My school in Xining is it’s own insular little world, isolated from the realities of life in Qinghai province. The students are from the families of Qinghai’s elite. Many students are from other provinces: families from eastern China send their children here because, as the Gaokao 高考 score required to test into university is lower in Qinghai than in the east due to the country’s affirmative-action-type program, their kids will be able to test into better colleges here than elsewhere. The tuition is 5000 yuan per term, about $750 – far more than the province’s average annual income. Many of the kids ride to and from school in shining, leather-seated SUV’s and minivans.
You only have to leave Xining – or even go to a less prestigious school within Xining – to learn about the average standard of education in Qinghai. Which is, unlike a few schools in Shanghai, not really something that Americans could view as a threat. With crumbling (literally) facilities, high-school-graduate teachers, and often apathetic administrators, the quality of education is generally quite low, and often driven mainly by the students’ exceptional motivation to move upwards in society. And maybe the physical abuse as well; I overheard vice-principal Zhang of the Huangnan Number Two Minorities Middle School, in his advertising pitch for the ETP program, enumerate its advantages thusly: “we may beat the other kids, but the we don’t beat the ETP kids because they are special.”
Living in my incongruous bubble, I’ve become increasingly interested in the Chinese education system, in particular its manifestations in the nomadic areas (牧区) here on the plateau. So this weekend, when I got the opportunity to come with Brooke and two of her colleagues to recruit students for next year’s Rebgong ETP class, I jumped in a car and prepared for an experience.
While Vice-Principal Zhang had told Brooke we would be leaving “very early” on Saturday morning, he was unreachable on Friday night. We woke up and, after searching campus for the car we’d be taking, hung out in the house, playing with Brooke and Rinchen-tso’s adorable new kitten (Tibetan name: Dawa-tso, contraction of Dawa Drolma [Brooke] and Rinchen-tso [Rinchen-tso]; English name: Lady Gaga) before we got a call from her waiban, who would also be traveling with us.
“We are going to leave. Are you ready?”
“Soon. We will call you.”
“We are ready.”
“We will call you soon.”
Of course there was no detail, but at least the man was true to his word: it was quite “soon” that we got another call to say the car was outside. Off we went southwards towards the high grasslands of Zeku.
But not at a high rate of speed. To say the road leading southwards from Rebgong was “atrocious” or even simply “being repaired” would be a gross understatement. Only a few kilometers south of town, the road turned into a veritable mogul field of potholes, streams, ditches, and mud pits interspersed with the odd bit of pavement. In places, trucks blocked half of the road, forcing us to detour into a gigantic ditch or simply waiting for the driver, relaxing by the side of the road, to decide he wanted to get back in his truck and move it so we could pass. It took us more than two and a half hours to travel the fifty kilometers (31 miles) from Rebgong to the point, near the town of Dobden 多福屯, that the pavement started again.
At least the scenery was spectacular. Starting in a narrow valley enclosed by grassy hillsides, green under the falling rain and dense clouds, we ascended into a dense, beautifully lush coniferous forest that reached from the valley floor to the slopes high above us. We passed small villages of ochre-walled mud homes and brilliantly white and red monasteries before starting to go uphill in earnest, past hillsides purple with alpine flowers newly abloom, to a high pass sitting atop a particularly awful stretch of road. After passing through a high valley and over another pass, we descended to a wide-open grassland valley, the grass now unbelievably technicolor green below the hoofs of ever-chewing yaks and sheep, a narrow river winding sinuously through into the distance. Descending into the grasslands, we soon arrived at the small town of Dobden.
Though barely more than a short strip of restaurants and stores for the local nomadic population, Dobden nevertheless has its own middle school. We passed by an impromptu caterpillar-fungus market, a small crowd of robed men holding baskets of the spindly parasite-killed insects, and up a muddy street into a vast open grassy schoolground, in which yaks roamed across the deserted basketball courts and playground areas. Beyond the school building and the wall encircling campus lay the vast grasslands, stretching below softly scudding clouds to distant peaks, their summits invisible beneath the clouds, their slopes painted with fresh coats of snow. A Chinese flag fluttered forlornly in front of the building, as if to emphasize the remoteness of this place from centers of authority, as in the traditional Chinese proverb: “the mountains are high, the emperor is far away.”
