Joye and Hank Explore China travel blog

Elementary students give us a grand welcome to their school in the...

Actually, the special ones are the kids. Here, they were anxious to...

And they are just like kids all around the world. There's always...

The kids treated us to a traditional Chinese performance.

Nothing like unlimited energy and enthusiasm.

"Bend and stretch, reach for the sky. Stand on tippy toes way...

The "Percussion Corp" was out in full force too.

Here is the student Master of Ceremonies. He's fluent in English and...

English is drilled every day. Oh, guess you noticed - no electronic...

This young fella did his absolute best to coach me in Chinese...

We paired up with the students for a little Chinese lesson. That's...

Hey, here are my three guys. Did we ever have fun.

A broken down, fully loaded truck of cabbage blocks the road and...

Uh, you think we could get our coach movin' pretty soon. This...

Jingzhou is an ancient city of 800,000. But the Chinese economic miracle...

Parts of Jingzhou are modern and very nicely maintained. The labor involved...

The donkey is saying "If you guys ever get anything figured out,...

Every means of transport imaginable is used to move goods. How this...

Just as in every Chinese city, traffic in Jingzhou is heavy and...

The Viking Emerald welcomes us back. Uh that bridge thingy is secure...

Overnight, our ship had sailed to our next docking port – the city of Jingzhou. In Chinese terms, Jingzhou is seen as a small city since it has a population of “only” 800,000. And, as with many Chinese cities, its roots go way back – like over 4000 years. It was founded during the Xia Dynasty which held power from 2205 – 1776 BCE. During that time and for awhile after that, Jingzhou was the capital of Jing, one of the nine regions into which China was divided at that time. So, it was a place of no small amount of power. Today, Jingzhou is a rather non descript town with its economy driven by light industry and cotton mills.

But, Jingzhou was not our destination today. Rather, we were off for something of a unique visit - to an elementary school in a rural area about forty minutes from Jingzhou. An elementary school??, you say. Well, let us tell you a little bit about it. The school is located in the village of Guanyindang and is known as the Guanyindang Central Primary School.

Like most areas of rural China, Guanyindang has not seen many of the benefits of China’s Economic juggernaut. It is a rather poor area, dependent on agriculture. You don’t see the high tech wizardry of modern Western agribusiness here. It is basic old school labor intensive farming. You can still see some plowing done using a team of oxen. And, you do see some old style John Deere green and yellow tractors.

Wow – what a memory that brings back (the tractor, not the oxen). As a very young kid, I remember sitting on my grandfather’s knee as he let me steer the same type of green and yellow John Deere as we plowed his cotton fields outside of Princeton, Texas. My grandfather let me feel like I was really doing all the plowing of that field. His clear eye and steady hand were really running the show. But he made this young tyke feel like I was on top of the world.

Maybe a few of you remember what the nickname was for those ol’ green and yellow John Deere tractors – they were called “Johnny Poppers.”

Okay, thanks for tolerating my trip down memory lane. Let’s get back to real time and the elementary school. It covers grades 1 – 6 and has an enrollment of around 800. The interesting thing is that our cruise tour company, Viking, has launched a project to support this school. Viking is providing significant financial support to the school that will upgrade the school by renovating the facility and providing modern teaching equipment. Obviously this will be a great thing for this impoverished school.

Of course, one must also point out that this is a good P.R. move for Viking with the Chinese government. And, it enables Viking to give its cruise passengers another tour experience. But let’s put the taste of skepticism aside. This undertaking by Viking will help these kids. And that’s what it’s all about. So, hats off to Viking.

On our coach ride to the school, some of us got to talking with our main guide, Shan shan, about the Chinese approach to education. From the outside it appears to us Westerners that the Chinese government has been pushing hard to churn out a bunch of college degrees in math, engineering, and science. Shan shan confirmed that’s the case. She said it is certainly true that there is a strong emphasis – make that very strong – on education. Here is the picture she painted of her and her friends growing up years.

