It has now become a national pastime in China: Check the “in-real-time” app map (from Johns Hopkins CSSE, which stands for “computing curriculum software engineering”) which reports minute-by-minute all coronavirus cases not only in China but around the world. The map lists numbers of deaths, confirmed virus cases, and those recovered by regions and countries. So it seems gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com is now the place to go for a look at how the battle against coronavirus is progressing.
I, also, am a current visitor to this site. Although my city of Luzhou is not listed, I have heard the cases announced are 18 at present.
Friends in Tongtan: Countryside Life Amidst the Virus Scare
While Luzhou city (pop. 5 million) has 18 cases, I heard yet another infected individual has been reported in the small town of Tongtan, a 20-minute drive from Luzhou.
This concerns me in many ways because of my farming friends, Mrs. Chen and her husband, Che, and their 17-year-old daughter, Liangyu. They live in the terraced farmlands surrounding Tongtan, located along the Tuo River, a tributary of the Yangtze.
Over the years, I have taken many of my friends to visit Chen and Che, including our Peace Corp volunteers and Chinese friends. While getting from Luzhou to the new part of town is fairly straightforward by the Luzhou city bus, trekking to their farmhouse takes a bit more time, bringing a total journey (from the moment I leave my campus apartment to Chen and Che’s home) to about 3 hours — See pictures below.
Currently, their daughter Liangyu has not returned to school due to the virus. She is still keeping very busy doing mountains upon mountains of winter homework assignments. These are a means of agony for all junior high and high school students in China. No one during the Chinese New Year holidays, or the summer holidays, has a true vacation. Instead, every day of vacation has numerous homework pages that must be completed and ready for review on the first day back to school. From what I have heard, Liangyu’s teachers have been adding to the winter homework list via cell phone text messages and WeChat notes since returning to school has been delayed. As the virus rages onward, there is also talk of online teaching, something new for Chinese school systems at the primary and secondary school levels.
Liangyu’s dad, Mr. Che, along with thousands of other farmers, returned from his migrant work in southern China. He is not returning anytime soon due to factory closures and the continued pressure by local authorities for people to stay home. I wonder if Tongtan’s infected individual is one those migrant workers who came home for the holidays a few weeks ago. All farm families in the area have been told to stay at home and not travel too far. Even walking into the small town to sell vegetables or heading into the big city of Luzhou is discouraged. This certainly will impact their livelihoods, as you can imagine.
My relationship with this family began 5 years ago, with, of all things, a dog. Continue reading, if you are interested in knowing more.
The Story of SP
The Chen-Che family had had a big dog for many years to protect the house but it suddenly disappeared around wintertime. This is not uncommon in the countryside of China, where eating dog meat is thought to warm the body and make a person stronger during the cold winter months.
Although I knew of the dangers of countryside dogs, SP (Stairwell Puppy, an abandoned young dog on my college campus) was also in danger of being either run off or killed by poison due to her behavior. She was getting territorial in the stairwell where she was hiding, sometimes barking or growling at our college teachers and children as they hiked up the stairs to return to their apartments. SP, still timid and somewhat approachable, had become attached to me but I couldn’t take her in myself so I made it my mission to find her a good home. After announcing a need for an SP family among my many Chinese friends, an English teacher (“Snow” Xue) at a local junior high school found a farm family in the Tongtan looking for a dog.
And what a wonderful family it was! No dog was on the menu at Chen and Che’s farmhouse. She was accepted as one of the family.
SP proved herself to be a wonderful watchdog and a stalwart companion for Mrs. Chen, whose husband, Che, spent months at a time in Guangdong Province, getting work at construction sites when he could. Mrs. Chen worked the farm on her own throughout the year.
When I sent SP to her 5 years ago, she was 49 years old, the same age as I, but her health was always a constant issue. So many aches and pains riddled her thin frame. Her husband, 10 years older than she, was having difficulty finding jobs as a migrant worker. Many factories and construction sites prefer younger people, 50 and under. A nearly 60-year-old man is not desirable yet he tried his luck, anyway, despite sometimes having to wait weeks before a foreman would hire him.
For 3 years, I visited SP and enjoyed getting to know Mrs. Chen on a more personal basis. My friends and I would arrive to a home cooked meal, after which we’d walk the countryside with SP tagging along.
