An American Indian in China

Julianne Jennings

Editor’s Note: From time to time, our contributors find themselves in far flung places doing very interesting and world changing things. It appears that it is Jennings turn to turn on the world to indigenous thinking and world views. We wish her well in her new world and look forward to her contributions to the Op/Ed pages.

I came to China in August to teach English at Rongjiang First Senior Middle School in Guizhou, as part of their foreign English teacher recruitment program. Guizhou Province, in the south-eastern part of China, and under the Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, with the seat of the prefecture in Kaili. The prefecture is subdivided into one county-level city and sixteen county-level divisions: Shibing, Congjiang, Jinping, Zhenyuan, Majiang, Taijiang, Tianzhu, Huangping, Rongjiang, Jianhe, Sansui, Leishan, Liping, Cengong, Danzhai, with its provincial capital city in Guiyang.

Rongjiang, one of the sixteen county-level divisions, is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped in the region. In 2000, Rongjiang ADP (Area Development Program/ County Poverty Alleviation Program), launched a massive development project targeting education, sanitation, economic development, as well as relief and rehabilitation work in townships including Ba Kai, Leli, Jihua and Xinghua. I had no plans to stay long term. But I immediately fell in love with this country, despite the cultural challenges, its people, but more importantly, the students I was teaching.

Rongjiang, covers a total area of 3,315.8 square kilometers (2,060 mi.). It has a humid sub-tropical monsoon climate (average relative humidity of over 70%.) with plentiful rainfall. A folding umbrella is indispensable. The moderate climate is impacted by the regions diverse terrain, high mountains and lush vegetation, which ward off the intense summer heat and severe winter cold. Ethnic minorities Dong, Miao, Shui and Yao make up 84.4% of the total population, and others, of the 313,830 people that live here. The town is genuinely old. Its origins can be traced back more than two thousand years. Today, most of the city walls are gone but a number of old buildings still stand, testifying to its former prestige.

One of the most indelible images to foreigners is that of Chinese toddlers wearing “kaidangku” or “open- crotch paints.” The paints allow toddlers to relieve themselves, right on the street. However, the practice of wearing split pants may soon be eclipsed by the disposable diaper. Urban consumers are deploying the diaper and making China one of the world’s fastest growing markets (chinadaily.com.cn). Spitting in public (a cultural norm) has now become socially reprehensible - and even criminal -in many parts of China as public health authorities struggle to curb the spread of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome that is both contagious and sometimes fatal). Men and women believe spitting is the hygenic thing to do, “To clear the evil from their throats.” In Beijing and Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province, authorities are cracking down on public spitters. They will have to clean up the phlegm marks and pay a fine of 50 yuan (US$6.02). The fine goes up to 200 yuan (US$24.1) in Shanghai. Guangzhou has also set up cameras in the streets to catch public spitting (China.org.cn). However, news and better hygienic practices travel slowly in more rural areas of China. Littering, line-cutting, loudness, excessive smoking in public buildings and hospitals (even by the doctors) as well as farting, growing a long fingernail’’ to pick one’s nose, ‘‘not brushing teeth,’’ in these things ‘‘all Chinese people are unrestrained.”

When I first arrived in Beijing, I was mostly excited, but somewhat ambivalent not knowing what to expect. In my three day visit, I discovered my transition to China was fairly easy. Of course I was a little homesick and missing my friends, but the city hosted many western-style restaurants, and most people spoke English. I expected my going to Rongjiang, where I will live and work for one year, would be similar. After taking a two hour flight to Guiyang airport, I was greeted by Grace, organizer of Rongjiang Middle School’s foreign teacher program. She immediately brought me to my apartment , where we had to walk-up seven flights of stairs, carrying three large suit cases, to the seventh floor (no elevators in buildings under seven floors) so I could get settled. Prior, I was sent pictures of my apartment in an e-mail from the recruitment agency that connected me to the school. I had stipulated through e-mails I wanted my own living space, not shared, to accommodate visiting friends and family, and with a western toilet. Everything was perfect, I thought. Then Grace opened the door, I stepped in and quickly discovered this was not the same apartment in the photos sent to me. It was dirty, most of the furniture broken, and no western toilet, but a hole in the bathroom floor to ‘squat’ over. I also discovered that I would be sharing the space with a twenty-six year old African woman named Aquilina, from Kenya, who was starting her second year teaching at the school. I was furious. Lina tried to comfort me by saying, “It will get better. It’s the students that make the difference.”

