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Home Our Missions Mission of Charity Hopen in the Karst Hills

Hopen in the Karst Hills

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Hopen in the Karst Hills
The few who have escaped
A reunion
Working so hard for so little
Help from the outside world
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There is literally not enough dirt to go around. Not by a long shot. The rocky, karst-dominated landscape in Pingyan Township is breathtaking to behold, but it is also a curse for the residents there whose livelihood depends on their land--the soil, not the rocks.

Leaving their children behind at home to fend for themselves, parents go out of town to work, as jobs are scarce in Pingyan. Teachers trudge up and down the hills to round up wandering children who have skipped or dropped out of school. Then they scramble to secure financial aid to put the children back in school. The parents and teachers just hope that the children might have a chance of getting an education--their best shot to escape hardship and poverty.

Limestone features prominently in a karst landscape, leaving little soil on the ground. Unfortunately, limestone is totally useless for agriculture and produces nothing to sustain human life. Furthermore, it is tricky to farm the precious little soil that remains on the surface. Farming in karst areas must take into account the lack of surface water. The soil may be fertile enough, and rainfall may be adequate, but rainwater quickly drains through crevices into the ground, sometimes leaving the surface soil parched between rains. Imagine trying to keep water in a bowl that has cracks and fissures at its bottom.

Guizhou Province in southwest China has the highest concentration of karst formations in the country. This has made the province one of the poorest in the nation. Pingyan Township, situated squarely in the middle of a karst formation, is the poorest of the poor in Guizhou. The karst formations in Pingyan leave it with less than one percent of arable land, making it exceedingly difficult for residents to eke out a subsistence living, much less to earn enough money to send their children to school. Schooling has become something of a tantalizing luxury for many children and their parents.

The harsh livelihood that is so typical--almost a norm--in Pingyan has taught its residents the importance of education and skills. No skills, no well-paying jobs. It is as simple as that. Yet despite their strong desire to send their children to school, many parents simply can’t afford to. So their unschooled children grow up ill-prepared to compete for decent jobs. The same sad fate likely awaits their children’s children.

 
The few who have escaped
Huang Da-feng (黃大鳳) married her college sweetheart Tang Rong-li (唐榮禮) five years ago after her graduation from a normal college in Sandu, Guizhou. The following year, Tang passed the entrance exams for Guiyang University, and he graduated last year. He had to choose between working in a big city with brighter career prospects or going back to his impoverished hometown of Pingyan. For him, the choice was easy.

The exodus of the educated elite from a backwater town like Pingyan undoubtedly also contributes to its economic depression. “If the educated don’t stay in Pingyan, who will pull the town out of its self-perpetuating doldrums?” Tang asked.

He could still recall the days when he was constantly disquieted by fear. He feared that his parents couldn’t afford the cost of his education, an astronomical sum for the poor. He had thought of several alternate sources of paying for his education. He would even have gone so far as selling his own blood, if it came to that. His desire to stay in school was so intense that he did many things to boost his odds of finishing school. He pinched pennies and worked to boost his income, and he studied hard all the while. His efforts paid off, and he became one of the very few in Pingyan who have made it into college.

All the struggles seem to have come to an end for Tang, now nearly 30. He teaches at the Pingyan elementary and middle schools, and he also doubles as a school administrator. His wife, Huang, also teaches there. The couple and their four-year-old son now live in a staff dormitory on campus. After school, Tang goes home and uses buckets to fetch water from a faucet just outside of the dormitory. "Pingyan is such a poor place compared with other towns in the province. However it is much better today, even in Pingyan, than it was 15 years ago, when we didn’t even have running water or electricity."

"Less than two decades ago I was just as poor and desperate as you are today. My parents were poor, and I struggled with the many worries that life had dealt me. My parents sold corn for pennies a pound. They scraped and saved what little they could out of that meager income for my schooling expenses. I was determined and studied very hard. I made it through middle and high school, and then I went on to college." Tang shares his own story to encourage his students, hoping a few of them will be able to follow in his footsteps. He knows that the students can use as much help as they can get. The odds that they will drop out of school are extremely high. He knows that he and his wife are the exceptions--they are among the lucky few whose circumstances and determination happened to work out for them. He and his wife can empathize with their students, and they sincerely want to help them.

