Tofu Schools and The Strong Pig

This blog is so, so, so overdue. I’ve been busy and sick and mostly having a bad China week to be honest.

I love it here, I just dislike the dynamic of working here. The employment sector is cut-throat and foreign teachers are seen as a direct threat to native teachers jobs despite our supplementary role. You can imagine the kind of work environment that creates. Not, it should be said, that all teachers are like this. You will see in this blog that some teachers are lovely, in particular I have a lot of affection for Spring and Miss Wu. However, my grade leader is very rude and callous, so my day to day can be very frustrating. On top of this, I found out yesterday that my friend George died recently. I lived with George for a couple of months whilst I did my research in India. He was so colourful, it’s been jarring to imagine that he isn’t sitting in his apartment in India playing with Oscar, the dog we rescued. I sent my grade leader a message yesterday saying I’d just found out that my friend had died and that I wouldn’t be in until tomorrow and got a message back saying “OK.” Such a nice guy. NOT. Anyway, I actually have some pretty fun things to describe in this post despite the depressing introduction but I decided that I wouldn’t be a very good anthropologist if I didn’t document both the good and bad parts of China and there are plenty of both.

Escorted by the Army

So, a whole two weeks ago I went on a school trip. The trip was to a Jian Chuan Museum. My grade leader, asshole that he is, invited Adrian on the trip in front of me and didn’t even look at me (the downside of not possessing a penis and not being included in the big boy talks). However, this is all worked out well because Michael’s class is a pain in my ass anyway and I ended up going with Miss Wu’s class, class 12, who I’ve been looking forward to getting to know better outside of the classroom. As a mid-level class they’re often overlooked but they actually speak fairly well and are one of my more respectful classes, it was lovely to spend the day with them. They obviously thought so too since when I turned up to their classroom in the morning I was met with a chorus of “Oh, Charley! YAY!”

The teacher explained that I would stay with them during the trip and then told them to line up outside the classroom so I followed them and stood at the front. All the kids in grade 1 lined up in the corridors and called out “hello teacher!” to which class 12 replied “NO! Charley is ours.” A tad possessive, but still cute. One of the strange kids from my grade leaders class passed me and shouted “I love you!” (because he’s a bit of a show off), class 12 was having none of that and as they passed me to go to the bus, the first student said “Charley, I love you” followed by all the other kids saying “I love you too” as they passed me. Weirds you out at 7:30am in the morning. So I marched with the kids to the buses. We lined up on the sports pitch waiting for all of the other classes before we got on the buses. As with most things in China, the soldiers were there to help things run smoothly, each class was assigned a soldier each and mine looked pretty sheepish when he turned up and found a laowei as part of his brigade. The kids teased him relentlessly, until he finally introduced himself to me in broken English before shuffling off amid the class’ jibes and laughter. At least the soldiers have a sense of humour. And style.

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Waiting for the Buses
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Class 12

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As my brother said when I showed him this solider and his funky shoes: “When you working ’til 8 but you partying at 9.”

So, we finally made it on to the bus and Cindy pulled me into the seat next to her. Cindy is a very loud girl, full of energy and smiles; considering I teach 1100 students a week (only once per week) it is testament to her that I remember her already. She regaled me with stories of her English prowess then promptly stuffed sweets into my hands and began reading. The sweets started a chain reaction and kids from everywhere were passing sweets to me and then laughing when I ate them, like they expected me not to. The unfortunate soldier that got assigned to my little group had to stay with us on the bus, the kids continued to torment him until he spoke a little more English and laughed at him again, so he moved to the front of the bus red faced. But he ended up coming back again even more red faced and telling the English teacher accompanying us that he also needed a seat before we got to the checkpoint which meant poor little laowei had to get off one bus and run to another one in the middle of a five lane motorway.
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On the bright-side, the soldier said “Sorry teacher” to me as a got off the bus and the kids pissed themselves laughing and tried to get him to say “Love you”.

