The Story of Smile
Last week, I received an email from one of my former students here at this college. She was a girl very hard to forget, both because of her chosen English name (Smile) and her diligence in her studies. She chose the name Smile because she is always cheerful, she said. She graduated 4 years ago and was one of my best English students. Her greatest desire was to return to her countryside area to teach, unlike so many of her classmates who were looking for jobs in the bigger cities.
Smile was one of those very special, sensitive young people, much like Godfrey. And, like Godfrey, she was a target for the mean girls in her dorm. On several occasions, she’d come to my home and pour out her heart about her roommates and how they would say hurtful things to her. Sometimes they would take her things, like her shampoo, washcloth, and other small items.
Smile came from a very poor family so the things she used were important to her. She couldn’t easily go out and buy more shampoo, toothpaste or soap. Thus she’d do without while the smug culprits smiled slyly and continued to take her things, denying all the time they were doing so.
Smile also told me the story of her family. Her father was a garbage collector at her high school when she was a senior school student. He would haul a 2-wheeled cart, empty trash cans around the school and in the classrooms, and throw this away at the local dump. The school paid him for this but I’m sure it must have been hardly anything.
Then tragedy struck. Her father contracted some disease that Smile couldn’t name. He had to have several parts of his body amputated as it kept spreading. He had no ability to continue working so he had to stay at home. Her mother, meanwhile, tried to find small jobs by washing other people’s clothes. All of this had to be done by hand because it’s very unusual for countryside folk to have washing machines. Many still wash clothes in nearby streams and rivers.
The hard work her mother did caused her great back problems and pain. Smile often worried how her mother could stand the agony of this and longed to go home for holidays so she could help out.
When I left Sichuan, I lost touch with Smile until an email out-of-the-blue landed in my in-box. There she was! She told me that she was teaching in a remote school, located in the hillsides. On one occasion, rain caused the roads to wash out. The teachers and students all had to trudge through filthy, muddy pathways to finally arrive for their lessons. Every day for a week, it took 45 minutes to do this and get to work. Despite all that, the diligent young kids and dedicated teachers came every day.
Feeding Kids Still a Problem: Amity Foundation’s Li Shui County Back-to-School Project
Smile’s emails always enlighten me to the plight of Chinese children in the countryside.
Of course, the Amity Foundation (the organization I am affiliated with in China) has many projects for poverty-stricken areas like Smile’s. One particular project is in Li Shui county, an area near the prosperous city, Nanjing.
In that county, children often go without anything but plain rice gruel and a few vegetables every day. There is no meat in their diet as it’s too expensive to buy. Their aging grandparents are usually the ones to raise them because the parents are working in the factory cities to the far south, in Guangdong (Canton). That is the only place where work will allow them to make any money.
Most farmers in China just live off the land. All their produce goes to feeding themselves and their family members, not to sell for a profit. And with necessary pesticides being so expensive, plus fertilizer and seeds, a ruined crop can quickly send a family into desperate hunger situations. That is why so many parents choose to work far from home, in major industrial cities where a 12 or 15-hour-a-day job can make a salary of 3,000 – 4,000 yuan ($485 – 645) a month. This amount they are able to send home to help care for village relatives.
However, in Li Shui county, it’s not unusual for parents to leave and never return, nor send money back. Villagers are left taking parental care of the deserted children, if they have that ability. The children are also left to farm on their own or miss school days to tend to their elderly grandparents.
Amity’s back-to-school project in Li Shui County allows free, nutritious meals to children who come to school. 1,500 yuan ($241) will feed a child every day for a semester while they are attending classes. This allows them to stay in school and receive a daily Chinese meal of meat, vegetables and rice as well as breakfast (bread bun and milk).
In fact, the monthly salary that my school pays to have an Amity teacher (that’s me) is used for this project. Because my full salary comes from the General Board of Global Ministries, the school salary is donated to Amity for the Li Shui children’s food program.
Currently, all Amity teachers are paid 4,000 yuan ($645 US) a month by their colleges or $5,805 a year (9 months of teaching). Thus my Chinese school salary is able to sponsor 24 children a semester, or 12 children a year.
I am always grateful that my United Methodist church is so active in helping Amity, not only by assigning me here as a teacher but also by using my in-country funds for the Li Shui project.
Are Chinese Countryside Kids Really That Bad Off?
In the city, the school children are always spending their money on goodies to eat. They grab up candy, bread buns, noodles, pieces of cake, cookies, chips and ice-cream directly after classes end. Shops around every elementary or high school here in Luzhou city make a killing when students are dismissed for the day or come early to school. Most have sufficiently eaten at home but it doesn’t matter. They have money to spend and enjoy goodies, as do we all, so they gobble down whatever they want.
But in the countryside, snack shops are nowhere in sight. And even if they were, the children have no money to spend on candy or other sweets.
This was clearly seen in an email from Smile the other day. After her initial greetings, she went on to describe a rural teacher’s life. I’d like to share some of that with you.
“There are four grades in my Licha primary school. There are about 70 students in every class. I taught the whole grade, one subject for each grade. They are very clever and some students are a little naughty but cute. Last term, China freely provided milk and bread for every student in primary schools and middle schools in the remote countryside during every school day. I remembered the first day we teachers gave out the milk cartons and bread. After they all were eating, one of my students said in awe, “The milk is very nice!”
I was shocked by his words! It means that it’s his first time to drink milk. I hope all the children can get healthy growth with the nutrition of milk and bread. And they were so happy.”
I was just as astounded as Smile, that a child in China had never had a carton of milk before. Single serving milk cartons (about 45 cents each) are everywhere in this country. They are purchased by everyone on a daily basis: adults, children, teens and the elderly. Among our college students, dormitory roommates often pool their money and buy them in bulk to save their pennies (or rather, their Chinese mao).
Milk here is an ordinary drink many think nothing about having several times a day.
Yet in Libin county, Smile’s countryside China, for some students a carton of milk is a first-time treat to be cherished and savored.
So it is in many areas of the world. Those of us who are the fortunate ones, like myself, often forget.
I feel very fortunate and blessed to have Smile’s emails. For her, it’s great English practice to reconnect with her foreign language teacher. For me, it’s a strong reminder that China does have a long way to go to relieve poverty, but so many are working hard to see that remedied, from the Amity Foundation to other Chinese NGOs to special government-run programs.
In other words, there’s a lot of hope and it does get stronger every day.
From Luzhou, along the Yangzte, here’s wishing you Ping An (peace) for your day.