 
A reunion
Pingyan, the name of the township, is actually quite sarcastic, or perhaps it expressed the resignation of the forebears who had given that name to this land. In Chinese, Pingyan (平岩) literally means "level rock." Yet the township is anything but. It is rocky all right, and also very hilly, yet the township’s landscape has done anything but put its residents on a level footing with their outside contemporaries.

Most of the people in the village have not fared nearly as well as Tang and his wife. Near the end of December 2006, Tzu Chi held winter relief distributions in several towns including Pingyan. About 13,630 people received winter kits containing rice, cooking oil, warm clothing, heavy blankets, and a first aid kit.

"Many of my [elementary school] classmates came to receive goods at the distribution. Many of us hadn’t seen one another in over a decade. We hugged each other because we were so very glad to see our old pals. It was almost like a class reunion." Tang said that most of his classmates had only finished elementary school and had left Pingyan to work elsewhere. Their limited education, however, had severely diminished their job choices. Most of them ended up making very little money as unskilled laborers, which they still are today, doing menial work with no hope of a breakthrough. In fact, they make so little money that they can’t even provide adequately for their own families, much less save for a better future.

"The lack of skills among many of the undereducated villagers has prevented them from landing good-paying jobs when they go to cities to work. Many of them become low-paid laborers," observed a county official. This no-skills-no-good-jobs relationship is not lost on the villagers. They do try hard to put their children through school. It’s just that very few of them have been successful. Huang Da-feng and Tang Rong-li are indeed among the lucky few success stories. Their efforts and circumstances have helped them escaped the vicious circle that has such a firm grip on many of their fellow villagers and continues to weigh them down. The ill effects of this vicious circle were clearly evidenced by the high number of Tang’s elementary school classmates, young men not yet 30, who needed to receive relief supplies at the winter distribution.

 
Working so hard for so little
The scarcity of success stories does not do justice to the villagers because it is not for lack of effort on their part. Rather, it is because their homeland does not produce much other than poor parents and children.

Luo De-chang (羅德昌), 41, is just one such casualty of this land. Breaking ranks with his ancestors, Luo gave up farming at Pingyan a few years ago and left with his wife to work in far-off Guangdong Province. They went there with the hope that they could earn a respectful living in that prosperous province. They left their son behind at home with Luo’s parents, who also tended the family’s meager piece of farmland. They maintained this arrangement for several years, until the aging parents could no longer work in the field. The scant income that Luo and his wife made in Guangdong was insufficient to support his household. So the couple decided to move back home and farm again.

Now their corn brings in about 400 yuan (US$52) a year, and it costs about 75 yuan a semester for their son, Luo Xiao-you (羅小友), to attend school. Luo often needs to borrow from others to make ends meet. Small wonder that he and his wife feel constant financial pressure to take Xiao-you out of school, which they almost did at one point. But Xiao-you is the only person in the family to have ever attended school. Luo and his wife never attended school. And look how little they can earn, here at home or in Guangdong Province. The couple is bent on keeping their son in school. Otherwise the chances are too great that Xiao-you will follow his parents’ path into a life of extreme poverty and misery.

Xiao-you, an eighth grader, seems much older than his years. He used to resent the fact that he couldn’t have a more carefree home and school life. He used to resent being a child from a poor family, lacking just about everything but despair. As he grew older, he gradually came to understand that he could not keep asking for things from his parents, who were already aging prematurely because of the constant struggle and hardship to provide for the family. His young mind felt that the future looked quite grim.

Tzu Chi has been awarding scholarships to help poor students finish school. This brightened Xiao-you up a bit. "I promise to get good grades at school so that I can bring a little comfort and smiles to my parents," Xiao-you said.

