La Salle Study Centre Changjiao
March 2005 Newsletter
First Chinese New Year in Changjiao.
Easter Greetings. Peace and Joy is within you.
It's time to write again. I returned to St. Joseph’s College, Hong Kong, last night, arriving at 7.30 p.m. In contrast with the Chinese New Year’s festivities and activities of the last two months, it was indeed a quiet and uneventful journey of just under 12 hours. I am now back Hong Kong for our annual Holy Week Retreat and to celebrate Easter with the Brothers.
My story this time goes back to the beginning of this year. I returned to Hong Kong on 14th January because I wanted to spend the Spring Festival (as Chinese New Year is referred to in China) in Changjiao. Last year I returned in February and found that it was impossible to get back to Changjiao as the Spring Festival exodus was in full swing and the transport system fully stretched. So, after spending 9 days in Hong Kong I crossed the border into Shenzhen on 23rd January. I got in just in the nick of time. The fare had already doubled. There were no train tickets left and my grandniece only managed to get me a ticket on a night coach, direct to Dabu-Huliao. Boarding the coach was an experience I will not want to go through again. I was sure I was the only passenger with a small travel bag on wheels and a backpack. The rest of the passengers had boxes and sacks of things. One even insisted that he be allowed to put on board a tank of liquefied cooking gas! Anyway, the fact of the matter was that the luggage compartment was full to overflowing and had to be forcibly slammed shut. I looked around and realized that almost all the other passengers still had more than all that I had in their hands waiting to board the coach. I make sure I got to the front of the queue to board early and even then someone was already occupying my space. Thank God, he was gentlemanly enough to move away when I showed him my ticket with the number of my sleeping berth clearly written on it.
Soon, all ticket-holders were settled down in their respective places. Then the unexpected – at least as far as I was concerned – began to unfold. Extra stools were brought into the bus to fill the aisle, 16 in all!!! I paid RMB140 for my sleeping berth. Those who did not have tickets but wanted to get on board were charged RMB200/- for a stool seat i.e. without backrest for the 8 hours non-stop journey. We were packed like sardines! I dread to think what would happen if the coach were to be involved in an accident. Every time we hit a bump, I could hear the top and bottom fan spring shock absorbers flattening out one on top of the other because the coach was definitively over-crowded and over-loaded. I was certainly relieved when we reached Changjiao at 6 a.m. the next morning.
When I arrived back in Changjiao, I found that my late cousin’s wife, her son and daughter-in-law had arrived a day earlier from Hebei just south of Beijing. That was the first time I met my cousin’s wife. She looked very healthy for an 80 years old woman. As the days went on, more relatives returned to the village and by the time we had our re-union dinner on 8th February, there were 22 of us. The re-union dinner was sumptuous with 14 different dishes. It was also boisterous with the never-ending calls for “yam-xing” (bottoms-up). I opened a bottle of XO Hennessy for the occasion. It was much appreciated but it was soon gone after just two “yam-xings”. Fortunately, I had asked a friend to brew 100 kg of rice wine for me for Chinese New Year. That and half a dozen bottles of local Jinjiang brandy helped keep the spirits flowing.
After dinner they all sat down to play card games while waiting for mid-might to welcome the New Year. Promptly at 12 midnight crackers fire could be heard all over. We did our share and set off 2000 rounds of crackers and a dozen packs of fireworks. I had never ever celebrated Chinese New Year that way. It was a new experience for me. By 1 a.m. we were all tired out and were preparing to go to bed when the Political Secretary and the Village Headman turned up to greet us a Happy and Prosperous Chinese New Year. Out came another bottle of Hennessy. This time however I could only managed a VSOP. It was greatly appreciated all the same and we did not get to go to bed till 3 a.m. amidst intermittent rattle of fire crackers and occasional blasts of fireworks.
Changjiao was up and about early on Chinese New Year Day. The official village drum troupe set off at 7.30 a.m. to perform in every home in the village. I followed the troupe for while to take photographs and then returned to my home to await their arrival. Soon it was our turn to welcome the drum troupe. Again we had to set off crackers as the troupe entered our house to drum in our courtyard. I had noticed the night before that if I hung the crackers beneath the zinc roof it would make a really noisy din. That was what I did. So, while the crackers were firing away, the drum troupe could barely hear themselves. Anyway, for that and other reasons, the drum troupe really played loud and long for us. We were the last house in Baijiang visited by the drum troupe, so there was also a big following of villagers with them too. As is customary, I also offered a “hungpow” (red packet with money in it) to the troupe to help cover expenses of the village during the CNY season. It took the drum troupe the whole day, of course with break for lunch, to make the round of all the houses. The final drumming was at the tomb of our common ancestor, the founder of the village of Changjiao. That took place at 9 p.m. It was the finale of the day’s events where many who left the village to settle down elsewhere, returned to witness the event which ended in a massive display of crackers and fireworks.
