Dark clouds, spring showers, it was a rainy day in early May when I returned from school. As usual, I stayed in school as long as I could, not only because there was so much home work, but more because I preferred school. I don’t know how other girls perceive their home, but ‘home’ to me is hardly a sweet and warm place to be. I don’t remember it ever has been in my sixteen years. In my home there has been full of cursing and crying, shouting and smashing of little furniture there was, and violence. I had assumed that was the norm for everyone, until when I was older and a little wiser. Once I was invited to one of my classmates’ home in town. The feeling of envy overcame me, not just towards their material abundance; her home was filled with cheer and laughter, warmth and a genuine bond, in complete contrast to mine.
It gradually occurred to me that we were poverty-stricken underclass, in more ways than one. My father had been a poor peasant and he married another poor peasant who soon became my mother. My mother was very young when she gave birth to me, no more than 18. I had no idea why she married my father, who looked old and ugly, a vile temper and no education, while my mother, in her happier days, she looked pretty. I saw one of her old photos as a young girl. People had commented that I took after her, which was a real compliment. At least she attended school briefly and able to read and write simple letters.
Our house was on a hill, in a small village, on the edge ofTongnanCounty. I don’t know who built it, and how long my family has lived there. Nobody told me. It looked ancient and shabby, freezing in winter and extremely hot in summer. It was also cramped, with my grandparents sleeping in a small wooden bed in one corner, and another bed built of mud on the other side, which used to be my parents’ before they went away, to work to support my family. Their bed had become my bed which I shared with my little brother until recently. Now I sleep on the floor, on a pile of dry hay. Not comfortable, but at least my own.
My little brother was not so little any more. He would be twelve in two months’ time, and almost as tall as me. When I tentatively complained about him kicking me at night and me falling on the floor, not for the first time, I got told off, initially by Grandma, then Grandpa. They said things I wish I didn’t have to hear. “Who do you think you are? a Princess? You want to have the bed all to yourself? You are just a stupid, stupid girl, a girl nobody wanted, not even your own parents. Now you want a bed for yourself? Do you live in fantasy land?”
Ever since I could remember, I had heard constant arguments in our house. It took little to start a fierce fight and lucky to end without physical assaults. Sometimes the fights were limited among the adults, often about money, and lack of it, usually started by either my father or mother, quickly involving either or both of my grandparents. If by chance I was around, one of them would lash out at me, as if it was entirely my fault. What for? For their inability to support the family? Or me for being born a girl? What did I do to incur their fury and be subjected to their abuse? “If you were a born a boy, we would not have to pay the fucking huge fine incurred for the birth of your brother, would we?” Father had slapped me and spat on my face. So I was to blame forChina’s ‘one child policy’ and for the consequent punishment they had to endure for failing to follow the rules. In other words, I was a mistake; not due to my father’s sperm, but my very existence.
Life is unfair? Soon and sure enough I resigned myself to accepting my fate. Nobody was going to hear my grievances. In comparison to what adults of this world had to face, mine was minimal and not worthy of breath. One day I would grow up, and I know damn sure that whatever life has in store for me, I shall get the hell out of here. I have no desire to live like my parents, or their parents before them; only God knew for how many generations. I want a different life.
Dear Dr Zeng,
I am delighted to have the opportunity to write to you and I’m very grateful that you have decided to sponsor me. I fully appreciate that you are supporting me because you want to benefit our society and to make contributions to our country. You also hope that the person you sponsor will make contributions to the society and to our country in the future, and to be a useful person. I shall definitely not let you down. I shall study hard and achieve the best results to repay you, to repay our school and our country. I am forever indebted to you.
It made me grin to see the students today still use some of those fancy words we were once taught to use, the same old patriotic, Communist ideals and ideologies. As I sat in my study and read the letter from Lili Yang, the girl whose family was too deprived to support her through high school, Sadness gripped me and made me reflective. Through the media in ever increasing frequency,China’s picture has become more and more glamorous. If you go shopping in any high street retailers in theUKor any other Western countries, you would invariably find consumer goods made inChina, from cut-price clothing to toys and electronic gadgets. Less than a decade ago, a little known Chinese truck-maker bought the prestigious British brand, the Rover. More recently,China, with its biggest foreign currency reserve in the world, was reported lending money to theUSAso the Americans can continue to indulge themselves with a huge variety of Chinese products. During the Olympic spectacular in the summer of 2008, the whole world looked up toBeijingand few failed to be impressed. In 2010, it was the Shanghai Expo, another eye-opener.