He walks to school at 6:00 in the morning. The school lets out at 7:30 at night, but he stays on to study until 10:00. His efforts have helped him rank high in his class and earned him a reputation as an excellent student. When asked why he studies so hard, he replied, "I want to enrich myself. I want to have knowledge and skills. Also, how can I not study hard when my parents are working so very hard to support our family?"

"If possible, I would like to travel the world," Xiao-you adds, "to expand my horizons and knowledge." He said that he would like to attain a good command of English. He said that he does not want to leave Pingyan; instead, he would like to be a scholar and find better ways for his people to make a living. He also would like to be able to fix up his parents’ house so that they can have a more comfortable life.

Li Jian (李劍) dropped out of school because his parents couldn’t afford the tuition. Fortunately, he was able to resume schooling on a Tzu Chi scholarship, which enabled him to go back to fourth grade at the age of 13. Normally, he and his two-year old brother are the only inhabitants of their home. Working in an out-of-town coal mine, their father is rarely home because he lives near the mine and only comes home once a year. His mother died two months before our visit of a liver disease that was brought on in part by overwork at the coal mine. Jian therefore has multiple roles to play at home. He is the father, mother, and big brother to his little brother, and he is also a student. When we entered his home, Jian was preparing food for the pigs that his family was raising for sale.

He is afraid of also losing his father to overwork, so he begged him to quit his mining job. His father replied, "Jian, you and your brother both need to attend school. If I don’t dig coal, what can I do to earn your tuition? Further-more, like your mom, I never went to school and I’m totally illiterate. What other jobs could she and I have gotten? What other work can I possibly do now? Your mom and I didn’t have a choice then and I still have no choice now. Our predicament was caused by the fact that she and I never went to school. For this reason, you and your brother must study hard so you can earn a better living. Get a good education. Remember this well, son. Don’t follow in our poor footsteps. Never!"

 
Help from the outside world
Pingyan doesn’t have a high school of its own. It has seven schools with a total enrollment of 1,118 students in elementary schools and about 400 in middle schools. If history is any guide, each year only about 20 of those 400 students will be able to attend high school out of town. Local residents certainly hope that their children can get a good education, but instead children are being taken out of school because some families do not have the means to pay the expenses while other families may simply need more hands to tend their crops. Parents often take their children out in the middle of a semester without giving any notice to the school.

Huang Da-feng, the wife of Tang Rong-li and a teacher at the school, grew up poor in Pingyan, just like most children in her class. She experienced firsthand the agony that a family endures in trying to come up with tuition money for their children. When she was a schoolgirl, her parents often had to pay her tuition in installments. Now when a child stops coming to school, she can really empathize with the family. She knows that the family has the will, but not always the means, to keep their children in school. They are just too poor.

To minimize student dropouts, Huang makes frequent visits to students’ homes. She gets to know each student’s family members, how they are doing, what difficulties the family has that might lead to a dropout, and what she can do to help avert it. The home visits can be heartrending for Huang. As often as she has witnessed (and experienced) the suffering in the village, she can’t help but feel saddened. It is impossible to get used to seeing people suffer.

The scholarships provided by Tzu Chi have helped those who have been identified as in need. However, there are many more students--perhaps "under stones unturned"--to be helped and many more dropouts to be brought back.

Late at night, Tang Rong-li makes his daily patrol of the campus and checks on the students in the dormitory. He often gets emotional as he makes his rounds, wondering why this land that he loves so dearly keeps giving the children and the families such a hard time. He should know. He was once a struggling child himself. He knows what it takes--sometimes more than personal desire--to overcome the challenges stacked up as high as the surrounding karst hills. He frequently cheers his students on: "Poverty is not the fate of a resident of Guizhou. We must have the confidence that we can beat the dreadful conditions, transcend the stony hills, and go outside to learn. Then we come back to make this a better hometown tomorrow."

By Guo Shu-hong
Translated by Tang Yau-yang
Photographs by Hsiao Yiu-Hwa
 

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