Interestingly, while there was much noise and obviously many people had returned to the village and moved around, yet there was no “visiting”. Visitations only begin on the 2nd day. The first day is for the family members to catch up with one another and spend time together. So it was in the evening of the 2nd day that our house was again the centre of attraction in Baijiang. I give credit to one of my nieces who correctly guessed and properly prepared for the occasion with cakes, biscuits, fruits, sweets and soft drinks for the young and old. Of course, there was the rice wine and the local Jinjiang brandy for the rest. By now, it is well known that cigarettes will not be offered. It’s always a BYO item at LSSC. It was at this gathering that the question of a drum set arose. Baijiang did not have a set of drums and cymbals that is collectively owned. At 8 p.m. the question of buying drums was raised. An on the spot collection was made netting RMB1600. The next morning at 10 a.m. six of us went to Huliao on 4 motorbikes. We returned at 12 noon with one 22 inch main drum, one large 30 inch flat gong, one small 14 inch knob gong, a pair of 14 inch cymbals, a small 5 inch knocker and nine 12 inch flat gongs. It was a project completed within 14 hours. My cost was RMB1000 as the price for the set was RMB2600. There will be a few more expenses as we will have to make a cart for the big drum and a hanger for the big gong. The following nights were noisy as young and old, big and small joined in the fun as they learnt and prepared for our own Baijiang drumming sessions on the 13th day.
I was caught in a dilemma of sorts. I had many invitations to lunch and dinner both in the Changjiao and Dabu-Huliao but because of the presence of my cousin-sister-in-law and her family, I declined most of them in order to spend time with my relatives. All her four children –two sons and two daughters- and their spouses came back although not all the grand-children could make it home especially the girls who are married into other families. Two great-granddaughters and a great-grandson were also present. My cousin-sister-in-law was absolutely delighted. It was the first grand re-union for them in 26 years!
The next major event was on the 13th day of the Lunar month. It was a festival to welcome “the light” which means “a son”. This time round, in the evening, the drum troupe went to homes where a male child had been born the previous year and to some others deemed necessary according to the village elders. In Baijiang, only four families were visited and we were given the honour to be included as one of the four. I was to learn later that my “hungpow” for the first day of CNY was the biggest at RMB200. So they came back for more!!! Anyway, after they left, I led our own newly formed drum troupe to go round our village. I had earlier told all of them that as long as we see and hear fire crackers firing at the main door, we would go in to drum. So, it was. We had a great time. We began at 7 p.m. and by 8.30 p.m. we had finished the round. It was then party time at LSSC. We joined in the fireworks display by firing 16 sets of 16 fireworks packs. The two Wong families in Baijiang and they were delighted as it was the first time that included in the drumming and subsequent festivities.
On the mission front, I was very happy to find that when I returned to Changjiao, all the computers were still functioning well. The girls in charged had been marvelous. They had constantly kept an eye on the use of the computers and they told me that they only had to restore the system twice on two separate computers when someone inadvertently deleted some programme files. Some of the children really made good use of the opportunity to have hands on computer sessions and are now very good at typing both English alphabets and Chinese Characters. In the beginning I allowed them to use the Pinyin method to type Chinese Characters but later I insisted that they learn the official Wubi direct input method. A few of the students are now very quick at using Wubi. The better students can now manage their self-study English lessons using the audio bilingual Chinese-English dictionary installed in the computers.
School reopened on 21st February and a week later on 28th February I resumed my lessons for Primary 3 and Primary 4 during school hours at Changjiao Primary School as well as at Upper Qicun Primary School. In Changjiao and in Qicun, as in most schools in China, the students pay a semester fee and all text books and exercise books are provided by the school. Since English is only officially taught in Primary 3 & 4 in town schools but not in village schools, there was no provision for books. So, as in previous years, I gave and distributed exercise books and a ball point pen to each of my students. I did not organize the weekend classes as it was not convenient because of the presence of my relatives. It would not be right for me to ask them to leave the house when I had classes. However, some of my more diligent students did organize themselves and requested lessons. These I accommodated. I plan to reorganize weekend lessons for secondary and primary 5 & 6 students after Easter.
The weather had been colder than recent years. I missed the first frost which took place two days in secession before I returned to Changjiao and it did a lot of damage to crops. The next frosty night was 6 days into the Lunar month. It was miserable weather because it was also raining. Sister Alice Lee and Sister Florence Lee, both IJ, arrived in the early hours of Sunday 6th March, smack in the middle of another very frosty night. I hired a van to pick them up at Dabu Railway Station. We had to pour hot water on the windscreen before leaving as it was frosted up. They left early on 9th March for Hong Kong. Even though the Sisters visit was short, the village administration insisted on giving them a welcome dinner. The Sisters had opportunities to witness the lessons and listen to the students read. They told me that they were impressed by the pronunciation and clear diction of the primary students when they read.