Once in a while there were reports aboutChina’s human rights record, its treatment of political dissidents, and its notorious one-child policy. Not long ago, Chinese iron-fist rule inTibetand its persecution of protesters got into the papers. When I went back to visit, I heard horrid stories of girls being abandoned, even killed by their parents, in order to have sons to carry on their family names. It was during one of my overseas conversations with my family that I had an idea – I had to do something, to help someone helpless, to make life easier for someone in need, and maybe to make myself feel more useful as a human being. It did not take me long to formulate a plan and to put it into motion.
“I’d like you to contact the Headmaster inTongnanMiddle Schoolfor me.” It was a school where my mother had taught her whole working life, and acted as a deputy head during the last twenty years or so. It was also the school where I spent five formative years and took the university entrance exams.
“What do you want me to say to the current Headmaster?” Mum asked, wondering.
“Tell him that I want the school to find a female student, preferably an orphan, someone who comes from a very poor family, motivated to study but can’t afford it. Tell him that I am going to pay for her education.”
“How are you going to do that?” My mother knew that once I had made my mind, there was no turning back.
“I am going to send money to you. I know you don’t live in Tongnan anymore. Maybe you can ask someone you trust at school to give a monthly allowance to this girl. There is no way I am going to hand money to the school, then nobody knows where it goes. I am not going to trust the officials. I want whatever financial support I provide to go to the student directly, without any interference from the bureaucratic authority.”
How often did I hear about the prevailing corruption among the different levels of Chinese officialdom? How often did I read about the disasters and heartaches caused by such shameful acts? In a country which saw phenomenal economic growth, corruption thrived, like a Siamese twin. Not a day went by without revelations of people in power abuse their position. They took money and profits which did not belong to them. They gave contracts to their relatives and friends. Closer to home, my brother had once paid out all his savings, in an attempt to get his wife a job promised by the local authority. The money was shared by a few but the job never materialised.
This morning after my Chinese lesson, I was called for a meeting with my tutor-in-charge, a friendly female Maths teacher who had been in charge of my class for a year. I knew what it was about, and wished that it was good news. It was two weeks since I submitted my ‘application’ to this Doctor Zeng who was known to be a star student of my school, and who has now ‘made it’ in a far away country. She had offered to sponsor a student to complete high school, to allow her to go to university, just as Ms Zeng did many years ago. She must be very rich, or very kind-hearted, or both, to do this.
Teacher Ma sat me down in the chair opposite to her desk, and offered me boiled water. I didn’t want any. I was too nervous and impatient to learn the outcome. I knew that the school had encouraged another girl to write to Dr Zeng and her tutor-in-charge had written a very good reference for her. I have no idea what kind of sob story she had told this potential sponsor. As far as sad tales go, we all have something to cry about. Poverty is a disease; it affects millions of people in my country. I am certainly not alone in struggling in everyday life and face the grim prospect of not able to continue my studies. What am I going to do, if my father persisted that there was absolutely no point in sending a girl to school? “What possible benefit could it be for her to continue? She’s only going to cost us more money, which we don’t have. Trust me, it’s far better if she starts to make a living and contributes to this family. Girls much younger than her are working for their keep, why can’t she? What’s so bad babysitting or cleaning toilets?” My father’s yelling rang in my ears constantly, and I had been unable to sleep properly for quite sometime.
“Lili,” Teacher Ma began at last, breaking my train of thoughts. “I have had word from Dr Zeng’s mother, and she said that her daughter had picked you. It is great news, isn’t it?” She smiled, showing her imperfect teeth.
