PERSONAL NOTE: I decided to share my book with friends and students in mainland China because it costs too much to order a copy from USA. Enjoy it and share it with people you care and love. Peace, Steve, usa October 2, 2019
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I first met Jacob one hot summer day in 2014 in Zhangzhou City (ZZ City). I had spent some time with Aaron and his mother (a single parent) who lives in the city. We were preparing Aaron to study in the United States. “If you do well in your studies, I will send you to study in the United States,” I promised Aaron when he was a freshman in college. He studied hard and received scholarship money awarded by the school every semester, scholarships for those who perform well in their studies.
This is something we do not do in America. In America, students are not awarded different scholarship money at the end of every semester by the university if you do well in your studies. Of course in America, any American student can apply for different kinds of scholarships when they first apply to study in any institution of higher learning, provided you meet their requirements. This happens usually at the beginning of every school year. There are very few scholarships for foreign students. But after you have studied in a school and you did exceptionally well in certain subjects, you (as foreign students) might be awarded certain scholarships for that particular discipline, like economics, music, philosophy, computer science, etc. I helped a brilliant student who graduated from an ivy-league university in China where I first taught. And he came to the United States to pursue an advanced degree, and he would soon enter a PhD program in the same school and the ivy-league school will fund all his studies and expenses. Those who are proficient in spoken English might be awarded Teaching Assistant positions teaching 101 basic classes while pursuing their PhD studies. This is true in most institutions of higher learning in America.
In China, at the end of every semester, top students in each department and their names and their scholarship amount (three categories of scholarship money) will be posted on the school website. Aaron had just graduated from the school where I was teaching and ready to go to USA. He and I were looking for a taxi to take me back to my apartment near the campus. This was before I knew anything about Uber in China. There are many local taxis that would be happy to drive you, for a reasonable fee, to the next town or city, just about anywhere in China.
Inside the taxi were two young men who were going to visit the high school, located next to my campus. One boy introduced himself as Jacob. He and his friend were visiting the high school where he had just graduated. He had received some scholarship money to study at the high school. I told him I was a visiting professor at the college next to his high school. Jacob jumped at the opportunity to tell me he would be interested to improve his English and that he would be entering the Fujian
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University of Technology (FUT) in Fuzhou, the capital city of Fujian Province, the coming semester. He would later tell me it was “fate” that we met in ZZ City that one summer day. Many students would tell me the same thing that it was “fate” that brought us together. Maybe my American friends in USA do not believe in fate the way many Chinese think of fate as a determining or propitious factor in their lives. Fate brings them good luck and fortune. We Americans tend to think of fate as something that is bad or unfortunate. Usually, we think of fate as something that is negative and harmful to one’s life.
I could never refuse any student who is genuinely interested to improve his or her English. For this reason and because of my Talk Show on the campus, many students, who were not my students, came to know me and would approach me if I would be willing to help them prepare or improve their English for some impending tests. Many white teachers would not want to spend their leisure time assisting Chinese students, even if they are their students, to improve their English. Their attitude? “Why should I do this for you? You are a burden to me. I want to enjoy my free time. I will teach you in class. Outside the class, my time is my time and please do not bother me.”
This is, unfortunately, a prevalent attitude among many white teachers or some expats in China. If you pay me, I might consider assisting you. Most are mercenary minded individuals. Everything is money, money, money.