After many attempts speaking with the school requesting to have the broken furniture removed I was told, “Either pay someone to remove it, or do it yourself.” Family and friends said come home. But I decided to embrace the struggle. Over the course of several days, I carried several loads of broken furniture that had been on the balcony for a year, down seven flights of stairs by myself. I was determined not to confuse my path with my destination, just because it’s stormy now, doesn’t mean there is no sunshine ahead. I eventually purchased a new sofa, some plants, a window shade for the kitchen, bedding, and a table and chair set for the balcony. This has not been a soft landing by any means, but as of late, there have been expressions of gratitude by several colleagues offering to buy lunch, dinner, and rides to the country.

My first impression of Rongjiang First Senior Middle School was terrible, just like my apartment. Built in 1940, the school was part of the government's educational reform. Nowadays, it is a famous high school in Guizhou province! There are more than four thousand students and teachers, who study and work at the school. At least that’s what the recruitment agency told me. Seems like nothing has been done to improve the building since it was first erected. The most dirtiest, grimy white walls have made their way into every classroom; Desks are worn down and old. There are no maps, posters, pictures or charts for viewing. Classrooms are hot and sticky with one or two circulating fans; and the smell of urine from the restrooms transmits heavily through the corridors and classrooms. In addition, there is little to no teacher resources, or media equipment to enhance classroom instruction and learning. Recently, the media reported, that for several consecutive years, a portion of the educational funds given to Guizhou Province were misappropriated/embezzled by staff in the County Poverty Alleviation Office, never reaching the students.

Chinese students face overwhelming academic demands, parental expectations, and fierce competition. Students will be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted when entering classes. They generally wake up around 6:30 to 7:00 in the morning and begin classes by 8:00 a.m. They will typically attend between four to five 40- to 50-minute periods in the morning, and as many as three to four 40- to 50-minute periods in the afternoon with a ten-minute break between each period. Many of these students will then attend some extracurricular activity such as music lessons after school before returning home and commencing their homework. There are evening classes that typically end around 9:30 p.m., and there are weekend classes, too. With the lack of educational materials, deplorable government buildings, student stress, as well as dealing with my own biases, it’s all too overwhelming.

I wanted to curse those people who misappropriated the public funds, but perhaps a change in my attitude would be better. We are always complaining about the flaws within a social system, but we need to see that China is changing bit by bit, that Rome was not built in one day, that the country’s system is constantly improving, and that many people are currently working hard for this. Rather than loudly criticizing, some practical action would be better and more meaningful. That the person(s) who misappropriated public funds, is/are of course wrong, but maybe s/he had his or her own predicament. People’s hearts are all made of flesh not ice or stone. The misappropriation of public funds/diverting of funds may not necessarily have been for one’s own selfish interests. We really don’t know. So, how meaningful is criticizing and cursing? The key is to let the children be happy, and action is better than just being moved. I have taken my money earned from writing articles for Indian Country Today Media Network, and have purchased books, pens, pencils, games, posters, and a new sofa for our English Club. Friends and family from the states have sent cards, letters, and boxes with school supplies. I have started a Facebook site that includes a Pen Pal Exchange Program. Recently, Dr. Bryan Lynch from Quinebaug Community College in Connecticut has reached out and suggested setting-up Skype in the classroom. Chinese students would have the opportunity to practice English conversation with his students as well as learn about each other’s cultures. Dr. Nancy Carriuolo, President of Rhode Island College (RIC) has been following my exploits on Facebook and has contacted the School Education in possibly bringing student teachers to Rongjiang for short-term assignments that target reading, writing and conversation for college credit. My new Chinese friend, Nancy (her self-appointed English name), owns and operates two private English language schools, has also joined me in my efforts by creating educational materials; and Aquilina is serving as Deputy Director managing club activities. I may not have the ability to let students realize their dreams, that is something they must do, but at least I have the ability to let them know that there are people who care about them.

If you would to contribute in some way, send your letters and cards to:

Julianne Jennings, English Department

Rongjiang First Senior Middle School

Rongjiang County, Guizhou Province, Henshan Road, New City 557200; CHINA

贵州省榕江县新城区南岳大道, 邮编:557200 中国

Facebook page here.

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.


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