child, my mother told me that my grandmother was a traditional Chinese woman. She didn’t agree that girls go to school to learn so my mother knows very little. In her lifetime, she just had to be a farmer. My mother told me that farming is a very hard and tired life. She didn’t want to see that in my future so she let me go to school. She believes that knowledge can change one’s life. I remember that when I was a child, my family was very poor. In order to let me and my sister go to school, my mother had to leave for work when it was very dark outside and didn’t come home until it was dark in the evening. She had to make enough money to pay for our books and school fees. When I did my homework, my mother liked to sit beside me to watch me do my work. Although she didn’t know what I was writing, she said to see me do homework was the happiest thing in her life. Now I am grown and am a college student. I understand my mother’s intentions for me. I always call her to tell her about my studies and life at school. She is proud of me and I am proud of her.
From near the Vietnam border in China, here’s sending you Ping An for your weekend, and a very grateful "thank you" to my students for their diligence in completing their winter homework with such love and care.