The school building was, like outside, freezing and damp. We made our way to the top floor and entered a classroom, where forty-some students sat, waiting expectantly; as we arrived, I heard gasps of excitement, surprise; necks craned forward to get a glimpse of the foreigners. Vice-Principal Zhang greeted them all with a “学生好”; the students stood up as one, returning a 老师好 before returning to their seats.
And the selection process started. While none of the students at the schools we visited have yet taken the 中考, the test to enter high school, the idea of our trip was to create a pool of potential applicants to the ETP program that could, once the test was taken, be further winnowed based on test scores. Vice-Principal Zhang wanted the pool to be made up of the best students from the entire prefecture; thus, our visits (aside from testing students) were essentially sales pitches. Which is why Brooke and I were invited in the first place: not only were the students told why they should want to come to ETP, but they were shown two real, live foreign ETP teachers to prove that the program was the real deal. Brooke and I, along with several current and former ETP students from the local areas, were there to be displayed; as in my current school, we were nothing more than walking advertisements.
Which is not to say that the process wasn’t interesting. In each class, our recruiting/sales pitch started with an extended monologue by Mr. Zhang. I will reproduce the text of one of these monologues, delivered in beautiful Putonghua to forty-odd Tibetan students at Zeku Middle School, below:
“Hello students. I’m Mr. Zhang, and I’m the Vice-Principal and a teacher at Huangnan Number Two Minorities Middle School, also Huangnan Teachers’ School, in Tongren [Rebgong]. You can call me Vice-Principal Zhang.
Our motive in coming here today is to recruit new students for next year’s English Class [ETP class], and to introduce the English Class program to you. This class, called the ETP, is made up of the best students from around Huangnan prefecture, the best students who find English interesting and want to study English. I’ll tell you why the English Class may be a great choice for you after I introduce these people who have come here with me.
The woman-foreigner is Brooke, she came to the English Class as a teacher last year, and will be directing the program next year. The man-foreigner is Jonas, he works at Qinghai Shida Fuzhong and Shida right now as an English teacher, and will come to teach in the English Class program next year. This man is Lobsang [name changed], he’s another of our English teachers. And this man over here is Dorje [name also changed], a student who was in the very first English Class at Huangnan. He is from Heri [Hor] and graduated from your very own Zeku Middle School before entering the English Class and graduating in 2007. He tested into Beijing Minorities University, where he has studied Tibetan, and just graduated. He has already tested into graduate school and was accepted to Harvard University in America [in truth, he was accepted into UVA, but “Harvard” is often used as a synonym for “American university”] but he couldn’t get his visa, so he’ll be attending graduate school at Beijing University （北大). And he’s from your very own Zeku Middle School.
Let me tell you why our English Class program is special. First, we have the very best students from all over the prefecture, and we have them in small classes. The normal classes in high school are fifty-five, sixty students, but the classes in the English Program are only thirty-four, thirty-five kids maximum. We also have the best teachers in the entire school teaching the English Class program. The students have ten or twelve hours a week of English with the foreign teachers, but also take the other subjects with the best teachers in the school. As a result, the students do very well on the gaokao; almost every student tests into university. In the first year, out of twenty-eight students only three didn’t test into university. Two tested into Beijing Minorities University. One tested into Central China Normal University, a key university in Wuhan, and has studied the languages of four countries! Last year, out of thirty-one students, thirty tested into university. Only one didn’t test into university, and that was because his Chinese score on the gaokao was very poor. Two tested into Beijing Minorities University, and four tested into Qinghai University’s Tibetan Medicine Program, a key program. So our students work very hard, have the best teachers, and do very well on the gaokao.
And starting from last year, the program is entirely free. Tuition, book fees, housing fees, living fees [money for living] – it’s all covered, you won’t have to pay one fen. And if you test into university and have any problems, the school will help you pay until you graduate university.
So if you are a good student, and you find English interesting, then our English Class is an extremely good choice for you, an excellent opportunity. We welcome all of you who are interested and qualified to come to our English Class program at Huangnan Number Two Minorities Middle School.
Now we are going to select students. Can each classmate [同学] get out a small slip of paper and write down the names of the three classmates they think are the best students [lit 你认为学习最好的三个同学].”
