If you haven’t already, make sure you read my last blog post before starting this one; it explains the background and context to this trip, plus some great photos of the Yunnan countryside!
Arriving at the JLR Hope School in Zhaotong
After close to two hours of back-seat rodeo, negotiating rocky mountain paths and crawling through flash-flood streams, we arrived at our destination: the JLR Hope School in Zhaotong. Since the 2014 earthquake the region has received funding for improved infrastructure but the Hope School was so deep in the mountains that the final leg of our route there was more off-road than on!
The team of photographers who documented our weekend used a drone to capture the stunning surroundings of the school and the photo below is one of my favourites; Zhaotong is largely agricultural (tobacco is one of the main crops), and the stepped fields transform the landscape into a work of art. The large building in the bottom centre is the school.
Breaking the Ice
Our team-building event took place on a Sunday and the grounds were deserted. The headmaster and the volunteer teachers came out into the rain to greet us, then ushered us into one of the classrooms where they had prepared hot tea and set up some electric heaters (it was a cold, wet day, and there was no central heating).
Prior to our visit I’d helped the mentors and mentees to exchange contact details so they could introduce themselves by phone or WeChat (China’s main social media platform), but this was their first chance to meet in person. To help ease any initial nervousness we had arranged a series of games designed to raise the collective energy, build trust and – importantly – have some fun together. It was great to watch everyone participate so enthusiastically (even those who may ordinarily be a bit shy!).
With the ice broken, we split the mentor-mentee pairs into two teams who then competed against each other in a series of interactive challenges. The stakes were high, as the winning team would receive the best ingredients from which to make their lunch! Over the next few hours they solved problems, hunted for treasure, configured rollercoasters from chopsticks and finally, once the challenge was complete and the ingredients had been won, the two teams threw themselves into the final test – to work together as one team to prepare and cook their meal, from scratch.
The Hope School has a small kitchen where meals are prepared each day for the children and staff. The teachers often pitch in to help the cooks at mealtimes and so are familiar with the recipes and they taught the JLR mentors how to make the local dishes (an insight into their daily life). I’m sure the significance of this activity wasn’t lost on the mentors; we have hundreds of restaurants on our doorstep and the most difficult part of our lunchtime is deciding whether to have sushi, sashimi or grilled salmon. Here, if you don’t gut the fish and scale the fish, you don’t eat the fish.
As you can see from the photo, they all pulled together and succeeded in creating a delicious and well-deserved feast.
Teacher’s Day Ceremony
The following day we returned to the school again. We had planned our visit to coincide with China’s National Teachers Day (Monday 10 September, 2017) and watched as the children lined up in rows in the yard and sang a song to give thanks to their teachers. Teaching is a historically respected vocation in China dating back to Confucious; however, during the Cultural Revolution the pursuit of intellectual growth was repressed and teaching condemned. Teachers’ Day was established and awarded national status in 1985 as a government-led effort to reestablish the status and dignity of the profession, and is an important date in the academic calendar. A few children wearing bright red sashes raised the Chinese national flag of the same colour, and later we presented the mentors with a certificate to recognise and celebrate the commitment they had made to the teachers.
Teacher for a day
Prior to the team-building trip we had tasked our mentors to collaborate with their mentee to design a lesson which they would co-deliver to the Hope School students. They were given free reign on the subject matter, and the lessons ranged from English language to martial arts; this was another great way to give the JLR colleagues a glimpse into the daily life of the graduate teachers.
The photos below were taken during the lessons which our JLR mentors facilitated.
The First Foreigner
During the break-time we had an opportunity to meet the students and play games together. My colleagues told me that I was likely to be the first foreigner that the children had ever met, which was clear from their reaction; they were nervous at first, running up to me in a group and pushing each other forward in my direction before running away squealing and laughing! But it only took one kid to take hold of my hand and after that I was mobbed for the rest of the day…
The Hope School
While the children and mentors were in class I explored the school grounds, which include the main school building, a separate ‘outhouse’ toilet block, the kitchen, the students’ and teachers’ dormitories and the playground, where a new dormitory wing is under construction. Students who live fairly locally can walk to and from the school each day; however, many live further away and they reside at the school full-time during the week.
