When I first went to China in 1991, computers were just starting to make their way into the hands of common folk. Cell phones and smart phones were non-existent. Telephones were only for the very wealthy, with most villages, towns or factories having only one public telephone for people to use. And using that phone required special guangxi (connections), which was knowing the person in charge or the person whose desk the telephone sat on. I remember 30 years ago, when I taught at Nanchang Normal University, having only 2 telephones available for the foreign teachers: One was located in the outer building of our guest house (where we foreigners all lived) while another was in the administration office for foreign affairs. Only 1 dialed out of the country. We had to make an appointment to use it and pay the fee upfront by how long we talked.
Needless to say, we didn’t call home often. In my 3 years teaching at that college, I called to America only once. All other correspondence was by letters which took 2-3 weeks to arrive.
In 1991, the Internet was in the beginning stages of development. I remember listening to VOA (Voice of America) radio broadcasters, along with President Bill Clinton, touting the merits of this new global tool called “The Internet” and how it would change our world in ways we could never imagine.
Ain’t that the truth!
Not only can we stay in touch more easily but locating folks is much easier. With our new technology, the ability to find acquaintances, classmates, or distant relatives who have disappeared from our lives is now at our fingertips.
That same connectional ability can now be said for China today. Personal computers and cell phones, through the Internet, now make it possible for people to stay in touch with those who, 20 or 30 or 50 years ago, would have been lost forever.
A New University Tradition Starts in China
In “old” China, there were no school-organized reunions for high school or college. This was mostly due to difficulty in finding large numbers of graduates without telephones to call on, mailing addresses to compile (many didn’t have mailing addresses the countryside) or computers to create data bases. Reunions took place when classmates made a huge effort to personally stay in touch and manage to meet up on a whim with others.
WeChat (China’s equivalent of Facebook) and smart phones have changed all that. I belong to numerous WeChat groups, one of which is a Luzhou Vocational and Technical College alumni group. It’s called 大学同学 (University Classmates) and was started several years ago by one of my students from the 2001 graduating class.
Soon, many more were joining from other graduating classes and the group now has 57 alums and 14 teachers.
An Invitation to Join from Chuck
I was invited to join when I accidentally bumped into one of my former students on the city bus. I was coming back from my pool time. I swim every day in China, at a new Olympic-sized indoor sports complex located on the opposite side of the city. I remember I’d had a discussion with myself if I wanted to taxi home (15 minutes, for $3.00) or take the bus (1 hour, for 40 cents). As I didn’t have much to do when I returned home, I opted for the bus.
After settling down in my seat, I looked out the window to watch the street scenes go by. I didn’t recognize my student as it had been 15 years since we were on the campus together but he certainly recognized me. I wondered why this strangely masked Chinese man, with his 8-year-old son sitting next to him, was staring at me. I decided to ignore him. Finally, he got up the courage to say, “Are you Connie?”
“Yes, I am,” I answered, not quite sure how this man would know my name.
“I am Chuck,” he replied with an excited grin. “Maybe you forgot me. My English was very poor when you were my teacher.”
Believe it or not, I did remember Chuck when he was a freshmen, 17 years before. Yes, his English wasn’t very good but he always held onto an optimistic spirit, with a good sense of humor in laughing at his own language inadequacies.
As we talked, the story then unfolded that he’d been in an accident after graduation and his face was seriously burned, along with his arms and legs. The mask hid a majority of his deformities, which were so horrific that people were startled. Thus the mask. Even with the mask, I could see one of his ears was missing and thickly burned scar tissue covered his neck. This poor man!
He didn’t explain what had happened. He only mentioned because of the burns, he was now considered disabled and unable to work, which allowed for some compensation from the government but not much. He was selling items on the Internet to bring in a little extra money, although his wife’s salary seemed to be enough to keep his family cared for.
Before we parted, Chuck made sure I had joined the university classmate WeChat group. It is for that reason that I now am in touch with so many of my former students. I see photos of their children, enjoy their teasing banter back and forth in their text messages, rejoice in their family celebrations (marriages, births, milestone birthdays, children’s high test scores) and send sympathy for bad news.
On WeChat, students post their gatherings with family or others. “Angela” (to the far left) recently pulled together a few of her classmates (Class of 2004) for a Chinese New Year’s dinner.
Other announcements within 大学同学 WeChat group: Graduates of Luzhou Vocational and Technical College (my former students, now teachers) and retired teachers from our school volunteered to grade 6th grade students’ English language exams. The exam booklet had numerous subjects to check. The English teachers were only required to check the English part of the test. These exam scores would determine if the student moved on into junior high school or not.
Explosion of text messages: Our College-sponsored 20-year Reunion Celebration
The most recent excitement to hit this group is the school’s request for contact information for a 20th year reunion. Never has my college arranged such an event, so there was some confusion as to what this was all about. Here is the dialogue which took place a few days ago. (Teacher Wang below)
Teacher Wang: Students, please take time to open the attached document and fill it out.
Student “Ken”: What is this for? Is the information to be made public?
Teacher Wang: Due to the previous graduation information being accidentally deleted, Luzhou Vocational and Technical College is asking all alums to give the graduation information. This is in regards to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of Luzhou Vocational and Technical College. This task has been entrusted to me. Please fill out the information by February 23. Thank you for your cooperation!
Once this announcement went out, there was a flurry of photo-posting that went on.
Some dug deep into the past, showing events with classmates, such as this outing to Fang Mountain which is located outside of the Luzhou limits.
Others included weekend meet-ups around the city with favorite teachers. Here are my English majors in 2003 with Teachers Chen and Xi at the Luzhou city amphitheater.
My favorites were those of me with the students.
Visits to my apartment, where Little Flower (my Chihuahua) entertained us with her doggie toys:
Our Christmas party in the classroom (I’m kneeling, first row, in the black Christmas sweater):
And, lastly, a 2005 graduation photo with our school leaders. This included the foreign teachers at that time (myself and Beth, with the Amity Foundation) and a young British couple, Rosie and Alex, who were 6-month volunteer teachers. They were traveling the world and contacted Amity to see if they could somehow connect with a Chinese college to teach English. Amity arranged their stay at our college, after which they moved on to return home to England.
Chuck, now a burned victim, is the last row, to the far left in the white shirt.
Some of the retired teachers in the WeChat group shared these. A 2002 faculty Christmas party in my home:
Celebration Date on Hold: Chinese New Year Covid Restrictions
The school’s 20th year reunion celebrations are currently on hold, but not the ongoing registration of alums. With the Chinese New Year holidays approaching, beginning Feb. 11 and running to Feb. 26, there is concern the virus will spread. Migrant workers are especially worrisome to health authorities, with millions upon millions traveling home for the holidays. China is going into measures to prevent the spread, with people urged to stay home or in their current locations and not visit relatives.
Those who do wish to travel must have an updated negative Covid test which appears on the health App on their phones. After arriving home, a 2-week quarantine is demanded. Because everyone’s health codes are connected to a main monitoring system, the health department in every province, city, town and village knows where people are at any time, all the time. Citizens are called and warned to remain in place if they leave their homes during quarantine or try to travel to areas which are deemed “at risk” (i.e., on lockdown as Covid cases were detected there).
While this sounds drastic, so far, these procedures have allowed the Chinese to go about life as normal with no surging virus infections, deaths or hospitalizations. Even masks are no longer required, although quite a few still choose to wear them.
I expect this upcoming 15-day holiday will be the test for the country, how well a cooperating public can contain what many countries find uncontainable.
Cross your fingers. The better China is able to do this, the faster I might be able to return.
Until the next report, here’s wishing you Ping Ahn (Peace) for your day.