Tag Archives: Ya’an

Simple Gifts

Simple Gifts    —by Jinny Batterson

“Ruby” is a Chinese economic success story. Ruby grew up in poverty in a mountainous rural county about 5 hours’ drive across the mountains from the regional hospital in Ya’an, Sichuan, where she is now a doctor, a kidney disease specialist. Since her youth, she’s completed high school, university, and advanced training. She has earned enough to purchase an in-town apartment, one she shared with her aging parents when she wasn’t either on duty or catching a few hours’ sleep at the staff dormitory at the hospital between work shifts. She dresses well and enjoys travel, but has been somewhat limited in her leisure time because of work and family obligations.  I first met Ruby at an autumn evening’s “English corner” session, open to students, staff, and town residents in Ya’an where my husband and I were spending the 2008-2009 academic year as foreign teachers at a local university. For much of the year, when she could get time off, Ruby practiced her English with us while she showed us around many of the tourist sites and natural areas closest to our university town.

Over the course of the years when I’ve traveled in China, living standards have improved tremendously.  The “three most wanteds” list that in the 1950’s included such basics as a bicycle, a radio, and leather shoes, more recently moved up to washing machine, mobile phone, television, computer, air conditioner, and even car for China’s burgeoning urban middle class.  The poverty rate throughout China, measured as those surviving on less than $1.25 per day,  decreased from 81% in 1981 to only a third as high, 27%, by 2012. In many urban areas, the rate is even lower. Still, there are pockets in the countryside that the new affluence seems largely to have passed by. Ruby’s hometown was one of these. It was inaccessible via major road. We never had a chance to see it during our year in Ya’an. Its isolation, we heard, reinforced the largely agrarian, hardscrabble existence of its inhabitants, who grew subsistence food crops plus fruit for regional markets.

After our teaching year was over, we kept up with Ruby intermittently by email.  On a later China visit, we reconnected. We were excited when she was able to arrange a weekend in the area where she’d grown up.  During Ruby’s childhood, settlements in Hanyuan County were mostly located in a fertile alluvial plain, tucked between successive ranges of the mountains of western Sichuan. Then came the double whammy of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake plus the impending relocation of all low-lying settlements to make way for an impoundment lake that would soon flood the valley, backed up behind a hydroelectric dam being built downstream.

By the time we got to Hanyuan, most low-lying areas were abandoned. A steep, raw new city was taking shape higher along the mountain slopes. We had a hot pot dinner at one of the few remaining lowland restaurants, then went to visit one of Ruby’s friends in her new apartment block in the new city.  Not many foreigners came to this part of the country, so we were a novelty.  On Sunday, before starting the long trek back to Ya’an, Ruby took us for a walk along one of the major streets. Locals came up to her and asked her who we were and why we were in Hanyuan—she replied that we were her friends, and that she’d brought us from Ya’an on a short visit to her hometown. We were headed back uphill to the apartment block where her friend lived when still another group of locals approached us from behind.  Three little girls, dressed in warm colorful jackets against the chill, were out walking with their grandfather. The grandfather checked with Ruby to see who we were, then explained in local dialect to his granddaughters. After a block or so, the eldest girl walked up to Jim and took hold of his hand. A little later, the two younger girls, emboldened by their cousin’s example, came up beside me and each took one of my hands. Ruby used her cell phone to snap a low-resolution picture of the group of us—two foreigners, several local adults, and three adventuresome young Chinese girls, enjoying the simple gift of a weekend walk together.

Teachers’ Day

Teachers’ Day   —by Jinny Batterson

It’s a truism that if you become a teacher, you’ll learn a lot from your students. This was brought home to me in a special way during the 2008-2009 academic year, when I was a foreign teacher of English writing for language majors at Sichuan Agricultural University in Ya’an, Sichuan, China. Ya’an is a very small city by Chinese standards. In 2008 it had about 150,000 inhabitants. It lies two hours’ drive southwest of Chengdu via modern expressway. When the massive May, 2008, Wenchuan earthquake hit, Ya’an was far enough from the epicenter to avoid serious structural damage and numerous deaths. However, its student base, drawn about 90% from surrounding areas of Sichuan province, contained many who had lost homes, friends and/or family members because of the quake.

Occasionally students would share anecdotes about the earthquake, more often verbally than in written form. When they did, I was impressed by their compassion and resilience. However, students mostly wanted to focus on their futures. They were excited, if a little apprehensive, about their prospects as members of China’s first “one child” generation and its first generation of netizens.  As the year advanced, I found that the single child dictum had not been strictly enforced in the countryside, where most of my students had been born, and that nearly half of my language majors had a brother or a sister. Many of my mostly female students planned to go into some branch of teaching.

By choice, I had lots of papers to grade that year—I relish writing, and thought that a good way to improve students’ English writing facility was by having them write.  I typically assigned a 300-500 word essay as homework for my 80 or so students each week. I tried to pick homework topic choices that would challenge the students’ imaginations, that required personal reflection rather than copying canned material from the Internet.

Once in a while, I got an essay that expressed, even if in somewhat labored English with minor grammar and spelling errors, a fresh point of view.  Partway through the spring term, one of the shyer students, “Joanne,” turned in her assignment about her “best school experience.” She related the story of her much earlier self, frustrated at being too young to accompany her older brother to primary school. As a substitute, she’d set up her own first classroom on a large flat rock in her family’s back yard. She alternated being teacher and pupil:

“Good morning, class.”

“Good morning, teacher.”

She practiced her characters on the rock’s surface, and only interrupted her daily studies when called in for lunch. Now a college student, she thought she might become a teacher once her schooling was complete. She confessed that long years of tests and rote learning had somewhat worn down her enthusiasm for formal education. She yearned to recapture the excitement she’d felt when she first discovered “school” as a 4-year-old.

I’m still grateful for her insights. They inspired me to redouble my efforts to put more pizzazz into my lessons and to interact more freely with students, both inside and outside formal class time. At its best, as Joanne rightly perceived, education is less about conveying a set body of knowledge, and more about igniting the spark of creativity that lies within each of us, however deeply buried.

Almost as soon as I arrived at SAU, I’d been surprised to receive cards and small gifts from several students during the first week of classes. They wished me “Happy Teachers’ Day!”  I later learned that each year since 1985, China has celebrated this holiday early in the school year, around September 10. The cards and gifts were fun, yet the real fulfillment came from efforts like Joanne’s. Happy Teachers’ Day, all!