I had my first official photography "assignment" a couple of weeks ago. I was asked by a friend and neighbor to photograph a charity outreach trip to a rural school in Shandong province in the town of Yishui. It was a joint project between the International School of Qingdao and Kellogg's, maker of breakfast cereals and biscuits.
Yishui is about three hours from Qingdao by road. We left at 6 am on a bitterly cold but clear and sunny day. It was so cold that inside the bus, our breath was freezing on the windows. From all I have seen, experienced, and read about China, I suspected that however cold it was on the bus, conditions at the school would be even colder.
Sure enough, the school was a simple country school, with no heat. So little heat, in fact, that the doors and windows were standing open on the sunny day, even though temperatures hovered around freezing. The children sat in the cold classrooms, two children sharing a desk, fully bundled up in coats and hats, but minus gloves. Fingers cold, noses red.
The school has about 150 children in six classrooms. The plan was to give the children a simple English language lesson that centered around learning basic verbs like laugh, play, greet, dance, sing, and taught using games, songs, and lots of body language. The staff at micMAC Global Solutions developed the lesson, and Jerry of micMAC blogged about the experience here. Afterwards, volunteers would distribute gift packages consisting of food and gifts like small toys and warm clothing.
It must have been an exciting morning for these children, when the busload of foreigners arrived, bearing gifts. From the moment we walked in, the children were at perfect attention. Not one single eye strayed, not one child acted up or demanded attention. It didn't take much common language to fully engage these children. They picked up on the idea quickly and fully participated in the lesson.
After the lesson came the gift boxes, customized to each child based on age and sex: yoyos, toys, school supplies, paints and crayons, paper, stuffed animals, dolls, jump ropes.
This was a great opportunity for me to practice photography, to shed my usual lack of confidence and the feeling that I am in the way or that I am about to be yelled at. For the first time, I was just doing my job by taking photos. It was a great feeling and altogether a pretty productive day.
It gave me more insight into this place of contradictions that is China, on the vast difference between the gloss of its cities and the chill of the village. How is it that this country, the one with the world's second largest economy, doesn't heat its children's schools in the dead of winter? What is that about? And how is it just that as a Westerner I can expect a standard of living that others still do not have: Hot water. Warm homes. Safe food and uncontaminated drinking water.