We were sitting around before dinner chit-chatting when one of the Sichuan teachers said he was getting a house with three storeys built. K was the same person who said on our first day in Sichuan that his goal for the near future was to get rich.
In reality, no one was much interested in what he was saying, but K was obviously intent on showing his fellow teachers what a smart money-manager he was and that he wasn’t anything like them — being paid very little as a rural teacher and, horror of horrors, being content with their lot.
He had a tea house, he told us. His wife was nominally the owner but he made sure that his bosses, the other teachers at the school and, most important of all, the parents of the students were aware that it was his tea house. The business was very successful, he said, and was bringing in profits several times what he was making as a teacher.
I asked why didn’t he just give up teaching and focus on his business since he seemed to enjoy entrepreneurship much more than the hard grind of teaching. “Oh no, “he said. “I would never do that. When I no longer teach their children, the parents will not have a reason to go to my tea house.”
If K was to be believed, then almost everyone at his school had some kind of money-making side line. S, a teacher from the same school whom we also knew, had a home renovation business which his wife was running. To keep it all in the family, S had his brother-in-law as the main contractor so that any profit, be it from selling the materials or providing the service, would go back to S. Apparently, in this day and age of rapid growth and land development, S had found the best business to be in. “He’s the one that I try to emulate,” K told us with pride. “Teaching will never make us rich. We’ve got to be doing something else.”
My only thought was “Why did I spend the day talking to them about being effective in the classroom when their hearts were not in it at all?” But then again, there, sitting right next to K was M, who had just told me that he was paid 1,200 yuan a month and that his main interest was writing. Earlier in the day, he had shown me a collection of his essays, stories and poetry that he had had printed and bound in a volume. It was his wish that one day he would be published author.
So, maybe there’s still hope after all.
This picture was taken in the courtyard outside the Shanghai Museum.
Somehow, while chatting with the group about why they chose teaching as their career, it came up that Qingbo was having a difficult time with his wife. The reason? He was making too little money and he was too busy to give her the attention she wanted.
Until the earthquake in 2008, teachers in rural Sichuan were making 500 yuan a month. Since the earthquake, they had been making between 1000 to 1500 yuan a month. That would be between 200 to 300 dollars.
It’s true that they get to live in dormitories in the school, but it also means that they are living in rooms right next to the students, which means they don’t really get time off. As long as there are students around, they are on supervision duty. On weekends, some teachers go home but many stay because their homes are just too far away. Many of them told me that they didn’t get a chance to go home until there was a long holiday. That makes going home something they can only do three or four times a school year.
I was astounded to learn that in the teachers’ rooms in the dormitory there was no running hot water. To get hot water, they have to take a basin and go downstairs to the communal hot water tap. They put the electronic debit card that the school issues to them to track their expenses at school on the meter and, like one of them put it, “Watch the money run out of my account as the hot water runs out of the tap.”
Traditionally, Chinese teachers have always been poor. The “disdain” for money is an indication of one’s integrity. But in this day and age, when teachers play a vital role in nurturing a whole new generation who will be movers and shakers of the country, if not of the world, surely they deserve to be paid and treated better so that there will continue to be quality people entering education.
It was our first day off and our minder Benny came early to pick us up from the hotel. As soon as we got into the car, he announced that we were going to have “farmer’s food” for lunch. In China, that could be lunch in a farmer’s home and not a regular restaurant, or it could be in a restaurant that serves authentic, local food.
“We are going to have fish for lunch,” Benny was rubbing his hands with glee. “The fish live iin mud. They do not live in water.”
In the back seat, J and I exchanged a look: “I certainly am not going to eat any fish that do not live in water,” J muttered.
Benny drove in the general direction of the “restaurant” and, at every intersection, he stopped, put his head out of the window and asked the passers-by where we could find a restaurant that served loaches. Like all the other trips he had taken us on, he really had no clue where we were going.
Anyway, at about 2 p.m., way later than our usual lunch time, we hit upon the restaurant. It was just a shop front with two tables for the customers and several basins on a ledge in front of the shop window. “Come, look, ” Benny beckoned to me, “see how fresh they are!”
In each basin there were some forty or fifty black, snake-like fish. Because it was so crowded, they were mostly squirming rather than swimming in the water.
By this time, Benny was close to drooling. “How spicy do you want the dish to be?” he asked me. I gave my usual answer, which was, “As mild as they could make it.” But, this time, my preference, despite that it was in response to Benny’s question, was totally ignored. “No, no, no. You want to have it spicy, if not, it won’t taste good.” In Sichuan Province, the land of spicy hot pots, regular spicy food could easily cause third degree burns.
As the husband and wife who owned the restaurant were cooking our lunch, Benny made one of the young helpers move one of the tables to a grassy area outside the restaurant. “For atmosphere, ” he looked at me and smiled.
What atmosphere? The patch of grass had not been mowed for months, and there was garbage strewn all over the place. So, there we were, sitting in the sun, with grass up to our shins, waiting for “the most delicious meal we would ever have while in Sichuan.”
When the food came, there was the huge tureen of loaches in a red hot chili sauce, another tureen of pig’s trotters and seaweed soup and boiled beer with goji fruit in it.The chili sauce was so hot that I spent a whole ten minutes coughing after the first mouthful. J would eat neither the loaches nor the pig’s trotters so he was slowly getting drunk on the rather delicious boiled beer served from a large kettle.
Benny ate his fill and what was left over, he took away in a clear plastic bag to take home. He even managed to get the owners to give him two squares of tofu to put in the chili sauce. He held the bag up to show me as we were walking back to the car, “Mmmm, just think how the tofu will soak up the chili sauce. My son thinks this is the best food in the world!”
He never did ask if J and I had had a good lunch.