Educating The Daughter: A Financial Burden
Her daughter’s schooling was an issue, however. To get Liangyu the best education possible, Mrs. Chen enrolled her in Luzhou city rather than the lower-standard school in the tiny town of Tongtan. The 3-hour journey to Luzhou, as mentioned before, was a tedious one. It demanded a 15-minute walk to the ferry from their home, waiting for the ferry’s arrival, 25-minute walk to the main county road, a public bus ride through the countryside into the city, a change to the city bus and a final arrival at the school.
The distance being too great for daily treks to and from school, Liangyu stayed in the dormitory on her junior high school’s campus with other students like her whose parents were also from the surrounding countryside. Although tuition was free, housing, school books, food and other living expenses were not. The yearly 12,000 yuan (roughly $1,700 US) required for Liangyu’s education had to be paid out-of-pocket.
Coming up with the money was a difficult task for Chen and Che, who had little income aside from what Che could manage as a migrant worker. His age made it difficult to hold a job on a regular basis. Sometimes, his 2-month income was a mere 2,000 – 4,000 yuan ($300 – $600). Mrs. Chen added what she could by selling vegetables in a Luzhou market. The 2 1/2 hour daily trips into the city, and the 2 1/2 hours back again, supplied her with roughly $5 a day, one dollar of which was used for bus and ferry transportation. The journey was taking it’s toll as she was also responsible for all the farm work, which included not only farming but taking care of the chickens and ducks she raised.
It was Mrs. Chen who pushed for her child’s expensive education in the city although her husband, Che, didn’t often agree. Convincing him of the value of such an education for a farm girl was a constant sore spot in their relationship. At one point, Chen wanted to call it quits for the girl and not allow her to further her education into high school.
That’s where I stepped in.
In appreciation of their help with SP, I gathered together friends willing to help out with the education of Liangyu. We have been doing this now for 5 years, with Liangyu now completing her junior year in high school. Such an accomplishment for her parents, who never made it beyond primary school. Our hope is that she will be the first in her family to go to college and graduate with a promising future in whatever field she chooses to enter. She is a very bright young girl whose English is very impressive.
SP Disappears; A New Rescue Joins the Chen and Che Family
I am heartbroken to say SP disappeared a year ago in October. We all miss her very much and still speak of her with fond memories and longing. Mrs. Chen, meanwhile, was in need of another dog and one just happened to land on my doorstep last October, a full year since SP left their home.
A small puppy with one 6-toed paw was dumped in front of the teachers’ apartment building where I live. I am guessing one of the college students bought him for a few dollars in a pet market uptown, thinking he could be hidden in the dorm room. Of course, keeping pets in the dorm is forbidden but many students try it, anyway. When the animal is discovered, the students throw the poor thing out with the hope the abandoned animal will join the many other strays around our school and somehow survive.
Xiao Liu-liu (Little 6) was a perfect dog for the countryside and Mrs. Chen was excited to have him. I sent him to her in October and just visited him before returning to America in January. What a big boy he has become! With the help of former Peace Corp volunteer, Brian, and my former Chinese student, Angel, we carried 4 bags of dog food which I felt was enough to keep him well-fed until my next hoped-for visit in March, after the New Year’s holidays ended.
News from Tongtan
As I write today, my contact person, Angel, (seen above) has sent news that all the family are back at home. Mr. Che returned from Yunnan Province at about the time when the virus scare was surging, January 20. Since then, he has remained on the farm to help his wife with the many chores required of farmers in China. Factories are still closed, cross-country transportation is still limited and workers are requested to stay where they are for the time being.
Liangyu is also at home, continuing with her homework assignments as given by her teachers.
Mrs. Chen remains in good spirits, with Little Six joined by another rescue, the stocky male, Big Flower. The two dogs continue to enjoy a happy country lifestyle along with black kitty who comes and goes as he pleases.
I have heard nothing concerning more virus cases in Tongtan. Let us hope it remains that way.
How I am looking forward to a return visit to Tongtan, when masks are not required and Little Six and I can wander the trails together once again. It will come to pass, I am sure, but just not as soon as we’d all like.
From Illinois, until the next report, here’s wishing you 平安 (ping ahn), Peace, for your day.