By Madeline Christensen, contributor
My elementary school students can read, write and draw. They also can catch grasshoppers in a field to put in plastic water bottles. They can pick mushrooms from the hill behind the school. And despite their young years, many can cook for themselves and their siblings.
My students live with one foot in two worlds. At school, they learn how to read and write and take math tests. At home, they learn how to navigate growing up in rural China today, a place where farming traditions live on even as family members migrate to China’s big cities.
I grew up in Minnetonka, Minn., though I went to school in Edina through the French Immersion program. Excited about learning a language that would be very different from French or English, I signed up for Mandarin Chinese my freshman year of college at Tufts University near Boston.
Finally, during my junior year in the spring of 2011, I made it to China for a semester abroad in Yunnan Province in the southwest. Part of me was terrified before the trip, owing in part to the program’s extensive list of necessary and recommended vaccines. But I loved Yunnan. It is an incredibly diverse province, home to 24 of China’s officially recognized national minorities. The region is also a trove of biodiversity, hosting an amazing array of plant and animal species. The warm hospitality of our hosts and new friends, the moderate climate, the beauty of the mountains, and the intersection of cultures of this border province made me promise myself I would find a way back.
Three years later, I accepted a two-year Fellowship with Teach For China (TFC).
Teach For China sends Fellows to rural and under-resourced elementary and middle schools for two years. Fellows from China and the U.S. teach core subjects such as English, math, and Chinese, as well as electives such as gym, music and art. Most TFC Fellows are placed in Yunnan, but the organization also places Fellows at schools in Guangdong Province on the southeastern coast. So far Teach For China has placed more than 600 Fellows in 128 schools in these two provinces.
Thus began my life at Qiaotou Elementary School. Qiaotou is a small town in the Tengchong area, quite close to the Burmese border in Yunnan. A geologically active region, Tengchong is famous for its hot springs and dormant volcanoes.
On first impression, Qiaotou immediately reminded me of a small town in northern Minnesota, the kind with one main road scattered with convenience stores and hardware shops. Market Day – jiezi tian – is every five days, when people from the surrounding villages come to Qiaotou and visit the chaotic jumble of tents and stands - baby chickens jostling to escape wire baskets, heaps of fruit piled under orange tarps, blankets lined with eggplant and cauliflower, nuts, honey, hats, flashlights, sandals, jewelry, blankets, clothing, and more.
On any other day, however, life in Qiaotou moves at a leisurely pace. Drivers snooze in passenger vans with bare feet hanging out the car window. A woman with a broad smile serves hot bowls of noodles on a plastic picnic table. Everyone was excited to browse the new two-level store with everything from tea to slippers to cheap, sugary wine.
Tengchong is known for its idyllic scenery, and the area surrounding Qiaotou is an excellent example. On one side of town are rolling green hills dotted with villages and farms; on the other, the rocky Gaoligong mountain range rises up in the distance. As the year progresses, the rice paddies turn from green to gold, then in midwinter, the canola plants bloom in seas of highlighter-yellow flowers.
Amongst this rural setting, where work is governed by the course of the crops and the duties of the day, Qiaotou Elementary School seems like an island where songs and bells from the loudspeaker regiment the meals and classes. The wake-up call - in the form of a cheerful Chinese tune - comes on at 6:50 a.m. Fifteen minutes later, all 700 students are jogging in a circle around the courtyard. Then comes morning reading, when the air fills with the sounds of small children chanting in pinyin, Mandarin Chinese syllables - “Bo ah, bo ah BAH! Moh ee, moh ee ME!” After a breakfast of noodles, the students sit through four morning classes, interspersed with chores and morning exercises, a type of choreographed dance. After lunch comes naptime, then three more classes, then dinner at 4:30 p.m. The first of three evening study periods begins at six, and then at nine, the students return to their dorm rooms for lights-out.
In fact, more than 90 percent of the students live at the school, having to travel from the nearby villages and farms to get to school each week. The wealthier families might run a shop or small restaurant in town. But about a third of the students have at least one parent who is working (da gong) in another region or province of China. Some students haven’t seen one or both parents in years; still others only see their parents for the New Year holiday.
From the little town of Qiaotou, one can feel an entire country on the move. Even the school empties out on the weekends, as students go home to parents, grandparents, and relatives; and teachers return to their families, often two hours away. Few young adults are permanent residents of Qiaotou or the surrounding villages - if they aren’t continuing their studies, they’ve found jobs in a city For the younger generation, success seems measured in part by how far away you can get. A student’s admission to the Number One High School in Tengchong city is a point of pride for families. Going to college in Kunming is very good. Getting into a top university in Beijing would be like winning the lottery.
I often reflect on how different Qiaotou Elementary is from my school back in Minnesota, which I now think back to as a palace of carpeted reading corners. But having learned French as a kid, I now delight in sharing a new language with young, curious students. I wander the rice fields and mountains with my students, just as we wandered the woods back in Minnesota. And despite my cravings for cheese, at least for now, there’s no place I’d rather be.
For more information on Teach For China Fellowship, please visit the website: www.tfchina.org.