- Parkin Fellows
I arrived on campus of Fule Middle School right as the bell rang, and all 5,000 of the students dressed in different T-shirts came quietly running out of their respective buildings to arrive on the track. It was 10 a.m., just before the midday heat kicked in, and the children were dismissed from their second period class to complete their morning exercises. My host father, Mr. Tian, told me the day before that there were only two grades on this campus, the Chinese equivalent of our seventh and eighth grades. In just five minutes, the students were arranged by their classes, each class wearing a different T-shirt. Somehow by a strange mathematical miracle, all of the students managed to fit on the track in perfectly neat rows.
As the morning exercises concluded, the students walked back to their classroom, but when they passed me, I received some strange looks. Some grabbed their friends and whispered in their ears, while others looked stunned, and some acted as if I didn’t exist. I didn’t quite understand why until my host mother explained that there are very few Caucasian people in Mianyang. She also revealed that there was a general fear for foreigners. I never realized this sentiment in any of my previous trips to China, but Mianyang was a significantly smaller city than I was used to.
That same day, I talked to the teacher, Mr. Yang, to arrange my work for the next few weeks. Despite our communication via email and WeChat over the past several months, he still seemed very apprehensive about whether he still wanted me to act as a teaching assistant. As he introduced me to the school’s xiaozhang (headmaster), his hesitance grew. I was familiar with Mandarin, but due to the regional dialect, I could not understand what they were saying, but I could tell from their body language that they were intimidated and uncomfortable around me. The Chinese language is very rank dependent, so when the teacher asked me questions, he spoke using a completely different vocabulary than he did with the xiaozhang, making the conversation significantly harder to follow.
Though everyone was anxious of my presence at Fule, the sentiment soon passed. Throughout my first school days, I tried to experience the lives of the students. I took classes with them, ate with them, ran alongside them, and did almost everything I could with the students of Mr. Yang’s class, yet xinku is the only word I can use to describe the life of the Chinese students at Fule Middle School. There isn’t an exact English equivalent to the word, but roughly translated, xinku means “arduous." A typical Fule school day began at 7 a.m., before breakfast. After first period, all 5,000 students would walk across campus to cram into the dining hall for breakfast and somehow walk back to class, all in less than 25 minutes. Another major part of the day is the aforementioned morning exercises. Every day the students would run a half-mile around the track, do push ups, squats, and other physical exercises. In addition to these morning exercises, they also had PE classes. While most students despised it, I found it to be the most enjoyable part of the day. For the rest of the day, we were confined to a single room, only leaving for lunch and dinner. Unfortunately, there was no air conditioning for a room of 74 adolescent 14-year-olds. Midwestern China’s sweltering heat was already difficult to bear, and classes ending at 9:40 p.m. didn’t help much either. Most students stayed up studying until 10:00 p.m. when they had to be asleep for curfew. I was both mentally and physically exhausted in my 5 days of living the student life, and I didn’t even have to complete any homework or take tests!
After finally working out the details of my position as a teaching assistant, I was allowed to sleep in until Mr. Yang’s first English class of the day. I sat in class and answered questions Mr. Yang and the students had, but my main job was more of an advisor. Monday through Thursday nights, I did room checks at 10:00 p.m. to make sure all the students were in bed. There, I learned about the housing conditions. There were about 16 students in each dorm room and only one toilet, one shower and three sinks. Due to their limited time, the girls would take turns skipping meals just to shower. The situation shocked me, but when I brought it up to authority figures, I realized it was hopeless. After a week of the students protesting during the previous school year for the horrid living conditions, the school administration only added air conditioning. Commodities that I felt were necessities (toilet paper, daily showers, bathroom stall doors, etc.) were denied to these children. When I asked them about it, they claimed it was just an inconvenience because they knew they were getting a great education.
The values of education were drastically different in China. Everyone’s grades and ranks were publicly posted at the end of every week. The parents would also receive a copy of the rankings and gossip amongst themselves. Although they firmly believe they were getting a good education, I believe the American system is much better. The school day lasted 15 hours, but most of the students’ attention spans only lasted for about four classes. There were stellar students who did stay in focus for all the classes, but when I talked to them, they had almost no direction in their life. During room checks one day, I asked the students what their ideal career would be. I expected almost each and every one to have a strong or at the very least salient job in mind because they seemed so driven during the school day, but most of them told me they had no idea what they wanted to do. When I received that answer I asked them what they were interested in. Almost all of them replied by saying they have no time for interests outside of school. A majority of them could not even choose a favorite class because they felt as though they had to try the hardest in each class to achieve good grades and putting a little bit more effort into their favorite class would be detrimental to their other classes. The students at Fule were more concerned with their own academic rank than they were with their personal interests and their futures.
During the first few days, the students were quite scared and hesitant to approach me, but they eventually warmed up to me, talking and asking questions about American culture. Due to the current trade war between China and America, there were some varied opinions on my presence at the school, but some of my students ended up becoming my close friends. Every night I would go to the dormitories with candy and just talk with the students. The other teachers would yell at their students and tell them to sleep, but after the harsh 15 hours of school, I sympathized with them. I received extremely interesting questions on race, education, and politics at night and tried to promote the American education system and encourage them to come to America to study and escape the inhumane conditions of the school. Most of them claimed that they loved China and the Chinese K-12 education system was better; however, they did believe that American colleges provide a better education and more job opportunities, so before I even mentioned American colleges, they assured me that they were looking to study abroad for college.
As I sat through the long school days in Fule Middle School, I was thankful for everything I had at Shady Side Academy. Though Fule Middle School is one of the best middle schools in the province of Sichuan, the living conditions were incomparable to the luxuries of Shady Side and the American school system.