Last year I was fortunate enough to be able to work on a pretty special project; to design and launch a mentoring programme which would match eight employees from the company I work at with eight volunteer teachers at an underprivileged school high in the mountains of Yunnan province, South West China.
In general I try to avoid talking about work in this blog (Matt and I agreed from the outset that we wanted to focus on documenting our life in Shanghai and our travels around Asia, rather than giving our view on what it’s like to work here); however, getting to visit the school in Yunnan was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, opening my eyes to a rural community and way of life that the majority foreigners to China (especially expats) will ever get to see, and so I am making an exception.
First a bit of the background…
Corporate Social Responsibility or ‘CSR’ (whereby organisations support social and environmental initiatives as part of their corporate strategy) is commonplace in Western companies, but less so in emerging markets. That said, Chinese companies are starting to get on board with certain types of CSR and Project Hope – one of the better recognised public service projects – is a pioneering example of this. Launched in 1989 by the China Youth Development Foundation (CYDF) and the Communist Youth League (CYL), it’s goal is to seek non-governmental financial support to give children in very poor, typically rural communities the opportunity to go to school and receive an education.
It’s an opportune and important initiative in modern-day China, where the income inequality between the ‘Tier 1’ cities like Shanghai and the interior countryside regions is severe (recent statistics show that the richest 1% of mainland households hold one third of the country’s total wealth, with many having benefited from owning multiple properties during the recent real-estate price inflation). China’s gradual approach to economic reforms post-1978 have enabled unprecedented and prolonged economic growth; however, it’s estimated that more than 30 million children aged 6-14 are unable to attend school or drop-out early to support their parents at home, with over 80% of this number coming from the countryside.
The Jaguar Land Rover Dream Fund
So back to my trip.
For a region already at a significant economic disadvantage, 2014 brought a new and tragic challenge to the people of Yunnan. On 3rd August, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake hit the impoverished Ludian county, claiming 617 lives, injuring over 3000 and damaging or destroying around 80,000 houses. As part of the recovery effort, JLR (my employer) in collaboration with Project Hope, funded a school to be built in Zhaotong – a city close to the epicentre – and in 2016 the ‘Dream Class’ project was launched, placing 8 qualified volunteer teachers at the school.
The volunteer teachers are recent university graduates who sign up for a two-year placement to live, teach and help to care for the children of Zhaotong Hope School. It’s a serious commitment – the school is isolated from Zhaotong city due to the near-inaccessible mountain roads, the environment is unforgiving and the living conditions are basic – so the intention of the ‘Dream Mentor’ programme was to offer the teachers a friendly ear and sounding board; someone they would be able to talk to about their aspirations and dreams for the future, and figure out how to make it happen. With around 2000km separating the Shanghai-based mentors and Zhaoting-based mentees it was essential that at the start of the programme they had an opportunity to meet each other face to face. The solution was to arrange a team-building event at the school, which took place last September.
When I was invited to accompany the mentors to the team-building event, I received words of warning from some colleagues who had visited the school a few months earlier; “the mountain road is so bumpy that my step tracker thought I had walked for miles, even though I didn’t leave the car”, one colleague told me, holding up a screenshot on her phone as proof. But the risk of being considered a fraudulent stepper wasn’t enough to deter me; I was intrigued by the Hope School, a place I had heard so much about but still could hardly imagine.
On a drizzly day in September I flew from Shanghai to Kunming (the capital of Yunnan, which hosts the nearest airport), and from there we boarded a fleet of cars which would take us the rest of the way to the school. Having exited the city, we zipped along quiet highways, cut straight through the mountains.
After a few hours we left the highway and started to climb winding mountainside tracks, passing though ramshackle roadside villages, huge quarries and beautiful lakes. The drizzling rain which had pursued us from the city subsided, revealing a brilliant clear blue sky.
It took around 4 hours in total to reach Zhaotong and it was almost evening when we crawled the last few kilometres towards our hotel, under the casual gaze of locals sat out in front of their homes and the chickens scratching around in the street. Our hotel was the most modern-looking building in sight, and doubled-up as Zhaotong’s KTV (karaoke bar) – open throughout the night, as I found out the hard way!
That evening we crowded around a circular table and ate a feast of typical Yunnanese food, which was spicy, oily and quite delicious – the sticky eggplant (top left) was my favourite. The restaurant itself was a bit of a stretch outside of my comfort-zone; the air was thick with cigarette smoke (smoking indoors is still normal in this part of China) and the ceiling was dotted with hundreds of flies; however, to my surprise my stomach survived without incident!
Early the next morning we set off for our first day at the Hope School – a 90 minute drive away through progressively more difficult mountain terrain. We bumped and bounced in the backseat and by the time we arrived my insides were thoroughly churned!
September is the back end of the rainy season and we knew that the roads would be vulnerable to landslides. At one point, not far from the school, we were forced to double-back on our intended route as the road ahead had become completely blocked but fortunately our drivers – local men and women who are familiar with the mountain – soon found an alternative route. We got some great photos out of it too!
The time and effort it took for us to reach the Hope School gave me a powerful sense of the isolation that the graduate teachers are living in here. Even sat in luxurious cars, it was quite gruelling just being a passenger! While some of the teachers were originally from the countryside, others had grown up and attended universities in Tier 1 and 2 cities, and the disparity between the two environments is monumental. I’ll talk more about this in Part 2, as well as the enduring impression it left on me.