Friday, October 26, 2012

Still Able to Dream in Guangxi: Studying at School and Working at the Factory

Before moving on to other posts about the conditions at college dormitories in China, I want to provide a sense of the life of students who attended the school in the previous example, the Longzhou campus of the Guangxi Normal University for Nationalities.

When I visited the school in the spring of 2010, I met Connie Wieck, an American woman who was teaching English there and had previously taught English in Luzhou, Sichuan province. In a blog post she wrote about a month later she shared some of her students' stories:
Almost all of my students are from remote farming regions here in Guangxi. And almost all of their parents are farmers.

Farmers account for 70% of the population in China. An estimated 700 million rural farmers provide 60% of the food for the country with their average income being $300 to $450 a year. Those considered at the extreme poverty level make less than $120 a year.

But among my students, I learned that many of their families have no income at all. They live off the land with few appliances to help them in their daily rituals. Home-grown peanuts are pressed into peanut oil for cooking. Vegetables grown year-round become the staple for meals. Raised pigs and chickens are their protein supply. Washing clothes by hand in nearby streams and rivers are a daily chore.
I have been to a number of these regions in Guangxi and have seen what Connie describes. It can be hard to believe these places are in the same country in which can be found cities such as Shanghai or Beijing.

Curious about how her students could meet their costs while in school, during a conversation with several female students Connie discovered that some of them work at factories when school is not in session:
I asked about the conditions of the factories they worked at.

Basic non-climate controled dorm rooms for 8 (bunkbeds, a toilet, a sink) are provided for workers but purchasing food is their own responsibility. They can either go to the factory cafeteria or outside.

Roommates are iffy. If you don’t know them, best to carry all your money and valuables with you or expect your things to be stolen...

Their pay ranged from 1,200 yuan to 2,000 yuan ($190 – $280) for 6 weeks of work. Hardly enough to cover the $800-plus our school requires.

In one case, the girl said she quit due to exhaustion after 5 days standing 12 hours straight at the assembly lines. Her pay? Nothing. Workers are paid by the month, not the week, so if you don’t stick it out those 30 days, you’re out of luck.
When I met Connie, she struck me as positive but aware of the realities for many in a region such as Guangxi. Combined with what I know from my own explorations, I was not at all surprised to read this:
I asked about their hopes for the future, after college.

Since these students are the first in their family to get a higher education, they’ll most likely be the main breadwinners after they finish school to help repay what was spent on their education. It’s a big burden, especially since finding job is so difficult.

In this area of the country especially, white-collar work is hard to come by. Guangxi is a poor province and city jobs are for university graduates, many who have connections. Those that come to these small vocational schools in remote areas don’t stand much of a chance to succeed in China. Despite having an education, they might still be stuck returning to factory work to help out their families.

But at least for now, they can enjoy an environment of learning and holding onto their future dreams.
I have asked many youth in China about their own hopes for the future and helping parents who living in difficult conditions is a common answer. I will later share a story of someone I met in Guangxi with a similar story, except she didn't even have the opportunity to complete her education and saw only one way she might be able to achieve this dream.

I recommend reading Connie Wieck's full post where she provides more details about the challenges faced by her students and their families. And although it may not be obvious to people in places such as the U.S. how these students perceive their own situation, a topic I will discuss later, I think Connie's final thoughts in her post are well worth considering. I don't want to fully reveal them, so again I recommend reading "American College Kids Don’t Know How Lucky They Are".

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