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A Three-Generation Tale of Teacher Li

Teacher Li (second in the line), Dong People's Singing Contest

Interviewed by Jane Li and Margaret Nie


18-Year-Old Girls Laugh When They See a Leaf Move


There's a song sung by the Dong people that says, "an 18-year-old girl laughs when she sees a leaf move!"


When I was a girl, I was really happy. Really happy.


I grew up with three older siblings. I had two sisters and one brother. At that time, although my family was poor, I was the favourite. My siblings did not want me to work, and saved the most delicious food for me. I grew up so carefree.


When I was in junior high school, I got sick and took a year off. At the same time, my dad got sick, too, which was really hard for an already poor family. So, when I finished the third grade and got into high school, things were  really difficult financially. My father said he would get me a suspension for the time being, and they would let me continue my studies when we had money again.


Father Said: Education Can Change Our Fate


My father is also a village teacher. He feels strongly that all children  should have access to a good education - to improve their lives and change their fate. However my mother said we could not afford to educate me and felt that education for girls was not important.


When I was growing up in rural Huaihua, many girls did not progress past junior high school. I also decided to drop out of school because my family had to pay for my brother's health school tuition, and educating us both was beyond the reach of the average family in those days.


I dropped out of high school after one semester and didn't continue, which is something I now regret. If I had stuck with it for another year or two, when the financial situation improved, and resumed my  high school education and gone to university, perhaps my life would have been different. I think maybe it's fate. I don't blame my parents, but they often blame themselves for it. I often tell them I was lucky enough to finish my junior high school education. To me, life will inevitably have some regrets.


After Dropping Out of School, I Kept on Studying


In 1997, whilst I was a substitute teacher in my village, I  met a young man from the same village. Our relationship slowly developed until we married and had children.


After I got married, I realised that life was different to me. My husband comes from a poor family where there was often not enough food. When I was growing up, although we were not wealthy, we were adequately  fed and clothed. After my brother graduated from medical school and went to work,  our family’s financial situation improved. But after I got married, I still had to worry about not having enough food. When I didn't grow enough food, I still had to go out and buy it, living on very little money.


The Hard Times Will Pass


Living with parents-in-law, it is inevitable there will be some unpleasant moments. When things were really difficult, I looked at my little daughter and gathered energy from her. We worked very hard to earn money, carefully planned our expenses, and hoped the future would be brighter.


I remember one time I had a quarrel with my husband when my daughter was only about 7 months old. I was so angry that I ran back to my mother's house and didn't take my daughter with me. My husband realised he was wrong and called me to apologise. He then came and picked me up. I told him I was really sad, and was worried about my daughter, so I went home. On returning home I discovered my child had run a fever in my absence and I blamed myself. I decided then that, no matter what, I would stay with my child and never leave her.



The Support of Family is the Best Backing


Later, when my daughter was seven years old, my husband and I planned to have a second child and our son was born soon after. His arrival made me even busier. Having another child was hard work but I was very happy. Life is like this - bitter and sweet. I remember I once planted rice seedlings and wanted to take advantage of the moonlight and get everything planted in one night, so was working very late. My  three year-old son ran to me at the edge of the field with a flashlight and said ‘Mom, I'm going to take you home with my flashlight. Come on, don't do it now. Do it tomorrow. Come home.’ I remember feeling so happy. I was so exhausted, but when I heard the kids, all my exhaustion was gone.


Teaching in the village elementary school comes with a heavy workload. To improve our financial situation, my husband went to Guangdong to work, so the children were sometimes neglected. My parents-in-law came to help and I am so very grateful to them for this, especially my father-in-law. He used to be a teacher, so was very understanding of how hard things were for me. Sometimes he would say to my mother-in-law, "You see, she has a class at school, she works so hard and still needs to take care of the children. Don’t give her the housework.” Both my father and father-in-law are former teachers, so they understand the pressures of my job and are more open-minded than others of the older generation.


See the Children Left Behind in the Village


Because of their support, I was more comfortable working at the school.


In our small village, there were many families whose lives were more difficult than ours. Some families had no grandparents to help with the children and so they had to take care of themselves while their parents worked.


There are two students in our school in fourth and fifth grades. Their parents work in Guangdong to make ends meet and can only come home during the spring festival. Their grandparents are gone and so life is hard. The children are unattended  and must rely on neighbours or other relatives in the village to take care of them. For such small children, going to school alone, as well as doing their own cooking and washing, is so hard.


Year after year, they only see their parents at new year for a few days. The children cry their hearts out when their parents are leaving and I cannot get rid of that picture in my mind. The children were left unattended all year round. Their faces were dirty and black. One day if the children's clothes and faces were suddenly clean, we knew their parents had come back. They were so happy I could feel their joy in all they said and did. Children need to be fed and clothed, but they also need the company of their parents. Nothing is a substitute for their parents' love.


Parents' Sense of Companionship is Constantly Changing


Previously, many rural parents did not realise the importance of physically being with their children and believed that providing food and clothes was enough. They did not know that without emotional care from their parents children can develop mental health difficulties.


I have been a teacher in the countryside for many years and understand the suffering of both children and adults. I am very happy to see the government and public welfare organisations paying more attention to our village.


Our village has set up a library with the help of an NGO so the children have more entertainment and cultural programs at weekends. I have joined the library as a volunteer, and really enjoy supporting and caring for those children left behind.


Social Support has Made our Village Better and Better


Because there is more social support, the lives of people in our village has also become richer. This is very good for our village and the children in the surrounding area. They have more contact with the outside world,  and their horizons have broadened. 


I've been asked if I want to be a woman in the next life. We have a song in our community that says, "In the next life, if you're going to be a bird, you're going to be a male bird.". But I still feel happy to be a woman. 


After graduating from college, my daughter became a teacher. She teaches at a school in our town. My family have been teachers for three generations - from my father, to me and now to my daughter. It’s an honourable profession. I love my job.


I hope, through our work, we can help more village children get out of the mountains and into the wider world. Only education can change their present situation and give them more possibilities and opportunities.


To help more children to learn, and to learn better. I think this is my mission.


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