No kidding, it’s the best news ever in my life. I feel like getting up, jumping about and shouting aloud in happiness. But I didn’t. I am not the kind of person to betray how I feel easily. Sometimes I wish I could act more like girls who show their emotions readily. I just can’t. It was barely a month ago when I sat in the same chair and cried shameful tears in front of my teacher, not repeating the stupid things that my father had said, but pleading with her: “I’m so sorry that I have not been able to pay the school fees for this year. My parents are away and have not sent any money home for a long time. My grandpa has diabetes and my grandma suffers from high blood pressure and heart disease. They can’t even afford their medication. The crops in our small land are not ripe enough to sell. I don’t know what to do. I probably have to give up my studies and find work.”
I remember Teacher Ma handing me a handkerchief while repeating that there was nothing she could do. Now by some twist of fate things have changed. I stood up, and bowed to Teacher Ma. All I managed to say was a feeble “Thank you, thank you so much”, although it was not exactly her that I should be bowing my head to. But right then, it was all I could do, to hide the rising tears in my eyes. How could Teacher Ma possibly understand what this meant to me? How could anyone?
Whatever Teacher Ma said next, they didn’t fully register. It was the usual cliché as to how much the school had their faith in me, and how much hard work I had to put into my studies, so I would not let the school and its authorities down, and so on and so forth. Fortunately no response was required and I did my best to nod enthusiastically. All I could think was the monthly stipends I was going to receive, and how that would keep me going until I finish high school. With the generous support, I would be able to afford school books, stationary, food, maybe a mattress and some new clothes. I might even buy medicine for my grandparents. Most of all, my father could no longer force me in getting a job.
Before I stood up to leave, Teacher Ma handed me a big brown envelope. “Dr Zeng has written a letter to you, together with her address and how you can keep her informed of your progress. I hope you shall not disappoint her, and damage our school’s reputation.”
Naturally, the school authorities have already opened the correspondence addressed to me and aware of its contents. I hurried out of Teacher Ma’s office and headed up to my favourite spot just outside the school compound, a hillside below an old banyan tree, where I did my revisions sometimes, especially in summer when it’s dry, sunny and shaded. Now I just wanted to be alone and savour the moment.
On returning from a hard day’s work in court, I went into my study. I don’t understand why some people have access to email then don’t use it on a regular basis. Surely it is not too much to expect a few minutes of their time once in a while, just to touch base with family and friends. Except when going on holiday, I always spent part of the day in front of my PC and signed in my hotmail at the first opportunity.
I clicked open my inbox, and several personal messages appeared, one fromChina, my Brother had sent it on behalf of my Mother.
We have received the £500 you sent to us and it’s been safely transferred into my bank account with China Construction Bank. I have been in touch with Teacher Liu in Tongnan, and she has agreed to give Lili 200 yuan every month from the pension she collects for me every month. You are right, it is a bit of trouble to Teacher Liu this way, but she did not mind it. She said to me that if you were so kind as to spend your hard-earned cash on some poor student unknown to you, it was no trouble at all for her to do something to assist. It would be her pleasure. She also said that the school was extremely grateful to your generous and charitable act.
By the way, following your instruction, I have also asked Teacher Liu to give the other student, Miss Wang, a 500 yuan one-off payment, to thank her for writing to you, and to wish her good luck in her studies.
Since then, I have regular updates from my mother and sometimes Lili. She used her school computer to sent me occasional emails. In her August 2008 message she wrote:
Dear Dr Zeng,
I have received my higher education entrance exam results and my total marks are 595, 50 marks higher than the acceptance rate for key universities. I have applied for a few medical schools and have been accepted by Chongqing Medical University. I’ll start the course in September.
Thank you again for your support in the last two years, with which I was able to concentrate on my studies and not to worry about anything else. Without your kind help, it would not be possible for me to go to university. This is a dream come true and it’s all because of you. You have changed my life and I am eternally grateful to you.
Her good news cheered me up immensely on a grey day.
Her most recent update reached me in March 2011, with a beautiful E-card with a bunch of red carnations, to wish me a happy Woman’s Day (8th of March). She has been making steady progress with her studies and is now on her third year. She is on her way to become a fully qualified doctor, One day she will save lives and making positive contributions to our society.
What more could I have asked for?!
NB: first written for an writers’ anthology back in 2008 and updated in April 2011.