After the students voted, the results were tallied on the blackboard in front of the class. The four or five students with the most votes were then asked to stand up and, after making sure they were interested in the program, came up to the board for a photo; they were then asked to prepare for a test.
After students to be tested were selected from each class, they were brought to an empty classroom and given three sheets of paper. On the first, they had to write a composition in English introducing themselves; on the second, an essay in Chinese on why they wanted to come to ETP; and on the third, a composition in Tibetan on the subject, chosen by Vice-Principal Zhang, “knowledge is a treasure.” [Aside: the first time I realized that I would get along well with the waiban was when he made fun of this essay topic.]
After the test, the students were given an opportunity to talk with us foreigners, the waiban, and the students who had gone to ETP from their school. Brooke gave an introduction to the program, which the waiban translated into Tibetan (though many students understood Brooke’s main points), before they had the opportunity to ask questions. Needless to say, few did; only one student at Dobden and two in Henan asked questions in English. But it was a good experience for us and the students nevertheless; it allowed us to know them, however slightly, a little better.
The English essays turned out, not surprisingly, to vary widely in quality. In general, however, they were much better than I expected – and much better than the students’ near-inability to speak would indicate. However, it is unclear how much influence these tests, which we graded soon after we left the schools, actually have. The 中考 test scores seem to be the primary factor in determining a student’s admission to the program.
Which only serves to complicate things. Some of the students we met told us that though their academics were not great, they really were interested in English and truly wanted to study in our program. Casting these students aside in favor of those who were “better” was truly painful for me; I felt like the college admissions dean, scribbling “yes” and “no” on applications all too hastily reviewed. Did I really know anything about these students? Who were we to judge their qualifications, and by a simple one-time test nonetheless? The selection process for ETP could be much worse or much better, but any process which picks a few among a crowd whose members could all benefit from such an opportunity is bound to be flawed, biased, imperfect. I wished I could replace my students at Shida Fuzhong with these students; though their English level was lower, they were far more eager to learn, obedient, fascinated, absorbed, and ready to seize any opportunity as soon as it came.
We visited two classes in Dobden before traveling thirty minutes up the road into some even vaster grasslands, in the middle of which sits, incongruously, the county town of Zeku 泽库. At an elevation of 3,700 meters, the region is almost entirely nomadic pastureland; outside of town, few permanent dwellings are to be seen. But for an isolated small town catering to the local nomads, the Zeku middle school was surprisingly large and well-equipped. In addition to the teaching buildings and dorms, the school had a large auditorium-gym, a nice set of basketball courts, and a track – though at this elevation, I doubt that the times would be very good. At the same time, the school – despite its size – had only one bathroom, a small concrete structure containing a series of open holes over a deep pit. This, I was thinking, would be painful during the negative-forty-degree winters.
The students were welcoming to the extreme, and though it was fun being the celebrity, we got quite tired after visiting seven classes, in each going through the same recruiting procedure again and again. We went to dinner with some of the local school authorities, sampling the mutton for which the area is famous, before attending the weekly singing and dancing show in the auditorium.
It was clear as soon as we walked into the building that these kids had talent. Students as young as nine and ten sung, decked out in shimmering robes, belted out shockingly good renditions of traditional songs and modern favorites (Lobsang, Genga). Dancers twirled in unison; students plucked mandolins while crooning. One group of three students did an incomprehensible skit in which two “students” and one “doctor” ran frantically around a set of desks, repeatedly beating each other up and sometimes killing each other, before rejuvenating each other with CPR, all to a thumping techno beat.
All in all, it was a brilliant performance, and we went home through the pitch-black campus impressed and satisfied.
The next morning, we learned that the students in Henan, the county to the south where we were to be traveling today, were on the mountain burning incense in preparation for the 中考 test; they, as well as their principal and most of their teachers, would not return until early evening. So Brooke and I spent some time wandering around Zeku town, visiting shops and climbing a small hill, named “Happy Mountain” 幸福山, at the end of the main street. Though not very high, prayer-flagged hilltop commanded great views of town and the surrounding grasslands and mountains, a vivid green after the recent rain. A small river, which Brooke’s waiban told us was named the “River of Love”, wound through the grasslands in lazy meanders, waters grey under the low clouds. We circled the hilltop on a kora which was crowded with local pilgrims. A man was blowing through a conch shell, the booming blast of which echoed over the grasslands; juniper smoke drifted from incense burners to the low sky above.