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Chinese Sweeties

Caught Red Handed

The first “exhibit” in the museum was outdoors and there were glass panes set up in a “v – formation”, which was supposed to symbolise victory. Each pane of glass had big red handprints on them. The prints were accompanied by the name of the person. Each handprint belongs to an “Anti-Japanese War Veteran”; the idea behind this exhibit is to commemorate those who are “on the way leaving us” [sic] and honour their tribute. It was very unsettling watching the kids move between the panes and find a handprint that matched the size of their own. Some of the kids commented on how brave the soldiers were and how they admired them; they were simultaneously measuring their palms and their personalities against those commemorated on the glass. China encourages this display of nationalistic pride; it is one of the few stereotypes of China I have experienced to be true in my time here.

This was amplified when we walked through the part of the museum dedicated to the Anti-Japanese war. The photographs showed pictures of men, women and children being slaughtered or simply trying their very best to protect themselves and other Chinese citizens – the display itself was very moving. It also inspired serious anger against the Japanese among some of the students; many kids left that part of the museum fuming and raging to each other about the injustices that the Japanese had committed.

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The Old Chinese Flag

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We moved next to the corridor of POW soldiers, I was surprised to see many photos of female soldiers also commemorated in this corridor. The corridor is designed to make you “raise your head and fix your eyes on the faces of POW”, the sign also advises us that these are the people that went into battle without one thought for themselves, only for their country. It explains that these photos were taken by the Japanese during the POW’s detainment and that this is the final visual record we have of most of them. Finally, the sign tells us that we should never forget these men and women, for this is “necessary and obligatory”. We wound through the corridor of sad faces to be met with a solitary sign explaining the brutality of the Japanese during the 14 year old Anti-Japanese war. Ironically, at the end of this museum exhibit were “Peace Bells” which people were encouraged to strike in order to create a “voice of peace.” Personally, I think whacking steel bells is anything but peaceful but the kids enjoyed it.

Earthquake, heartbreak.

Following this section of the museum we moved to the section commemorating the Earthquake of 2008. This Earthquake measured 8.0 and leveled most of the countryside in Sichuan (the province I live in), whilst the cities were mostly fine, many buildings in the countryside were flattened. Unfortunately most of the buildings in the countryside are schools. 69, 000 people died, including thousands of children who died whilst attending school during this earthquake, it was one of the most heart wrenching disasters in recent Chinese history. 4.8 million people were left homeless in its wake and the countryside has only recently been rebuilt with the help of Shanghai and private company donations.

Tofu -Dregs Schools

Whilst the Chinese government was praised for their quick response initially, it became clear over the coming months that the schools that had stood in Sichuan before the earthquake were entirely inadequate for the region in which they were built (earthquake zone). The locals began calling the schools tofu-dregs schools due to the ease with which they crumbled. The ever benevolent Chinese government tried to assuage the grief and anger felt by parents in the region by allowing them to have a second “legal child” if their dead child was a legal child. In other words, many parents lost their only child (one child policy) and so were allowed to have a second child for free, this even counted if their first child was seriously injured. Or, if the family already had an illegal (read: second) child then fines against this child would be stopped immediately if they survived the earthquake. Understandably, parents were outraged and this was only heightened by officials’ delayed findings in the investigations about the building of the schools in the aftermath. Parents were outraged that they had no further information on if corners had been cut during the construction of the school. The parents fury was so pure that they demonstrated. Those familiar with Tiananmen Square may realise why this is such a huge step for these parents to have taken. One teacher who voiced his anger that the media was covering up the shoddy buildings was sentences to one year re-education through labour. As far as I know, there haven’t been many if any prosecutions for cutting corners in the building of these schools.

Of course nothing about the building regs was mentioned in the exhibit dedicated to the quake, but the devastation of the earthquake was shown in harrowing detail. After first walking past twisted metal corpses of vehicles and remakes of caved-in sitting rooms the exhibit opened up into more personal remains of the quake. I walked past cases of tiny, torn-up backpacks, bent and broken pencil tins, muddy little coats and hastily scrawled government letters asking for more rescue assistance. The display left the viewer feeling desolate. However, if the personal affects left the viewer feeling numb, the photos of shrieking, grief stricken families crying over their dead children left the viewer feeling too much. Perhaps the Chinese understanding of ethics when it comes to a families grief do not match my own but this part of the exhibit felt entirely too personal. Strangely, in this part of the museum the children did not feel as much, or they seemed not to. Whilst they came out of the Anti-Japanese War section seething with rage, the possessions of their peers and the images of other schoolchildren bleeding and broken did not affect them. Some shared laughs as they walked through the exhibit, I wonder if they only feel as keenly when something affects their national pride. I hope that this is not the case and their apathy was simply more to do with their age and the lack of empathy they have at this early age. Due to the uncomfortable nature of this exhibit I didn’t take many photos but I think that the end of the exhibit is the most important part to show you all.

