The College Youth of Countryside Farmers
Today, I was walking the dog around our campus when a few of my students at the girls’ dorm invited me in for a sit. It was hot outside and Little Flower was in need of water so I took them up on the offer.
I was quickly offered a stool to sit on, papaya was cut up for a tasty treat and Little Flower had her water bowl to quench her thirst.
Being together in such an intimate setting then allowed me to learn quite a lot about their lives at home and summer holidays.
A Farmer’s Life
Almost all of my students are from remote farming regions here in Guangxi. And almost all of their parents are farmers.
Farmers account for 70% of the population in China. An estimated 700 million rural farmers provide 60% of the food for the country with their average income being $300 to $450 a year. Those considered at the extreme poverty level make less than $120 a year.
But among my students, I learned that many of their families have no income at all. They live off the land with few appliances to help them in their daily rituals. Home-grown peanuts are pressed into peanut oil for cooking. Vegetables grown year-round become the staple for meals. Raised pigs and chickens are their protein supply. Washing clothes by hand in nearby streams and rivers are a daily chore. No refrigerators or air conditioners, of course, and in many cases, some households don’t have TVs.
Why not a TV? Because a majority in the countryside don’t speak Chinese but the local village dialect or ethnic minority language of their people. This province especially has numerous minority peoples, including the Zhuang, Dong, Yi, Mao, Hui, Shui, Mulao, Maonan and Gin (who are a Vietnamese ethnic group). For these people, TV programs to them are a foreign language. And being illiterate, they can’t even read the Chinese subtitles on the screen. National and world news to them are unimportant. Just surviving in their village takes up all their energy and time.
Education in China Isn’t Cheap
Not wanting their children to have such a hard life, these farming families do their utmost to send their children to school.
That’s not easy.
The cost per year for our small 3-year vocational college is 5,000 yuan ($800) for tuition and 700 yuan ($100) for dorms. 4-year universities can cost even more.
Students also have to pay for books (perhaps $40 a semester) and necessary national exams to graduate.
The biggest of these national exams are the CET tests.
CET means College English Test. This series of tests is the national test for English as a Foreign Language here in China. All students at the undergraduate level must pass the CET-2.
For the English majors at the vocational level, their requirements are to pass the CET-3. If they’d like better opportunities in getting jobs after college, passing the CET-4 and CET-6 is likewise a good idea.
These tests, of course, cost money. Each time you take the test, it’s $7.00. Quite a few fail and take them again, adding even more dollars to the cost of school.
Then we have costs that involve the necessity just to live — namely, food.
On average, a girl student will spend about $50 a month on her meal card, a boy around $80. That certainly adds up over the school year. Most I talk to just have bread buns, hard-boiled eggs, fruit and milk to cut down on their food costs. These they get from sellers outside the gate or pick up from our small campus shop.
Not a lot to sustain a person but it’s better than nothing.
The Summer Holiday Job Stories
“How do you pay for everything?” I asked my group while munching on my papaya.
Borrowing from relatives and friends was one answer. Another was working during the summer vacation in the factories down south.
Guangxi Province is very close to Guangdong (Canton), where “Made in China” factories thrive. Most of my students work for 4-6 weeks during their holidays in these places to help their parents with the monetary burden of going to school.
I asked about the conditions of the factories they worked at.
Basic non-climate controled dorm rooms for 8 (bunkbeds, a toilet, a sink) are provided for workers but purchasing food is their own responsibility. They can either go to the factory cafeteria or outside.
Roommates are iffy. If you don’t know them, best to carry all your money and valuables with you or expect your things to be stolen.
As for the kind of work they did last year: One student worked in an ice-cream factory, 10 hours a day (midnight shift) for 6 days a week. This job she enjoyed more than others because the manager wasn’t around. She and her workmates could eat as much free ice cream as they wanted. Their pay depended on how many boxes of ice cream bars they packed. 300 a night was the average for her team, with each box holding 100 bars.
That’s a lot of ice cream!
Another student worked in a toy factory for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Yet another in an electronic’s factory, 12 hours a day for 7 days a week, putting wires into computer mouse mechanisms.
Their pay ranged from 1,200 yuan to 2,000 yuan ($190 – $280) for 6 weeks of work. Hardly enough to cover the $800-plus our school requires.
In one case, the girl said she quit due to exhaustion after 5 days standing 12 hours straight at the assembly lines. Her pay? Nothing. Workers are paid by the month, not the week, so if you don’t stick it out those 30 days, you’re out of luck.
Hopes for the Future
I asked about their hopes for the future, after college.
Since these students are the first in their family to get a higher education, they’ll most likely be the main breadwinners after they finish school to help repay what was spent on their education. It’s a big burden, especially since finding job is so difficult.
In this area of the country especially, white-collar work is hard to come by. Guangxi is a poor province and city jobs are for university graduates, many who have connections. Those that come to these small vocational schools in remote areas don’t stand much of a chance to succeed in China. Despite having an education, they might still be stuck returning to factory work to help out their families.
But at least for now, they can enjoy an environment of learning and holding onto their future dreams.
After an hour of visiting, Little Flower and I made our way across campus to my apartment.
I was just thinking about my own university life where we complained constantly about all sorts of things: The air-conditioning was too cold, the vending machines didn’t carry snacks we liked, there weren’t enough washing machines and dryers, or being broke and having to beg Mom and Dad for that extra $50 to fill our cars with gas. Then more complaining about how little we were paid in our summer jobs, working as lifeguards, fast-food servers, office temps, babysitters, or check-out cashiers. All jobs where we were making at least $5.00 an hour (in today’s world even more) and at most, took in 5-8 hours a day in comfy settings.
There was only one thing to think after listening to my students: American students really don’t know how very lucky they are. I certainly didn’t when I was in school, but I sure do now. Too bad more of us don’t realize that sooner, appreciate our lives more and give some thought to others who aren’t quite so fortunate.
Until next time, Ping An (Peace) from Longzhou.