I wrote previously about the devastating 2014 earthquake; the insult to injury here was that this part of China was already incredibly poor; in 2015 the average disposable income in Zhaotong was only 540 yuan (61 GBP) per month and more than a quarter of inhabitants fell below the poverty line. One consequence of this is that many young people migrate to Southen or Eastern Chinese cities in the hope of finding better paid work, leaving their children to be raised by grandparents or relatives. There are 176 of these so-called “left-behind children” and the Zhaotong Hope School, who see their parents once or twice each year. A recent JLR China crowd-funding initiative has helped to buy telephone watches for each of these children so they can more easily call their parents, and help them to maintain their relationships despite the distance.
The dormitory building was life-changing for many children, enabling them to more regularly attend school (I was told stories of some children who would walk for 3 or four hours across the mountain each morning and evening before the dormitory was built). However, keeping the children in school over the long-term is an additional hurdle; as their families often need them to support with the farming and so pull them out of school early.
As we made to leave the school on our final day I was suddenly seized by a clamour of tiny hands and dragged into a classroom, the children chanting a chorus of “teacher please don’t leave us!”. I’ve never been particularly child-savvy and was completely helpless – they were surprisingly strong!. Luckily one of my colleagues came to the rescue and negotiated my release – on the condition that I sing a song. Mind racing (what do you sing to small Chinese children who maybe know a couple of words of English!) I settled on “heads, shoulders knees and toes”, and got them all to join in, which seemed to go down a treat (phew!). It was a sweet and funny end to the visit.
A lasting impression
This wasn’t my first time in Yunnan – Matt and I spent a weeks’ holiday there in 2016 – but this was my first glimpse of life deep in the countryside, far from the tourist-friendly cities of DaLi and LiJiang. As we made our way back to Shanghai I reflected on the significance of schooling and education in China. Even the most basic education – being able to read and write – can make a monumental difference in a persons relative prosperity and quality of life; the more highly educated the person, the better their chance of boarding the economic juggernaut of modern China and accessing the boundless opportunities available in the big thriving cities.
The Chinese education system is notoriously grueling (google ‘GaoKao’ to get some idea of this), and if you’re not from a privileged background then it takes an admirable amount of grit and application to get a university degree – your golden ticket to a well paid job in a blue chip company. Through conversations with Chinese friends and colleagues we’ve learned that the norm is, having emerged successfully but battle weary from the educational gauntlet, you find yourself at the bottom of a huge ladder (the career ladder), ideally with a respectable company/job. You then need to gather your wits and get climbing as far and as fast as you can to reach your goal of achieving level X by age Y. This makes it all the more remarkable to me that the volunteer teachers have chosen to take an atypical path, to do something decidedly altruistic at just the time when society dictates that they should be climbing that ladder the fastest.
The two days I spent at the Hope School were a great experience for me. For the teachers it will surely be an incredible character-building step, and a powerful foundation for their future careers. The 28-year old headmaster was testament to this; he has a huge amount of responsibility to deal with for someone so young, and moved me with his genuine humility and resilience.
While driving through Zhaotong we witnessed highways being built which will eventually traverse the mountainous prefectures and connect traditionally remote areas (such as Qiaojia 巧家县, where our hotel was located) with cities such as Kunming. This will bring new economic opportunities to the region, but any entrance is also an exit which may entice more people away from these remote regions. It will be interesting to see how the tourism industry develops here over the coming years – the natural beauty of the area is immense – and what impact this will have on the local life. In the meantime I look forward to supporting the JLR-Hope School Dream Mentor programme, and I hope this brings lasting rewards for both mentors and mentees.