In May of 2014 I was invited to a local swimming hole for the May Day holiday. The waters of Xia Lao Xi run clear and cold over mossy rocks originating from mountain streams that form from the rockier and colder waters melted from mountain snow.
I wrote about the trip back in 2014. The piece showed a few pictures but didn't really tell the story.
By Inviting me on this trip, I was not exactly offered an apology about what happened. The school felt embarrassed when I brought to their attention that the workers at the school were burning leaves underneath the windows of the kindergarten. By inviting me, they were trying to seal some solidarity between myself and the school. The embarrassing incident can be put behind us.
One Wednesday morning I walked up the stairs of the school and saw the hallway filled with smoke. This was not the normal smoky mist that normally effected the school, it being on a hill top and got the worst of the PM 10 and PM 2.5 particles in the city. No one could possibly complain about that without causing trouble for themselves. So everyone ignores that as just something we all have to live with.
This smoke was different. There was a fire somewhere and I went into red alert mode. This was a school and there was a fire. I acted fast to try to locate it. I ran into one of the rooms where students were sitting in chairs. A few students coughed as the smoke irritated their lungs. No one was really concerned. I noticed the smoke was heaviest near the window and saw it coming from outside.
The workers were burning leaves underneath the open windows. While the flames could not damage the buildings or threaten the students, no one cared to realize that the smoke entering the classrooms was a problem.
I got Ms. Yan, the highest ranking administrator at this campus and she instantly became concerned when I took her upstairs to see the smoky air in the hallway and classrooms on the second floor. Ironically the name Yan is a homophone with yan, the Chinese word for smoke 冒烟. That is just a sick coincidence that I could not have made up.
She showed as much concern as I had. She frantically searched for the source and I followed her as she went downstairs to the door leading outside. There we saw two of the groundskeepers sweeping leaves into the fire.
She then chatted with them and they all laughed together. She assured me that they were almost finished. Problem solved.
I knew there was a taboo of yelling at the men for being so stupid for burning the leaves. The workers were older men. They need to be respected and feel appreciated at all times. This is why at the other campus, the older guard can sip a plastic cup of sorghum wine and smoke a cigarette inside the building beside the teachers' office. The fact that smoking inside a kindergarten should be forbidden is not an issue for the school to bring up. The fact that one of the women in the office was very pregnant is not as issue either. This can only happen because respecting an older man is a greater value than a sense of right or wrong. The entitlement of old people is more important than the welfare of pregnant women and 5 year old children at a kindergarten. This is a reality in China.
Of course I was not satisfied with the outcome. But what could I do? I soon realized that I was told that the men were going to stop burning the leaves because they only wanted to sooth my concern. They were not actually done. But how were they supposed to know that I was going to be teaching in the room that was directly above where they were about to start a new burn pile? I mean, it was around the corner of the building. What were the odds of that? In China, the problem is not getting caught doing something bad. The problem is making someone feel embarrassed by catching them doing something bad that they already agreed to stop doing. Why would you embarrass someone like that?
The smoke was visible. Children were coughing. There was a pile of burning leaves outside. None of this seemed to add up together to anyone but me. The teachers were just standing there. I had to realize that this was not my battle to fight. If they didn't care about the smoke, how was I supposed to make them care. So I gave up. So I just left the school and called the head manager who was now at one of the other campuses. She was the only English speaking administrator at the school. I told her the problem and that I was so upset that I was taking the rest of the day off.
Often foreign teachers are used to attract students and make the parents feel that their children will get a different type of education. They want their children to experience something with more activities and see their children develop skills. A foreigner has a unique perspective because for a long time, educated people outside of China have learned about the benefits of exercise, cooperative learning, letting students develop their understanding of things. Chinese teachers do little than teach students to sit still in chairs and limit activities to things that can be done with students sitting stationary. Their rationale is that if the students move around too much then they will get hurt. If the students get hurt, the parents will complain. If the parents complain then a lot of trouble will come to that school. It is better to do nothing than to do something that might lead to trouble. Even if sitting still doing nothing means sitting in a smoke filled room.
They are thinking about it all wrong. This makes my job that much easier because the children have the same basic needs as children anywhere. They need to move around and do playful things. And like children anywhere, when they fall they bounce. Soon enough they strengthen their balance and their muscles and they fall less and less. This thinking never gets through the Chinese teachers.
Ivy understood my thinking and thanked me for caring about the students' well-being. That is when she invited me to Xia Lao Xi with some of the administrators.
I went on the trip and enjoyed myself. I showed them that barbecued pineapple is a thing and tastes amazing with pork. I took group photos and took shots of their kids playing. I included these in the little blog post I created shortly after the event as well as gave them the image files I processed. There was goodwill all around and she wanted me to forget the incident and understand that while she agreed with me, she cannot stop everything bad from happening.
By December of that year, I realized that there was nothing more to teach at that school. The lessons I had to share were as tangible to the teachers as wisps of smoke.