Can studying change one’s fate?
The answer to this question might in fact vary from region to region, or even city to city.
As China’s universities continue to expand the enrollment over these years, every year we have a large group of freshmen graduating from college and entering society looking for opportunities. For underprivileged families’ children in Mid-West China, going to a college is indeed a proper way for them to change their fate. When we are talking about class solidification, these kids from underprivileged families only want to make enough money to let their families to have proper meals every day and lift some of the burden from their shoulders.
In the 56th issue of Photo Gallery, we travelled to the middle zone between Tengger Desert and Badain Jaran Desert in Gansu province to visit a college student and his family there to get a glimpse of their everyday lives.
Gansu province’s Lizhi village of Minqin county is located at the edge of Tengger Desert. Lizhi village is a Northwestern village and has constant water shortage due to the dry climate. Boasting a population of one thousand, you can pretty much only find old people over 50 years old in the village as most of the young people have gone out for work or moved away. These old residents guard this land. They make a living by farming and also support the young people that are studying or living in big cities.
July 16th, 2017. A couple was harvesting Minqin honeydew melons in the field. Minqin honeydew melons are the main fresh produce that the farmers here rely on for a living. Every year, wholesalers from all over the country will come to Minqin to purchase melons. This is the busiest season for local farmers. Local farmers usually sell their melons to wholesalers at a price of 70 to 80 cents per kilogram. This year the price dropped to 30 to 40 cents due to the flood in the south.
When other villagers were selling melons at downtown, Li Hongshan and Li Sheng, father and son, were still caring for the melons, waiting for their melons to ripe at home. Li Hongshan is 67 years old and has three kids. His daughter had married and moved to another province, while his elder son is working in another city. His younger son, Li Sheng is a freshman at college. Li’s family has a farming land of 12 mu, which Li Hongshan takes care of all by himself. When the season for planting melon seeds comes, Li Hongshan would be extremely busy and he wouldn’t be able to do all the work. And therefore, his melons ripe over ten days later than others’.
Eight out of the 12 mu land is for growing melons, while the other four mu is for growing sun flowers, fennels, and corns. If everything goes smoothly and there is no natural disaster affecting the production, this farming land can generate over￥8000 for the family every year. This is the only source of income for Li Hongshan to support this family. However, Li Hongshan always misses the best time to sell the melons as his melons ripe later. “In the beginning, the melons could be sold at over one yuan per 500 gram. But when we take our melons to sell, the price would drop to 30 cents per 500 gram already. And sometimes the wholesalers only want melons that are bigger. So we could only take the small melons back home.”
Despite all the busy and tiresome farming work, Li Hongshan had never considered asking his kid to drop out of college to come back home to help him. Li Hongshan married when he was 40 years old. His wife has been having health issues since their marriage. To take care of the mother and two little brothers, Li’s elder daughter had quitted the school to help out at home until the mother passed away in 2006. After her mother’s passing, the daughter started to work in another city. At school, Li’s elder daughter was in fact a grade-A student. This breaks Li Hongshan’s heart every time he thinks of the daughter’s dropout. He has been telling himself that no matter how hard life is treating him he would carry on and support his kids to go to school. He has also been telling his kids the importance of studying. With his 12 mu farming land, Li Hongshan is supporting his elder son at a professional school and younger son at Lanzhou University.
In 2016, Li Sheng was enrolled in Lanzhou University’s Civil Engineering program. This was the first summer vacation in college. He started to help out his father in the field after arriving home. “In the past, I would have to do some farming work every day after school. It was tiring. I didn’t understand why there was so much work to do while other kids had time to go out and play,” Li Sheng said. “After I started studying at a boarding high school, it’s better. But I appreciate the hardship I endured. It’s better to encounter some obstacles when I was a kid, so that I can work harder than other people. I will be more mature. Sometimes when I feel lazy at school, I would think of my home’s conditions. Perhaps this also drives me to study.”
The father and son live in these three shed bungalows. As a matter of fact, these simple shelters are not theirs. “A few years ago my house just couldn’t hold and collapsed. My uncle’s family moved to Inner-Mongolia and left this yard. So we moved in here,” Li said. In this underprivileged household, the illiteral father always tells his sons that studying will change their fate. For Li Sheng, his goal is get his father out of the field and provide him with proper meals every day.
When farming in the field, the father and son would eat watermelon buns for breakfast and lunch. They would cut the watermelons in half and put the watermelon in the buns.
Li’s family has 20 sheep, which are their most precious wealth. Every morning and evening they would cut the grass for the sheep to eat. In general, they wouldn’t eat meat at home. They would only make lamb dish for the spring festival during the winter. If there is an emergency at home or Li Sheng needs money, Li Hongshan would sell one or two sheep to get some emergency money.
When first entering the college, Li Sheng applied for a student loan to pay for the tuition and accommodation fee. In his first year, he got an annual ￥4000 grant funding from Toyota Scholarship Foundation through his school. “This money is enough for my living expense,” he said. After getting the grant, Li Sheng never asked his father for money again, or his brother who was working in another city. Li Sheng lived a very simple life in Lanzhou. “When I go to have a meal that’s a bit expensive with my classmates, I would think of my dad working under the burning sun while the temperature is thirty something. I would feel a bit guilty.”
During busy seasons, Li Hongshan would work till late night. Sometimes he would have to water the plants all night.
