We were in An Wei’s hometown, a small village really. An Wei had brought this group of Global Volunteers for a working project—a new elementary school. It was to be built on the hard ground that we checked out on this first day in the village. Eager children sang a welcome to us as we climbed off the bus bringing us from Xian, a wonderfully historic city which should be on everyone’s China “must visit” list.
When we walked into the house where our group would stay, both Kay and I sniffed, immediately noticing a smell. It was fresh, light-blue paint on the walls. Our twin beds sported fluffy new coverlets and plump pillows. Someone, and we suspected the village women, had worked hard to make our accommodations the best that much elbow grease could provide. The living room/kitchen area also exhibited fresh care in anticipation of our arrival. Several youngsters stood, one with her thumb in her mouth, to gauge our reactions. Their smiles told us they were pleased that their efforts were so well-recognized.
From the very start we felt at home, despite the two pigs in a small enclosure just outside the front door. But the school was our project, and a day later, after we ate a light breakfast, we were looking at a large hole in the ground, the rough circumference of the future school. A large, hopeful group of families watched us.
Several of us worked in the older elementary school which our efforts would replace. We were there primarily to help Chinese teachers develop better skill in the English language, particularly with pronunciation. I chose to work with children in the 4th year. It would be eye-opening to me—a teacher by profession in the U.S. The first thing I noticed was the silence in the room of about 30 students. As the weeks went by, my major task was getting them to make a sound. They sat straightly still, obedient, with eyes that showed an eagerness to learn. I almost checked to make certain they were still breathing.
But I learned something else this first week.
Each day after school we walked around town to learn more about the people—and for them to learn about us. Classes lasted an intensive half-day, so we also were involved with the construction of the new school.
The men in our group poured cement on a flat stone, added water to it, and transferred it to our volunteer women who then walked it over to the where the walls for the basement would be. No one dared to apply a math test to this lengthy effort. The cement-on-stone hand-mixing process operated just beneath a cement mixer lashed to a tall pole. Several of us questioned why the cement mixer wasn’t running.
“No electricity,” was the answer, accompanied by a shrug. Meanwhile, I was hoeing bushes, shrubs, and weeds, sometimes shoveling dirt. One day, a little boy came up to me, took the shovel away and said, “Grandmothers should not be doing this kind of work.”
While I talked with him, I noted three black stretch cars coming full steam ahead up the dirt road, heading our way. I quickly took the shovel back, and yelled at my fellow volunteers. “Get busy.”
I knew who the men were that crowded into the cars. The Party men.
They carefully got out of their cars, carefully walked over to peer into the hole in the ground, carefully looked at each of us—me with sweat rolling down my face, a shovel in my hand. Then they left.
The next day, we were told we didn’t have to go to work, and would instead be bused to visit a major historical site some miles away, which would take at least five hours. I was surprised; this was contrary to the usual Chinese work ethic, but I didn’t complain. We took the trip, enjoyed a visit to the site, had a fine lunch, and returned to our village.
As we drove down the main street, we all noticed the new addition to that street—a 3- or 4-foot-wide, 5- or 6-foot-deep trench that ran the entire length of the village—and out to the new school site. None of us knew what it was until the next morning.
When we arrived at our work, the cement mixer was running, and our work became not only faster, but easier. I looked at the wires coming from the pole to the mixer, and recalled the ditch through the town. It didn’t take a math genius to add two and two.
The Party men had “lost face” in front of Americans. The people of the village didn’t care who or what had made electricity happen for their homes and jobs. They knew the reason; we quietly became instant heroes.