It is not universally true, but most Chinese parents put education at the forefront of their children’s lives. So much so that this emphasis comes at the exclusion of much else. Shan shan said that the normal school day is just the beginning. Her parents made sure she spent extra time in classes after the end of the school day. And Saturdays? – Yep, parents put their kids into more classes. They could either be further studying in math, science, and engineering or broadening classes like music or art. Regardless, the kids’ time is dominated by education – class after class, after class.

We asked “How ‘bout socialization like sleepovers with friends on the weekend? She said “Few and far between”. Proms? “Ha!, are you kidding.” Boy friends? “Little time for that.” What comes across is that it is a grind. Shan shan said what all this emphasis points toward is the national tests. These are the “be all, end all” for the students. These tests determine whether a student gets into a university or a vocational school or goes to work after high school. The students are under a lot of pressure to perform.

Thing of it is, as Shan shan explained, a lot of the instruction is based on rote learning. Learn the facts and be able to repeat them on tests. There is a lack of emphasis on developing analytical ability or creative thinking. In some quarters of China there is concern over whether the Chinese educational approach is producing the type of professionals who will be able to provide the innovative thinking required to continue moving China forward as an economic power.

We think another issue just as important is whether upcoming generations of Chinese youth will continue to submit to the heavy emphasis (some would say overbearing emphasis) on learning to the exclusion of other important components of just growing up. A case can be made that while the emphasis on learning is very beneficial, in and of itself, this emphasis is coming at the expense of the development of social skills and other attributes that are essential to the development of well-rounded members of society.

Time will tell how all this plays out. It’s certainly going to be interesting to watch, to say the least.

With that, we arrived at the Guanyindang Central Primary School. Right off the bat you see that this is in no way a toney, upscale school. It is a basic rural countryside school. No tennis courts, no teachers’ lounge, no auditorium, no cafeteria. There was sort of a soccer field and a basketball goal set up on a small blacktop. But playground equipment was almost nonexistent.

However, the grounds and the classrooms were maintained as well as possible and it was obvious the principal and the teachers took pride in their school.

And then there’s the reason this school exists – the kids. Ah, the kids. We got off our coach and walked through a small archway that opened onto the “campus” grounds. On either side of this little path, school children were lined up with drums, tambourines, and flutes to welcome us to their school. We were surrounded by bright-faced energetic kids who wanted to practice the few words of English they knew on us Westerners. Their welcome was warm and genuine.

The kids led us over to an open area that surrounded on three sides an open-air stage. Here we saw the kids, ranging in age from 6 – 12, put on a performances of several traditional Chinese dances. They were having a ball showing off their dancing ability that was mixed with a little self conscious giggling, spurred I’m sure by performing for all these Westerners. And we were having just as much fun watching them.

Their actually was an M.C. for the show. He was one of the older kids and fluent in English. And, believe me, this kid was a showman. He would go off on a rif as he introduced each of the acts. He was really something. Think Billy Crystal hosting the Oscars. This young guy is goin’ places.

After the performances we got to participate in something even more special. We split off into smaller groups and went into the classrooms. Our group entered a classroom full of 3rd graders – about 35 of them. Again, no frills. Concrete floor. Very basic desks. A chalkboard. But all that was offset by the energy and engaging personality of the kids.

Each of us paired up with the kids. I landed with three boys and one of them invited me to sit at his desk and they all crowded around. These young fellas are not very proficient in English (yet) and you know my knowledge of Mandarin is nonexistent. But you know what – we managed to communicate. They had a piece of paper that had several Chinese phrases and their English translation. My kids “told” me that my assignment was to pronounce the Chinese phrases.

Hmm, well, okay let’s see here. I gave it a go, but looking at the faces of my three new friends, my Texas twang was doing some serious damage to pronunciation of the Chinese language. Finally, one of the boys grabbed my face in his hands and molded my mouth so that some noise came out roughly approximating the correct sound. Hey, not bad. I think I need to take this young fella with me for the rest of our trip.