Despite it being June 5th, light snow started to fall as we descended back into town. We found the others, and were going to buy some of the famous Zeku yak yogurt before learning that the school had bequeathed each of us a massive pail of the stuff as a gift. We decided to leave to see what the Henan students were up to, and drove thirty minutes through high grasslands dotted with herds of yak and sheep and the occasional nomad tent, an unending sea of grass occasionally covered in snow. We started to descend into a river valley and knew we were in Henan when we passed through a massive gate designed to resemble a stirrup.
Henan is officially a Mongolian Autonomous County. And while the area was long ago populated mainly by Mongolians who had migrated from the north, this Mongolic population has intermingled and assimilated so thoroughly with the Tibetan population that today there is relatively little distinction between the two. Though the vast majority of people in the county are classified by the government as “Mongolian”, very few people can actually speak, let alone read, Mongolian. Almost everyone speaks Tibetan, and most self-identify as such.
However, this has not stopped the local government in a go-for-broke effort to encourage Mongol-based tourism. With strange yurt-like blue domes on houses and public buildings throughout town, unusual patterning on downtown windows, and a silvery statue of Genghis Khan’s horse in the town square – not to mention all signs written in Mongolian in addition to Chinese and Tibetan – the government clearly is playing up the region’s comparatively unique cultural heritage in an attempt to bring in precious tourist dollars. Though at times tacky, it makes Henan a fun and funky place to visit. Pictures of Genghis Khan are ubiquitous, and the unusual architectural features makes the town stand out from the average Qinghai county capital.
In the company of several current ETP students, we passed the afternoon exploring the town and visiting the horse festival grounds, where every summer the traditional Mongolian Nadaam festival is held. The Henan people are renowned for their horsemanship, and their festival is well-known throughout the region for being quite the party. As we wandered through town, we seemingly randomly accumulated first- and second-year ETP students, who then accompanied us back to the school. We killed some more time before finally, around 5:30, the students started to arrive back from their trip to the mountaintop.
We managed to visit all six Junior 3 classes by 7:00, after which we tested the students in a shockingly modern and well-equipped (projector? computer? leather chairs?) lecture hall. During the middle of the test, I went outside to get a drink and, walking in front of the towering school building, the massive sign on its roof proclaiming, in three languages, that “Knowledge is Power”; a Huxley-esque image spreading out below the structure, where all of the school’s students stood in neat rows, books open, reading aloud. The resulting sound, luxuriant, fecund, even tropical; a richly atonal symphony of spoken words at all tempos and pitches, a sound that enveloped me and carried me away as it floated around the schoolyard and echoed into the heavens. If I was a composer, I thought, I would turn this into an orchestral piece; or at the very least I could simply record it and, listening occasionally, remember and be carried away again and again. I stood, meditatively, oblivious to the surrounding students, simply awed by the power of sound.. In the Henan school”]. In the Henan school”]
We finished testing and talking with the students by 8:15; two students told us “I hope I will be your student next year” as we ran out of the building to the waiting car, which was to carry us that evening back to Rebgong. And so we drove though the dusky, and finally dark, grasslands, the road going from smoothly paved to rough to spine-breaking. At nearly 11:30, we arrived back in Rebgong to find Rinchen-tso and Dawa-tso/Lady Gaga up and watching Taiwanese soap operas. We quickly fell asleep, exhausted after the weekend, but grateful to be back.
My reentry into school life has been especially difficult this week, as I see so many privileged and utterly spoiled students – my own – doing whatever they can to avoid having to actually work to advance, in the knowledge that their family (and their family’s connections) will do any necessary work for them. These kids have already got it made; while some of them study hard, most of them have already realized they don’t have to. And at the same time, in the high snowy grasslands of Zeku and Henan, students are working night and day, enduring frigid classrooms (and outdoor bathrooms) and beatings from teachers and rules that are both inexplicable and unbelievably strict, all so that if an opportunity happens to come along, they can seize it and shake it for all it’s worth. I certainly know who I’d rather be teaching.
I’ll end this with a couple more pictures of Dawa-tso/Lady Gaga looking adorable.