When back home for vacation, Li Sheng would occasionally invite some of his classmates from middle school and primary school to play basketball at a primary school in the village. At present, this primary school is deserted. Kids from better off families in the village are going to downtown for schools. And some wealthier families have moved to downtown. As long as Li Sheng can remember, Li Hongshan has been telling him that even though their family is poor, he shouldn’t steal things. “If you want something, dad will buy it for you. Don’t steal or do bad things,” Li Sheng recalls. Li Hongshan tells Lisheng that he doesn’t have to have top grade, and that he should learn to socialize with people and learn to get on well with others. Li Hongshan is a simple person, and his education has a huge impact on his son. “My father is a very hardworking person. I learn a lot from him,” Li Sheng said.
In summer, Li Hongshan will sleep in the yard. In college, Li Sheng got to know school mates from all over the country. Some school mates live a good life, some are talented. But Li Sheng said he wouldn’t feel envious, or have low self-esteem. “When I was a child I didn’t have the money to learn about many things. If I had the money I would learn more,” Li Sheng said. But he also thinks that he had experienced things that others have never experienced before, and that he has skills that others don’t know. “For instance, in a big city, you don’t get to see sky this clear.”
The electric tricycle is the family’s most important labor tool and vehicle. The village’s road is bumpy, with scattered and sharp rocks all over the ground. The tricycle’s tires often break because of that. After a day’s busy farming work, Li Sheng would
Every year from the seeding in February to the sun flower harvesting in October, Li Hongshan would wake up at five in the morning every day. This is the “standard” wake-up time for the farmers in the village. When back from school for summer vacation, Li S
Lizhi Village. An old man was rounding up his sheep back to the house. Like in many undeveloped villages, this village also suffers from the loss of young labor. Farming is difficult and tiring while making little profit. This makes young people choose to work in cities, leaving old people behind. It’s actually quite rare for people as old as Li Sheng’s father, who’s 67 years old, to work in the field now.
But there are also people coming back to the village from cities. The village community director of Li Sheng’s neighborhood was one of those people. He had worked in other cities for many years and had have his ups and downs. Even though he had purchased an apartment in Inner Mongolia, he still decided to come back home and manage his land of several tens of mu with his wife. He believes that land is the most fundamental thing. As one of the youngest farmers in the region, he called himself the “last farmer”. Last year the production wasn’t well. Li Hongshan couldn’t even make enough money to make up for the cost. The director then purchased some fertilizers for the villagers. Li Hongshan was able to plant the seeds in early spring thanks to that.
To ensure the crops will have enough water supply, the villagers had raised money to drill a well for watering. In this dry village, water is scarce. People here even only shower once a month. The precious water is usually used for watering crops. The only thing that separates the desert and the village is a vegetation belt. Many of the plants have died from water shortage. As for the villagers, the underground water is also scarce. At least the amount is not enough to support the crops, livestock and villagers altogether. Nobody would pay for water resource for “irrelevant” plants.
The desert moves every year. The sand storm is especially severe during the spring. In the hardest time, the melons would be completely destroyed by the storm. This disrupts the farmers’ schedule and brings economic damage.
When Li Sheng was still a small child, he liked to play in the Tengger Desert that’s one kilometer away from his home. Standing on the edge of Tengger Desert, Li Sheng could have a view of the village that had raised him. He also worries about the growing desert. The young people in the village are leaving. If the environment keeps degrading, nobody would want to return home. Li Sheng’s father keeps telling his sons that he would not leave this village when he became older, even if the two sons would settle in the city. Li Sheng worries that this village, where his father would spend the rest of his life in, would become unlivable.
Li Hongshan said that he doesn’t have special expectations or wishes for the kids. “I only want my kids to behave well and not commit any crime. I want them to learn to get along well with others. I want them to be able to feed themselves. Then I would feel settled,” Li Hongshan said, commenting that he would continue farming for three years. “I am old now. I don’t have much energy. It already costs me a lot of energy to take care some crops. I won’t be able to do it soon. But my kids still need money for school. So I would keep doing it for three years.”
“I will be graduating in three years and will start working. Then my father won’t have to work on the farm,” Li Sheng believed that his home has great melons many diligent people, and therefore there must be development potential. “If I had the power in the future, I would come back to build roads and grow trees. I want to make my home’s environment better to let more people know this place better. I want to attract more people to our home, young people like me to come back and build their home.”
This issue of Photo Gallery is sponsored by Toyota Scholarship Foundation
Toyota Scholarship Foundation is founded to provide financial aid for college students from underprivileged families in Mid-West China. The foundation aims to provide essential help instead of extra support. Bearing this principle, the foundation has strict standards when selecting students for financial aid.
Every year, several hundreds of applications would be sent to Toyota Scholarship Foundation. Besides assessing academic records, family background, and recommendation letters from the school, the panel will also review the candidates from multiple perspectives. For instance, student from underprivileged family with several kids will have priority, as they also bear the responsibility of taking care of others; student from underprivileged family with kids with severe disease, orphan student, or student with a single-family background would have priority. The panel consists of college teachers, media and education experts, and other social people etc. The panel will assess the student’s background through the community committee, the school and the candidate him or herself. When the members of the panel have disagreements, the panel will vote on a decision. These standards insure that aid will be provided to students that really need them. It’s hope.
Toyota Scholarship Foundation also sets up orientations for students: Summer camps, career counseling, social practice and opportunities to go to renowned universities in Japan for further studies etc. These activities will improve students’ overall capabilities. For information, please refer to Toyota Scholarship Foundation’s official website.
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Translated by Garrett Lee (Senior Translator at PAGE TO PAGE), working for TMTpost.