Thankfully, the weather was wet throughout the CNY season. It had been dry for almost 5 years. In fact, the situation was acute just before Chinese New Year where many gravitational water taps were empty and many wells were dry. The water situation was already severe and the spring cleaning proceeding CNY exacerbated the problem. Consequently, some families had to resort to carry water from the few scattered deep wells around the village. We experienced the fourth frosty night on 17th March. While the cold and wet weather condition was not welcomed, yet it was necessary for the planting season. In fact the Meichou authorities had been cloud seeding whenever possible.
There was also a sad note to my return to Changjiao early this year. I arrived to find that one of my strongest supporters in the village, the man who offered his house and built a modern toilet for the convenience of the students, was dying of cancer. I immediately went over the next morning to see him. He was able to recognize me and even invited me to have dinner with him – although it was early in the morning. The following day I was the first to pay my last respect as he died in the early hours the next morning. There were altogether 4 deaths just before CNY. One of them was the grandfather of one of my secondary one student Shasha. Shasha was the little girl who helped clean up the room in Changjiao’s Primary School for me when I first arrived on 1st. March 2002. As is customary, these families did not celebrate CNY and did not visit others during the festival. I made it a point to visit Shasha so that I could give her and her sister a “hungpow” each. I had been asked by generous Lasallians to give “hungpow” to my students this year and money for the purpose was provided. On behalf of all my students and the children in Changjiao, I thank all generous donors.
After Easter, Brother Peter Foo Visitor, Brother Thomas Chin Provincial of the Marist and Mr. Dominic Cheung will follow me back to Changjiao for a short visit. Actually, I had told the student that the centre would be closed for two weeks so as to give my niece a short holiday. She had been helping me run the LSSC since May 2004 without a break. However, I am sure when the students know that I am back, they will turn up and Brother Peter and company will be able to witness first hand how the centre functions.
On the physical development side, there is still much to be done. The carpenter that had been working for me was not dependable as far as timing is concerned. I value his work but he could never keep a promise when it comes to delivery of goods. I may have to hire a new carpenter as the book shelves and other essential furnishing have yet to be made. The English books and CDs that I bought from Malaysia and Singapore are almost all transported to LSSC. I will be seeking the assistance of the senior students to buy story books both in English and Chinese and Revision books for the other subjects.
Now that I know the students are able to help maintain the computer system, I intend to re-install all the computers and load in as many self-learning English programmes as the system can take. The challenge for me first of all, is how ensure that the level of English is not beyond the grasp of the students. My other challenge is how to monitor the progress of each student as each will all be progressing as her or his own pace. I think it is now possible to get connect to the internet. I am told there are already 4 households in the village of Qicun which is about 2 km that are connected to the internet. I will try to get connected as soon as possible so that I can also launch the e-pal project connecting my students with students in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and France where there are teachers and friends who are prepared to work with me to supervise the students and monitor the project.
While the centre itself requires attention, the road to the centre that was opened last year has to be cemented. In addition to that I have to cement the front portion of the house so that students and visitors can park their bicycles and motorbikes … and cars too for those living in Dabu-Huliao some of whom have now gone beyond the motorbike stage. The local authorities have also ask for assistance to provide cement, stones and sand to lay a concrete circular path that runs along the upper level of Baijiang. It is also suggested that 6 to 8 light bulbs be installed to light up the walkway between 7 – 9.30 p.m. each day. A local businessman had be approached to rebuild the main road leading into Baijiang and to install proper street lights along it.
Just before I left, I fulfilled a promise I made to the village administration. Those of you who have been following my story so far will recall that last year 2004, the political secretary, the village headman and the village registrar attended daily basic computer lessons at LSSC every evening from 8.15 to 9.00 p.m. Well, I cannot say that they are proficient now but I can say that they have sufficient basic computer skills to be able to use a computer. So on Thursday 17th March, I donated to the village a computer complete with a coloured printer. The day before, I had installed it with the Chinese version of MS Windows and Office. Unlike the computers at LSSC where the operating system is the English version of MS Windows and Office, the one for the village administration is in Chinese. It’s a historical event in the sense that Changjiao is now the first village administration in the District of Dabu to have a computer system. It is also possible that Changjiao is also the first village administration in the State of Meichou to have a computer system.
It certainly looks like I am going to have a busy year ahead of me. Even now, some are already asking to register their children, grandchildren or relative for this summer’s English Programme. I will have much to do to prepare and print at least four different booklets for the English courses. This year, I again expect some of my more senior students to help me and I intend to give them more lessons and heavier responsibilities. I am confident that if booklets are available they can teach effectively.
Drop me a line if you are free. I hope to get broadband internet connection in the Baijiang soon. Keep me in your prayers.
As always with love in DLS in the service of youth and nation.
Take care and God bless. BDLiaoFSC
Palm Sunday 20th March 2005
All good things must
come to an end...