Jacob and I met because he was determined to work with me on his English. And now he had completed two years of civil engineering when we met again, this time to spend the Spring Festival holidays with him and his parents in a farm. I had asked Jacob to come to Cloud Garden Hotel in Zhangzhou City so he could take me to the farm. Jake returned to the campus and I would go with Jacob to stay with his parents. Jacob and I decided to visit the brightly-lit central park and there were still many people going in and through the park on a busy, noisy Saturday night. Soon many, especially those working for the government and the banks, would be returning to work the following Monday. There were many interesting displays of themes related to the Year of the Monkey and we stopped at one particular spot because of the music and the dancers. I made a quick decision to show Jacob how to do the free-style dancing. As long as you can count, one, two, three, four…you can dance, I told him. And I did it with demonstrations of different moves with the feet, legs, hands, head, body, and arms…Long ago I learned that as a teacher and if you want your students to learn something new, your first step would be to “model” for them what you want or expect them to do. I am still a teacher. I am convinced anybody can dance as long as you are willing to move your body in accordance to the beat of the music. I love dancing and in my years living in America, I have discovered black kids are the best
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dancers. Maybe their ancestors came from Africa and I had seen movies and videos of Africans jumping and dancing to the beats of drums in native Africa. Dancing is in their DNA. They have, what I would call, natural body rhythms. Chinese kids are clumsy. White kids are like Chinese kids and they have no sense of rhythm. I watched my black students in America and they were the best natural dancers anywhere in the world. Their bodies are like water, fluid and flexible, like bamboos swaying in the breeze. Jacob was too shy to move his body despite the fact we were in semi-darkness, the dance floor lit by colored lights. But I persisted, like a true teacher. His problem? Extreme shyness or self-consciousness.
On Sunday, January 7 of the Lunar New Year, Jacob and I took a taxi from Zhangzhou City to Wu Cun, a small village where most people are farmers. Jacob did not insist on the taxi to take us up a narrow path to his house and so we had to walk a short distance along very rugged rocky path to his farm house. As we neared his house, he pointed to a small house that belonged to his best friend who is now learning to be a carpenter. Jacob also said his friend wanted to build a new house for his family in the same spot. There were banana plants everywhere and we heard the sounds of pigs nearby. These pigs belonged to his neighbor and the pigsty, pretty large, was covered with large sheets of black plastic. We could hear but not see the pigs, groaning for food. Obviously, they were not making noises of happiness to welcome me, a foreigner. They would grunt periodically.
I felt at ease in this environment because I grew up in a farm in Malaya. My family, immigrants from China, eked out a living on the soil, depending almost solely on raising pigs and producing rubber from rubber trees. It was a difficult life for me and I refused to be a farmer to please my adopted mother. We grew banana plants, not for the bananas then, but for the plants which we would be cut down after bearing fruits. My sister and I would work almost every day to chop up into small chunks the banana plants to be cooked in a huge metal barrel (outdoors) to be used as food for the pigs. At that time, we also chopped up potato leaves (they could grow to be very long and leafy) and they would be cooked the same way. Commercial products like copra was used sparingly to mix with the banana mush because it was too expensive for us poor farmers.
According to Britannica Encyclopaedia, “Copra, dried sections of the meat of the coconut, the kernel of the fruit of the coconut palm. Copra is valued for the coconut oil extracted from it and for the resulting residue, coconut-oil cake, which is used mostly for livestock feed.” It was very costly but definitely a good way to fatten the pigs. I don’t remember any other commercial feeds for our pigs. Whereas in China, banana plants are grown primarily for the fruits and the plants, after producing fruits,
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are left to rot in the fields. Maybe I should educate the Chinese farmers in China to use the useless plants to feed their pigs. But most large pig farms in China would use commercial feeds like the way most American farmers would feed their cows today. That is why China continues to import a lot of American corn to be used as animal feed. Interestingly, big pig farms in Malaysia also rely heavily on American corn as a major ingredient in their feed for their commercial pigs.
Jacob’s parents were home to greet and welcome me to their humble residence. Unfortunately, Jacob’s parents were not interested in pigs. A year ago they tried to raise fish but it was not profitable. This winter they focused on raising cucumbers in their hothouses. They did make some profits from the cucumbers. Jacob always boasts about his mom’s delicious foods…he says “my mom is the best cook that I know.” My first dinner at the table proved Jacob was right. I truly enjoyed her simple cooking. I had been eating too much food with Jake and his family and relatives. I felt good to be in the farm because Jacob’s mom and stepdad went to work in the morning and she would prepare something simple for Jacob and I to eat. They returned from the farm in the evenings. And she would cook a delicious simple meal for the whole family. I did not feel the pressure to eat and eat and eat…like when I was with Jake.
