March 23-April 4, 2008
Viking River Cruises Imperial Jewels of China
April 1, 2008: Day 9: Jingzhou school, crew talent show
We were up early once again to be ready for our tour to leave at 9:00 am. The ship was docked at Jingzhou, a large city of 1.56 million by our US standards, but small in comparison to many other Chinese cities. The area of the city through which we drove on our way to the Viking-sponsored school was not nearly as modern as other cities we had seen. This area had obviously not been a recipient of the relocation or modernization funds tendered by the central government.
Buildings were old and run-down, stores were tiny, with goods spilling out onto the streets. We encountered light traffic in cars and old trucks on the wide streets; most people were riding bicycles or scooters, or traveling on foot. Traffic “laws” seemed based on who had the most guts in claiming lanes or negotiating intersections.
The one attractive and well-tended place we saw was the cemetery, which had impressive walls and imposing gates in front of an 8 story stylized modern “pagoda” at its center. Other than that, we saw little to no new construction.
As we reached the edge of town, the buildings became even more ramshackle and we saw even fewer motorized vehicles. Few people were moving about at 9:30 am. The wide roads of the inner city diminished to a 2 lane concrete track with no shoulders. Piles of building rubble, chunks of old foam rubber, (perhaps from upholstered furniture, mattresses, or car seats?) plant debris, and household garbage lay about in piles everywhere.
The small fields and ponds (fish farms or rice paddies) looked well-tended and healthy, but the stores and “houses” were cobbled together from old stones, bricks, cement blocks, corrugated metal, and even cardboard. The local version of “Home Depot” had random piles of old lumber, bamboo poles, used and broken bricks lying helter skelter in front of the rusted corrugated metal “store.”
Every few blocks, we would see produce and used household goods laid out in baskets or on blankets on the ground; occasionally on tables, attended by people whose body language exuded hopelessness and despair. People stared at our bus as we passed, a few shouted with expressions of rage, and a very few waved or smiled when we waved at them. Life in this area was obviously very difficult.
On our ride, Francis explained that although the central government mandates that each child must attend school between the ages of 5 and 13, they provide very little monetary support for education. Poorer regions of the country, like this one, are often unable to provide schools for the children. Five years earlier, Viking undertook sponsorship of the elementary school we were about to visit. It was funded by the Viking corporation and by donations from travelers like ourselves. Viking has since taken on the support of another elementary school and a junior high in this area.
After about 45 minutes, on a country lane lined by small trees, our bus stopped in front of a set of concrete and ceramic-tile gates. Iin front of these gates stood a drum and bugle corps of about 35 colorfully coated girls and boys who appeared to be around 10-12 years old. As we pulled up, they enthusiastically launched into a spirited drum cadence (the girls) interspersed with loud bleats from the buglers (the boys.) The ensemble was led by a drum major beating time with her staff and scowling at those who missed the rhythm. Two of the bass drum players were obviously more interested in the foreigners than the beat, for they were often behind the other two more-focused players. The snare drum players each made up her own mind about which beat to follow, and the bugles bleated with wild abandon. Altogether, a most satisfying cacophony to welcome us to Viking River Cruise School! Each file was fronted by a pretty young girl waving clumps of artificial flowers. These kids had obviously established a routine to welcome possible benefactors.
Following our Kodak moment with the drum and bugle corps, we proceeded through the gateway into a large rectangular courtyard with cement paths lined by trees and bushes, and a large display board. There were 3 buildings, a platform, and a fenced athletic track with a broken rusting basketball hoop and a couple of other rusting “fitness stations.” One building stood 4 stories tall, constructed of white painted concrete blocks faced with white ceramic tiles on the front. The stairwell of the building had been faced with a contrasting beige tile; it featured both round and rectangular windows, and terminated in a stylized peak trimmed with red. It was reasonably attractive and seemed much more substantial than I had expected even though the facing tiles were missing in some places. This was the classroom building for grades 2-6. Opposite sat a 2 story building of smaller scale that had an attached fenced playground area with swings, slides, and climbing structures for the little children. A single story building housed restrooms for adults and students. The adult facilities were all western style and very clean. The facility seemed in much better shape than the city through which we had passed.