Then I got to turn the tables and lead them through pronouncing some sentences written in English. Ha, got ‘cha now, boys! Payback time. Well, as it turned out, actually not so much. They did pretty darn well. Rats, foiled again.

Well, we had a few minutes left so the boys decided we would play a little game. This had nothing to do with their curriculum and maybe you remember this from when you were a kid (Think way, way back now.). This is strictly play and I don’t know that it has a real name. But see if this jogs your memory: I put out my palms face up and one of the boys put his palms on top of mine. The object is for him to take away one of his hands quicker than I can slap it. Remember playing that as a kid? I do.

We had a lot of fun playing this; the boys seemed to really get a kick out of trying to best this old Westerner. But, hey, my ol’ reflexes held up reasonably well. I don’t think I damaged the reputation of the United States – well not much anyway.

This little activity couldn’t be characterized as a learning experience that will help these boys get into a prestigious Chinese university. But we really had a lot of fun. Much laughter all around. And that’s pretty important too.

Now the time had come for us to leave. That was hard. In the relatively short time we had at the school, we had really formed a bond with these kids. It was hard to say good-bye. It is clear that these kids are eager to learn. With Viking providing funds to upgrade the facilities and provide modern learning materials and equipment, hopefully the kids will soon have a positive learning environment so they can achieve their dreams. Best of luck to them all – teachers and students alike.

Back on the coach and we were on our way back through the countryside and to our ship. But, whoops, we ran into a little slowdown; a traffic jam, of sorts. On a narrow country road, we came upon this 1940’s style truck full of cabbage that had broken down. So we came to a stop. As we looked out our window to our right, we saw what can best be described as a rural Chinese version of a convenience store. But the real deal was what was laying in this small open field next to the store – it was a very large water buffalo; just laying there as pretty as you please.

Of course we wanted to hop right off the coach and get up close to take pictures. Shan shan put a big kibosh on that. She said that water buffalo are very territorial and they can move pretty fast when they get riled up. So, taking pictures is okay – but from the safety of inside the coach. As a matter of fact, as I looked more closely at the water buffalo, I swear the expression on his face seemed to say “You feelin’ lucky punk? So, we named him Dirty Harry..

We got back on the ship in mid-afternoon and soon after, many of us headed off to the main lounge to hear a lecture by our program director, Mathew, titled “China Today.” Will this be just a happy talk travelogue, or actually provide us with actual information. We’ll see.

Well, it turned out to be pretty interesting, so here’s a brief synopsis for your reading pleasure. And, remember, this did not come from us, but rather our Chinese Program Director

Mathew began by going back to 1958 and talked about Mao’s ambitious initiative that became known as the Great Leap Forward. Mathew was pretty straight-forward in plainly stating that this Great Leap Forward actually showed Mao’s arrogance in trying to demonstrate the superiority of Communism. His, very unrealistic, stated goal was to speed up the Chinese production of iron and steel to be on par with Western Europe and the U.S. in five years.

This proved to be disastrous. At the time, China was predominately an agrarian economy; most Chinese were farmers. But the people were pushed to meet the goal of the Great Leap Forward. The people reduced their farming and tried to help produce iron and steel. It got to where the Chinese were melting their cooking pots to provide material for the production of steel.

Mathew put it bluntly when he said that this whole idea was “silly” – but with terrible consequences. Since the Chinese greatly cut back on farming to pursue the “Great Leader’s” Leap Forward, crop production declined dramatically. Hundreds of thousands – or more – died.

Mao’s next big adventure - the Cultural Revolution, that ran from 1966 – 1976. Actually, the Cultural Revolution was, at least in part, a cover for Mao’s true purpose. By the mid 1960’s, some in China’s leadership believed China needed to modernize and open up more to the West. To Mao, this betrayed the revolution and more importantly, he saw this as a challenge to his power.