In the mornings we would have porridge. And steamed rice in the evenings. I loved the simplicity of farm cooking. I loved the simplicity of a farm life.
There was a big difference between the farm here in China and the farm where I grew up in Malaya. We owned the large plot of land in Malaya. How big? Big enough to allow some relatives to build their houses on it. And we lived on our own land as well, usually with the family house right in the center of our property. This was the same with many families in my village. The purpose of our farm was to grow crops, like potatoes and tapioca, to feed humans and the pigs. The potato leaves were harvested once the potatoes were mature for human consumption. We did not grow potatoes for the market.
The potato leaves were necessary for our pigs. The same with banana plants, grown mostly along the edges or periphery of the farm land…grown primary for the banana plants to feed the pigs. Our family did not sell the banana fruits to the market. So as children we always had bananas in our house. And around our house, we raised pigs, chickens and ducks. We built a fence around our house, so the pigs and all other animals could wonder freely outside our house. The water from our open shower would flow to a large pond, a happy place for ducks and the pigs. Because Malaysia is in the tropics, the pigs loved to spend their time in the muddy water with the ducks also. So I grew up seeing the animals everyday…preparing food for them and
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watching them grow from the day they were born. I loved my cats and dogs…and I had seen cats giving birth to their babies. And I also learned how to slaughter a chicken and use everything for food.
And there were farm houses throughout the village. We all came from the same province in China. We all spoke the same language. Both my parents had many brothers and sisters living in the same village or in a town adjacent to our village. We went to the same church and school. I studied Chinese for two years, then my father sent me to study in a mission school (the American Methodist missionaries operated my school). A few of our villagers were teachers or worked for the local government. Most of us were farmers, working in our own farms and raising our families. Eventually, many young people left the village to work in the cities. Very few had the opportunity to study abroad, like going to Taiwan (not mainland China at the time). At the time, the government in Malaya would send some newly graduated high school students to go to England to be trained as teachers. At the time the government had training centers both in Malaya and in England because we were under British rule then.
Since I grew up in the farm and my family depended solely on the farm for our existence, I had to work hard daily in the farm. I hated to get up early every morning around 2 AM to tap rubber trees and then collected the latex before my sister and I would bicycle to school every morning. I had no choice but to pray for rain so I would not have to get up so early every morning. Father wasted his time and money on his opium business and he paid the local police dearly to avoid arrest or confiscation of his opium business. As children we helped him do his opium business.
My adopted mother did not believe school was important for me. And I had to fight with her all the time because I wanted to attend school or learn some piano lessons from the village Bible-woman (a female preacher sent to our village church). Life was hard and I worked hard so one day I could flee this village for a better life. I did and I eventually got scholarships to study in the United States.
Jacob’s farm was a different place. All the land in China now belongs to the government. Each farming family is granted certain amount of land for cultivation and livelihood. They live in a village of farm houses. There are no highrise apartments in the whole area, like those apartments for city folks. They live in a simple farm house and his parents had to use their motorcycle truck each morning to travel a short distance to a farming area of family farms. Jacob had never worked in the farm to help his parents. He devoted his time to studies, like most Chinese kids in China. Parents want their children to focus on their studies and few would be required to do
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any kind of house chores. In the beginning on the campus, when students told me their parents are farmers, I would curiously examine their hands…and their small smooth hands and delicate fingers betrayed they had never done any farm work in their lives. My hands gave away how hard I worked when I was growing up in a farm in Malaya. Miraculously, the same rough fat fingers could execute a fine piece of music on the piano today.
I enjoyed every minute of my time with Jacob and his parents in the farm. My heart belongs to the farm. I love the simplicity of life, away from urban areas. This is China.