Monday, 27 April 2009

A Rural Student's Tale

As the fourth best school in the city, my school has an interesting social mix of students in the senior grades. It is popular with children of the aspiring middle classes, and also the new elite, who are able to get their children into the school through their contacts. The school is a beacon international school, one of only a few in our province, and therefore teenagers who are particularly talented at languages can obtain scholarships to the senior school even if they are from outside the city area. Some of my student’s homes are hundreds of miles away, and they will only return twice a year, during Spring Festival and the summer break.

Rosa is one of my most engaging students, and is an interesting, talented, tenacious and kind hearted young woman. She lives in a town on the outskirts of the city, in an area classed as rural. Although only eighty minutes away from our school by bus, being born in this area means that her life is considerably harder than those of her urban classmates, even the less well off ones. Her previous schools were badly resourced and poorly staffed, as countryside schools end up with teachers that city schools won’t employ.

She knows that to keep her place at the school and to obtain a much coveted place at university that will allow her to train as an English teacher, she must get higher grades than her urban friends need to. She normally studies from 6am to 10pm, and in her rare holidays (students normally only have Sunday afternoon off school) she is responsible for looking after her young nephew. In this she is more fortunate than some, who have to find paid employment.

The wealthiest of my students don’t even care about the fiendishly hard and stressful college entrance exams, knowing that their parents can afford to send them to a private college or abroad to study, and that their contacts will land them a well paid job later on. If Rosa fails in these exams she in unlikely to be able to break her way out of poverty.

During one of our frequent, but short conversations, between classes she told me that her brother and cousin’s husband are both migrant workers in an oil field in Gansu province. As it is so far away, it has been a more than year since they have come home. They aren’t sure if her three year old nephew will recognize his father when he next sees him.

Rosa told me that the salary is so good that the men feel the sacrifice is worth it. When I asked what it was she told me it was 600 kuai (88 USD) a month plus overtime, more than they can earn here. Despite her scholarship, it must be a considerable economic sacrifice for her family to keep her in school.

Meanwhile, some of her classmates father’s will splurge the equivalent of my very comfortable monthly salary on a single dinner, whilst their wives (and mistresses) shop in designer stores.

The ever widening gap between the rich and everyone else, never mind the poor is simply mind boggling, and surely not conducive to long term social stability. I’ll be interested to see how, and if, the Chinese government tackles it.

This brings me to something I could kick myself for not asking earlier. For many of my students, purchasing a book in English, necessitating as it does a trip to a foreign language bookstore in Beijing, is a proposition as far fetched as flying to London or New York. (An average price for an English paperback is about 100 kuai.) If anyone reading this would be willing to send me an unwanted English language book, please leave a comment and I will be in touch with how to send it to me.

It would mean so much to the person who receives it, and will be a much treasured resource. I am distributing the small collection of books that I have built up here amongst my students, and their joy and gratitude is beyond what can be expressed in words. If you are generous enough to send a book, please make it one without graphic sex or violence.


  1. Hi J!

    How freaky... just yesterday day, I was looking at my bookcases and considering a cull as I've lots of newer books and no shelf space left.

    I haven't done the actual cull yet but I would be happy to send some books your way. What sort of book is preferred?

    This is a wonderful idea!

  2. I have a ton of books.. does it matter what the subject is? If you want.. email me bubblewench at gmail dot com

  3. Oh my gosh....I have been donating ALL my books to my Center...and would be SO happy to send a box full to you! I have purchased many books here in Beijing for the 100 kuai or higher price but have also discovered the bootleg booksellers (recently purchased "The Time Traveler's Wife" for 15 kuai while the bookstore wanted 100 kuai!). me ( your snail mail address and I promise I'll send a box of books in English to you to begin a great library for your students. They are regular fiction books in English so are you sure they won't be too difficult? I also can send along a few children's books. Just let me know.