So, he decided to purge his political rivals. He decided to do this by instigating a nationwide campaign against intellectuals and professionals. In a series of speeches, Mao railed against these elitists, saying they were working against the revolution and the people. He succeeded in whipping up the masses against the intellectuals. It got real ugly, real fast. Led by university students, much private property was destroyed in the name of revolutionary purity. Mao held forth with his famous (infamous?) “Little Red Book” saying all property belonged collectively to the people. Anyone deemed to be an intellectual was at risk. By “Intellectual” we mean anyone who had any kind of credentials – engineers, administrators, professors, certain government officials; really anyone who wasn’t a student, laborer, or peasant – and anyone who did not completely follow the Maoist line.

It became a common occurrence for intellectuals to be dragged from their homes, beaten and then paraded through the streets with a dunce cap on their heads. Many were sent to the countryside to be “re-educated.” Many died. It was not a good time to be a thinking person in China.

One of those who was paraded through the streets with a dunce cap was one who became a primary figure in reopening China to the world and pushing its economic resurgence – Deng Xiaoping. He ended the disastrous Cultural Revolution and, beginning in 1978, implemented changes in China’s economic system that set China on the road to becoming the economic juggernaut it is today. On the other hand, he wasn’t a big proponent of political freedom. After all, he was Premier in 1989 when the government sent in the army to crack down on the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square (some say the word to use is massacred.)

The sustained strong economic growth China has experienced is well documented. It has brought many significant benefits to China and its people. But it has brought significant problems and challenges as well. Here are a few quick hits of both as presented by Mathew.

• Connectivity, facilitated by the growth of the Internet, has exploded. There are over 600 million Chinese who regularly use the Internet. The downside has been the involvement of the Chinese government in Internet access. When government officials don’t like something coming across the Internet, they shut down the access; simple as that. And that extends to other media as well – television, radio, print.

• There is more freedom of speech now, but you can get into a lot of trouble by being “disrespectful” of the Premier or the government in general.

• The opening up and economic growth of China have brought an increased standard of living of many. But it has also brought an upsurge in things we Westerners are all too familiar with – unemployment, crime, drugs, and corruption.

• It may be hard for us to believe, but private ownership of automobiles didn’t happen until 1994. Now, there are 40 million private vehicles across China with over 5 million in Beijing alone. As you might imagine, the large cities now have the “pleasant” experience we are oh so familiar with in the States – traffic jams. “Wow honey, this is just like being on I95 in D.C. or 635 in Dallas!” Oh, joy.

• Over the past 15 years, China has become a large market for luxury items. This is a direct result of China’s economic engine. It has put more money in the hands of more Chinese. And, just like us, they want the latest cool thing – in electronics, fashion, cars, you name it. And to acquire all this stuff, they are taking on…. what else….. an inordinate amount of debt. Doesn’t this sound soooo familiar. The flip side, of the coin is that there is concern that the Chinese people, especially the young professionals, are becoming too materialistic and abandoning Chinese traditions. But, hey, a little capitalism is good for the soul right? But maybe, with too much capitalism, there is no soul. Wow, this is starting to get too existential for me, so let’s hurry right along.

• Get this. It wasn’t until 2009 (that’s only two years ago folks) that the Chinese government eased restrictions and allowed more of its citizens to take leisure travel to the U.S. and Taiwan. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chinese officials had to swallow hard to allow leisure travel to its archenemy, Taiwan. Of course, about the time China was easing travel restrictions to the U.S. for its citizens, we were tightening entry requirements for leisure travel by foreigners to the States. So for the Chinese people, it’s one step forward and one step back.

• With the large influx of Chinese (mainly young) into the cities from the rural areas, there has been a large spike in demand for housing. But, also there is a lot of speculation and house flipping going on in the real estate market. As a result, housing prices are soaring across all the major cities. Waking up late to the problem, the Chinese government has decreed that potential buyers must put down, up front, 30% of the sale price or, get this, 60% if it’s a second home. Clearly, China is potentially sitting on top of a real housing bubble.

