Zhongdian is also known as Di Qing or Xianggelila — Shangri-La, about 200 km away from the Tibetan border by road. My dad and i are at about 3200m above sea level, on our way back to Zhongdian after a day touring the countryside, driving among little villages nestled between mountains covered with dense evergreen forests. Or rather, we're not the ones driving; our lives are in the expert hands of an employee of the education department, who is managing to hit 100 km/h on these winding paved roads while (by some miracle) narrowly avoiding running into other cars, the people walking down the middle of the road, and the occasional wandering yak. Out the window i can see the terraced fields of highland wheat.
My parents donated money to build three schools here, each one named after one of my grandparents (with the exception of my paternal grandfather, who died before i ever got to know him). The first one we visited this morning was the largest, an elementary school for Grades 1 to 6 with about a hundred students. Getting there required a 45-minute ride along a wiggly gravel road full of enormous potholes and cracks — the kind of bumpy ride on which you risk clunking your head against the car window if you're not paying attention. By the time we arrived, the students were all waiting for us, lined up in brilliant costumes (the boys in white and the girls in pink) along the side of the road. When we got out of the car, they all began clapping in rhythm and loudly chanting words of welcome. One of the older girls came forward to place a white silk streamer over my father's neck — their customary gesture of greeting — and another one did the same for me. We were led past them into the school's courtyard, which was set up with tables at the front.
The whole affair was eerily royal. We sat down at the tables, with bowls of fruit and an empty courtyard before us. They offered us tea. The children lined up in neat rows. They had set up a PA system, and handed my dad a microphone; he said a few words about how happy he was to be here to see the school. He passed me the microphone and suggested i say something, so i explained that this was my first visit to China and that i was glad my parents had caused this school to be built. My dad translated this for me, and everyone applauded. Then they turned on music and the children began dancing for us. It felt to me like i was playing the role of the rich foreigner whose poor subjects had to perform to curry my favour. Sitting there got to be a bit much for me, so i asked whether i could dance with them. I have no idea whether i was breaking some sort of protocol, but i figured the children wouldn't mind, and i wanted to lessen the distance between me and them. I hoped it wouldn't hurt. No one seemed offended, anyway; one of the teachers seemed happy enough to show me how to follow the steps, and i did catch a few of the kids smiling back at me when i made eye contact.
We had brought lots of pencilcases and red envelopes, which we handed out, one of each to each child. Each red envelope contained ¥10, which would be about two weeks of income for one of these families. Then we got up to check out the classrooms, and the children rushed to take their places at the desks so that we could see them there when we looked in. We said a few things to them, talked to the teachers about the school, and then went on our way, with everyone clapping and waving us off.
The routine was similar at all the other schools we visited. (I didn't dance at the others.) In addition to fruit and tea, they offered us hard liquor, cigarettes, sunflower seeds, yak milk, heaping bowls of highland wheat flour, dry corn pancakes, and chicken soup. (That yellow stuff in the bowls is the yak milk; the silver bowl contains the alcohol; and the brown shiny thing behind the table is the lid of a bowl containing highland wheat flour. The yak milk tasted like vaguely salty soup, and the pancakes were crumbly and fairly tasteless.)
The parents danced for us too — a line of men and a line of women dancing opposite each other and singing to each other. I didn't really know what to make of it — the whole village putting on this show just for us — but it did make sense from their point of view, i guess. If you get a visit from someone who can donate 500 times your annual income to build a school that could mean a better life for your kids, i suppose you'd want to do just about anything to make them happy.
And the kids were happy. I don't know what their parents had told them — whether they were nervous about performing well for us, or if they thought of us as alien beings or just strange-looking friends wearing strange-looking clothes — but they really did seem happy. Some of the things i've been thinking about the past few days bubbled to the surface as i looked over their smiling faces. What effect would One Laptop Per Child have here? Would it really help these children? What about the way they grow food here — would these open fields of wheat and chickens and yaks be one day replaced by overfertilized soil and a confined animal feeding operation?
This whole trip has been a lesson in disparity. Not just the incredible disparity between the rich and poor — the little makeshift houses in which these children lived, compared to the astonishingly fancy hotel where we stayed in the town of Zhongdian, which the government had subsidized in order to attract tourists — but also a surprising disparity in perceptions of value. The last elementary school we visited had mobile phone coverage, but didn't have running water in the bathrooms (i asked my dad to insist that the teachers run a hose from the nearby creek and train the kids to wash their hands after going to the bathroom). The place where we ate lunch didn't have proper interior walls or insulation against the cold, but they had a pretty big TV.
And how much of this disparity was i projecting upon them? Did the villagers really feel like they were supplicating themselves to us, or was that just in my head? They probably didn't want pity, but i couldn't help feeling some of it. If this was the only life they knew, it would all be normal to them. How dare we change their way of life? How dare we not change their way of life? Prime Directive be damned, if they lack the resources to provide health care for their children...
When we got back to town, we also visited a much larger high school. It had over a thousand students; the principal took me and my dad inside to talk to the students of the graduating class. The moment i set foot in the classroom, the students burst into applause, and then one of the students stood up and read a carefully prepared statement in English welcoming me to the school. I was still not used to the attention, but i did my best to be encouraging. I asked them what their favourite subject was. "English!" they all chorused. They could understand some of what i said in English, and took turns asking me questions in Chinese (which my dad translated) or in broken English sentences. One of them asked me for advice on how to do well at the university entrance exam; one asked me why i liked math; but mostly they wanted to know how to learn better English. I suggested getting lots of practice, and left them my e-mail address.
It seemed the most important thing to these kids was to Westernize as quickly as possible. I don't know exactly what to make of that, either.
Here's one more picture — this on the wall in the high school — for your closing Moment of Zen.