Rural Home Visits – Long Jing Township (Henan, CHINA)
Mei Wen Team visits homes of rural student recipients of China Service Ventures scholarships
Our goal today is to make two home visit evaluations in Long Jin Township — a 60 minute bus ride north of Xinyang. It is cold outside (-4 degrees Celsius).
It is market day in Long Jin. The narrow streets are congested with activity. Freshly slaughtered goat, pork, chicken, and fish hang from hooks on cross bars erected near the both sides of the road. Vendors sell everything from clothing, tofu, vegetables, kitchen wares, and seeds and nuts. Buses, cars, taxis, mopeds, pedestrians all fight to squeeze through the bottleneck. The sound of horns blaze incessantly urging all to clear the way.
The bus driver drops us off roadside near Qi Dian village. We see only fields and a few homes. We are not sure where YANG Quan Guo (the father) actually lives. There are no road signs. A woman is nearby with her child. Jin Jing, our Mei Wen staff worker makes an inquiry. The woman knows Mr. YANG and confirms that he is the poorest man in the area. A motorcyclist stops to render aid. Turns out, he, too, knows Mr. YANG. He makes a phone call. Mr. YANG will walk to meet us roadside in about 40 minutes.
Later, we see an elderly man walking toward us on the road. He has a wiry frame, spry step, bright eyes and a quick smile. This is Mr. YANG. He invites us to his home — only 3 km (1.9 miles) away.
By the time we reach his house, walking on muddy dirt roads and field pathways, our shoes are caked with mud. His village is a small cluster of houses in the middle of a field. We hear the bleats of goats nearby, kept in a makeshift pen made of cut bamboo.
Mr. YANG’s home is made of brick. It is dilapidated. The roof line sags. The door does not shut properly, exposed crevices funnel in cold winter air.
He welcomes us into his living room — a main room (ca. 90 square feet) flanked by two adjoining, smaller bedrooms. The main room has a small bench and a cabinet, which holds a collection of aged cooking utensils, and bowls. On the cement floor sits a well-used propane burner, a wok, a rice cooker, a water kettle and two large thermos jugs — the standard faded baby blue typical of China.
Mr. YANG (age 64) offers us tea and begins to tell his story.
Single for many years, he married a women in 2004. They had a child, but the wife died a month after giving birth, leaving behind her son, YANG Gen. The past 11 years Mr. YANG has been both father and mother to his son, though he is old enough to be his grandfather.
As a farmer of wheat and rice, he supplements his income with construction work. (The villagers told us that he is the poorest in the area.)
China Service Ventures (CSV) sponsors his son, YANG Gen (age 11, grade 5) with a scholarship of 1850 RMB (290 USD) per year. The financial assistance helps to pay his son’s lunch expenses at school. The school, in partnership, waives his son’s tuition fees. The locals give him work when available.
YANG Quan Guo is thankful for the financial help. He cannot survive without it. The government built a new concrete home for him, but he has no money to furnish it or to install electricity and plumbing. It sits vacant.
Through Jin Jing, we ask him what his hobbies are. He laughs. “There is no time for hobbies, only work!”. “Although,” he mentions, “I like to walk around and look at things.”
We hike back to the main road unsure of the location of our next visit, Yan Huai village. Jin Jing thinks it is nearby. Should we walk? Once again, she makes inquiries. This draws a small crowd. They are interested as to why foreigners are on a country road, in the middle of nowhere.
We attract the attention of a young man driving a small 3-wheel truck, who stops to render assistance. He knows the location of Yan Huai village; he delivers propane to that area. He offers to take us there. It is only 10 km (6 miles) away — a long way to walk.
Mim and I climb into the bed of the truck and sit on two tanks full of propane that resemble scuba diving oxygen tanks. The ensuing bumpy ride reminds us why transporting people in the bed of pickup trips is not a good idea. I am nervous that we might tip over or fall out. Jin Jing sits over the axle on a small wooden slat the size of a 2 x 4 with four 6” legs. She has the worst of it. We are ready to lung for her in case we hit a bump and she flies over the railing.
Finally, we stop. We are in the middle of Yan Huai village, I think. There are no street signs, just dirt roads and brick homes. Again, we are lost. There is a husband and wife watching their two kids nearby. The husband knows of FENG Jin Qi and offers to fetch him. He lives nearby.
FENG Jin Qi comes quickly to greet us. It is a short walk to his home. We were close. Mr. FENG and his wife are in their 70’s. They take care of their four grandchildren. They welcome us into their home and offer snacks of sunflower seeds and peanuts.
The main living room is typical to rural homes: main room with adjacent bedrooms. On one wall is plastered achievement awards of their grandchildren, one belonging to FENG Xin Qing, a 12-year old boy in grade 6, whom China Service Ventures sponsors. The FENG’s receive 2600 RMB (406 USD) per year to help with Xin Qing’s milk, food, and book expenses at school. The money also helps to pay the 3 RMB (50 cents) roundtrip bus ticket from school to home on the weekends.
Mr. FENG and his wife had two sons. The first died of cancer, and, the second son lives in Shanghai, working a part-time job. Mr. FENG and his wife take care of their four grandchildren. I ask where are his grandchildren’s’ mothers? I am met with silence. All conversation stops and the mood in the room becomes uncomfortable. Once again, I unwittingly blunder into a sensitive topic.
Fortunately, Jin Jing knows the back story and quietly tells us in English. The sons’ wives abandoned their children, two each with the grandparents. The widowed wife remarried, but represented herself as single without children to attract a husband. The other wife left the marriage and moved back to her family to start afresh, abandoning her children.
It is near noon time, we rise to leave, but Mr. FENG insists that we stay for lunch. We realize that we made a cultural mistake and are embarrassed. To express his gratitude, his wife is busy in the kitchen preparing a feast for honored guests.
They have enough money to buy meat only once every two weeks. She serves us fish, chicken, eggs, and rice. We are eating their best. Thinking to be polite, Mim and I eat meagerly, because we feel badly to be eating this poor man’s bounty.
Jin Jing gently scolds us. It is the Chinese way. We will dishonor our host and his gift if we do not eat our fill. If we do no eat to our host’s satisfaction, he will ladle generous portions into our bowls. Mr. FENG senses our hesitation and promptly puts more food into our bowls. We make the adjustment hoping to achieve the correct balance of respect, to each enough to honor, but not too much to dishonor through greed.
We make small talk. The grandfather tells us that he and his wife are getting too old to parent and work. He is a wheat and rice farmer and works five units of land. His annual net gain is 1,000 RMB (156 USD) for his rice crop and 4,000 RMB (625 USD) for his wheat — a total of 5,000 RMB (781 USD) per year. He supplements his income with part-time construction work. He tells us that he has trouble finding work. Many potential employers considered him to be too old for manual labor. His current boss, however, knows of his situation and makes allowances to employ him.
After dinner, Jin Jing presents a small gift bag for the sponsored son: toothbrushes, toothpaste, winter gloves, pencils and pens, and a book — always a book. Jin Jing tells us that literacy is the way out of the cycle of poverty.
The grandfather offers to take us back to the main town’s crossroads. From there we will be able to catch a bus back to Xinyang. We climb into his 3-wheel truck and all sit on small wooden plank stools. The grandfather drives fast. We are a little nervous around the corners feeling the gravity pull against us. We try to counteract the force by learning into the turn to keep all the wheels in contact with the road.
At the cross-roads, we find a man with a taxi license who offers to take us into Xinyang in his van. He is off-duty today, but he sees an opportunity to make some money. On the way, he picks up additional passengers waiting for the regular bus — local free market economy at work.