A stone statue of a woman sits bathed in light from the opening in the roof, she holds a candle and behind her is a picture of parents holding the photos of their children. The single monument of hope in a very desolate exhibit.

Earthquake Survivor’s Bacon Saved!

On a lighter note, the museum actually houses a survivor of the quake. This survivor managed to make it for 36 days whilst buried under the rubble. Somewhat of a miracle survivor. He lives at the museum and spends most of his time sleeping; he is a pig after all. Apparently he was fished out of the rubble and has been nicknamed “Zhu Jianqiang” which translates to “strong pig”. There were even t shirts with him on in the gift shop. I found out later that the Chinese celebrated his survival by cloning him.

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Women’s History

The final exhibit was the most interesting, at least to me, it focused on the history of Chinese women. At the beginning of the exhibit was a sign which explained the old practice of foot-binding. For those of you that aren’t aware, Chinese women used to wrap their feet, breaking the bone that holds the foot out straight, thus the arch of the foot would fold all of the way back and create a very small, almost triangular foot. This would be done when the woman was young, sometime around the age of 6 or 7 so that the foot didn’t grow or develop to much before binding. Interestingly, the sign explains that foot binding was a “bad custom of ancient China” and that it was a product of “abnormal aesthetic taste of the ancient patriarchal society on women”. Now, there are very few women in China with bound feet; the teacher I was accompanying on this fieldtrip explained that her grandmother had “three inch golden lotus feet” (bound feet) and that her mother had, had her feet bound a few times as a child but the bindings were removed early on and she has “normal” feet now. It seems that China has recognised the unnecessary pain caused by foot binding and replaced this with the unnecessary pain of wearing high heels everywhere. Seriously, I’ve seen women hiking in platform wedges. But at least it’s progress.

The next part of the women’s section showed different inspirational women from China. There were many actresses which I couldn’t care less about but the scientists and authors caught my eye. For example, Yoyo, who was the first Chinese scientist to a Nobel Prize in Medicine. Or perhaps China’s “advanced figure of the Chinese police circle”, Ren Changxia; the new remake of Sherlock Holmes we all want to see.

Finally, we made it outside and were waiting for the buses when I was presented with white Lindor chocolate from one of the kids (new favourite student) and another student gave me one of the cool hair slides everyone seemed to have. Old ladies were wandering around selling them and both boys and girls were wearing them.

So overall, the museum trip was worth giving up my half day off for.

Pandamonium

One of our BC friends came to stay a couple of weeks ago so we went into Chengdu and visited the Panda Base there. This base was a lot more enjoyable as the pandas came a little closer and they were more easily viewable. Sean also discovered a hidden talent with the new camera so he got some cracking shots of pandas.

Talent Show

Finally, there was a talent show at the school last Saturday afternoon; some of the acts made cats shrieking sound good but some were particularly good. I would go into more detail but this is already a long post and besides, the final of that talent competition is being held tonight. So, I will update again this weekend (I hope) with some footage and images of the talent show finalists.

That’s all Folks!

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3 Comments

  1. So sorry to reaf that your friend George has passed away. It must have been a shock to you.

    Foot binding! That really sounds so cruel. The pain and agony that that must have caused. At least the wearing of heels is a choice. Of course they may look good, but from experience, well they are not that practical for prolonged walking at all.

    Great to read about how you are finding life in China.

    Like

    1. Hi Michelle, I hope you’re well. It was indeed a shock.

      Yes the pictures of the bound feet made me shudder it looks so incredibly painful. At least it’s outlawed now.

      I hope you and everyone at the Butterfly Club is getting on ok 🙂

      Like

  2. Hello Charley!

    I’m sorry for your loss, it’s inspiring to see how you deal with things and it’s good to know that despite of the problems you are enjoying your year.

    Keep it up, I love your posts!

    Like

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