Lining the path as we entered the courtyard were colorful banners and the other students of the upper grades, arrayed youngest to oldest as we proceeded. The children were all smiling, waving, and caroling the Chinese word for “Welcome.” As we smiled back and tried our mangled Chinese hello (“knee Haow” is the closest I can come to a phonetic English equivalent) or an English “Hello,” they began to say “hello,” and reach out to shake an offered hand or return a “high five.” Near the end of the line, one boy and one girl both spoke to me in English, asking “How are you?” and “What is your name?” and responding appropriately when I responded and asked the same of them.
We were led out onto the track and in front of the raised platform stage. As we stood there, the little children in the primary section crowded to their playground fence and reached out to us. They stayed there watching us and the program throughout our time in that area. I am not sure whether they were kept separate lest they become disruptive or possibly because the school feared we might spirit one or more away with us under our jackets. They were just adorable!
Up on the stage, the head teacher introduced a variety of songs/dances performed by the older children. They were carefully choreographed aerobic routines performed to what was probably Chinese “pop” music. The children were well-rehearsed, well-coordinated, and polished. It was an impressive exhibition. During and after the show, the Cuban American ladies of our group passed out candy to the children, who got very excited and typically “grabby.”
We were then ushered in to upper-grade classrooms (ours was a 4th grade class) where we could observe for a bit, although we did not see a “lesson” presented. Students sat in rows of shared double desks like those we saw in the US 50-75 years ago. I counted 50 students in this class with one teacher. The teacher was not present when we entered. The children all wore their coats on this cool day. I saw no sign of a stove or central heating vents. Some students were working on their writing, copying characters into a grid in their yellow pads. Some were folding paper, (apparently origami figures, as several passengers left with elaborately folded creations), some were chatting, giggling, wiggling, moving about the crowded room. One boy, noticeably smaller that the others, sat silent, idle, and vacant-looking in the midst of the activity.
Our guide, Francis, spoke to the children in Chinese, and then they sang for us-loudly and enthusiastically-except for that one little boy, who neither moved his lips nor made eye contact. I whispered to Francis that he appeared to be “different” and asked if he had special needs. Francis replied, “Perhaps he is slow.” I asked whether slow children were educated with other children in China, and he said “Oh, yes.”
One of our fellow passengers led us as we sang several verses of “Old MacDonald.” I wish we had asked Francis to translate the lyrics for us; it would have been fun to hear the Chinese equivalents of our animal sounds. We also sang “You Are My Sunshine.” The children seemed fascinated by the sound of our voices. They sang something to the tune of “Frere Jacques,” and we sang it back to them in English and in French. They all seemed to enjoy that. During the singing, one of the Cuban American men kept passing 5 Yuan notes (less than a dollar) through the window into the classroom. The children who received them were obviously delighted and quickly tucked them away in their pencil boxes.
As we left, we filed past the display boards in the courtyard that related the history of the school, Viking’s support for it, and profiles of several students. These students had come from very poor backgrounds and had shining hopes for the future because of the education they were being given. Certainly their clothing, their hygiene, and the appearance of their school indicated they already had benefited a great deal in comparison to the community from which they came! More than one passenger choked up as they read, and the donations box was much fuller when we left. How sad it is that these children must overcome so much to receive that which our children take for granted and often view with disdain! Although this was obviously a “dog and pony show” put on for our benefit and I left with no clear picture of the educational system in China, I was grateful for the glance I was afforded.
Later, when we were home, and that awful earthquake devastated central China, I thought of this school and these children, praying that their school was safe, that they would never be victims of shoddy construction as were so many other Chinese children.
We returned to our ship for lunch, a nap, a good read, and then a foot massage. I felt most decadent and spoiled as I contemplated what I had seen that morning, but I still enjoyed it.
We went to afternoon tea and Iowa’s lecture on recent Chinese history. It helped put what we had seen into context and provided a different perspective on what we westerners had always heard about China in the last century. All the Chinese guides and staff display a great deal of pride in Mao and their country. Nationalistic fervor is well and strong here.
After dinner, we returned to the Observation Lounge for the crew talent show. I had not expected much after previous crew talent shows on the big ships, so this was quite a surprise. This was a very professional show! They presented beautifully costumed and pretty, graceful dancing young women and men performing to appealing music. They had an excellent magician who was also a National Treasure; a traditional Chinese Face Changer. This was amazing to watch. He came out in a mask that he somehow was able to change instantaneously into multiple different visages-fascinating!
This was our final night on board. We retired to our cabin to do preliminary packing because our bags had to be ready for transport by 6:30 am the next day. They would be collected and taken to the airport for our flight to Shanghai after our tour of Wuhan.