• The Chinese stock market has been hot for a long time and regular Chinese folks have been pouring their money into it. They seemed to feel it was a sure bet. But there is rising sentiment among some of the people that the market is rigged by the government. Whether this is true is open to question, but it is the perception.

• Labor costs are going up as workers push for their piece of the “good life.” As a result, China is beginning to see some early signs that it may be starting to lose its big advantage as a low cost country for doing business. Countries like Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia are nipping at their heels. Already, some multi-national companies are moving their factories from China’s major or coastal cities to the inland cities and towns where labor is cheaper.

• With wages rising, the Chinese people pursuing more and more consumer goods, and with continued economic growth in China – guess what? Inflation is on the rise. In March, compared to a year earlier, annual inflation is running at 5%.

• Corruption is either on the rise or being prosecuted more than in the past. And the Chinese government doesn’t mess around. Last year the government executed sixteen government officials for corruption. The mayors of Beijing and Shanghai were arrested and jailed. I wouldn’t recommend taking home that box of paper clips in the office supply cabinet.

• Unemployment is on the rise. Each year, six million new college grads hit the labor market. China is starting to struggle to provide enough professional level jobs for them. The official unemployment rate published by the government is 4%, which is pretty good. But most think that ain’t so...Their “guesstimate” is the rate is double that or more. Again, whether that higher figure is accurate is unknown, but that’s sure the perception on the street.

• With the booming industrial economy, the country’s demographics have changed over the past thirty years. In 1978, 80% of the people lived in rural areas and just 20% in the cities. Now it’s 50-50. It is getting more and more difficult to make a living in the rural areas. So people, especially the young, continue to migrate to the cities.

• China is starting to see the development of a middle class – with money to spend. But there is still a growing gap between those at the high end of the economic scale and those at the bottom

• And, finally, China’s One Child Policy. It’s been in force since 1977 and is still going strong. It was put in place by the government to try to slow the growth of the population. And, whether we agree with it or not, it has produced results. Or rather maybe a more apt way to put it is that the policy has “not produced.” The government estimates that, because of the policy, 400 million births have been avoided. But an unintended consequence of parents only having one child is this – these children tend to be very spoiled, selfish, and they overspend. As a group, their social skills are lacking and they are not very independent.

Well there you have it. Whew, that turned out to be more than I intended as a “brief synopsis” of the lecture. I hope I have not turned this into China 101 and bored you to death. But we found this to be a very balanced picture of China. Mathew did a very good job. It was refreshing to hear a presentation from a Chinese perspective (with only a little wordsmithing and comments from me) that both touted all real the accomplishments of China in the past thirty years and also painted a realistic picture of some of the problems associated with all this rapid economic growth. Kind of a “life at street level” view, if you will.

After the lecture, we hung around the lounge and others joined because we were going to get info regarding our disembarkation from the ship. This is just all the pedestrian stuff – like when we need to set our luggage out; how to settle up outstanding charges – all that kind of thing. Yep, hard to believe. This is our last night on board ship.

So, after that we all headed off to the dining room for the Captain’s Farewell Toast and Farewell Dinner. It was just a little strange because normally these “Farewells” are held on the final night of the trip. The next day we are all scattering to the wind. But this time we will be leaving the ship and the Yangtze River, but heading on to other destinations. Weird – but alright, there’s more adventures to come!

At dinner we sat with, among others, Bob and Susan from Ontario, Canada. This was neat because it was their 38th wedding anniversary. And Susan had arranged with the staff to have a couple of bottles of champagne along with their favorite cake brought to the table. This came as a total surprise to Bob and we managed to get a pretty good shot of it. (That’s shot as in “picture.” Not shots of champagne. Well, that too.) Congrats to them.

DRINK OF THE DAY: Yangtze Dream (Tequila, Amaretto, cranberry juice, orange juice, lime juice, cream).

Nice bite goin’ down. 3.5 stars.

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