I Want To Study
We have a week of vacation. Mother takes me aside.
"My child. There's something I have to tell you."
I answer, "Mother, if you have something to tell me, do it quickly. Tell me." But her words are like a death sentence.
"I'm afraid you may have been to school for the last time."
My eyes go wide. I look up at her. "How can you say something like that? These days you can't live without an education. Even a peasant needs knowledge to ensure good harvests and to farm well."
Mother insists. "Your brothers and you add up to three children to be sent to school. Only your father is earning money, and it's not enough."
I'm frightened. "Does this mean I have to come home to work?"
"And my two brothers?"
"Your two brothers will carry on with their studies."
I protest. "Why can boys study and not girls?"
Her smile is tired. "You're still little. When you grow up, you'll understand."
No more money for school this year. I'm back in the house and I work the land in order to pay for my brothers' education. When I think of the happy times at school, I can almost imagine myself there. How I want to study! But my family can't afford it.
I want to go to school, Mother. I don't want to work at home. How wonderful it would be if I could stay at school forever!
May 2, 2001
How it Happened
The village of Zhangjiashu is a little like the end of the world; you don't come upon it by accident. Travel to Zhangjiashu, located thousands of miles northwest of China's capital, Beijing, is as much a journey through time as it is through space. Houses are built of brick and roofed with traditional tiles, and the village, spread unevenly along the hills, occupies a space far removed from the bubbling modernization of urban China. The village's inhabitants were amazed that we had taken less than twenty-four hours to get there from Beijing. For them, the capital is light years away.
In this remote corner of China, children are unaccustomed to seeing strangers. An official had told me that I was the first foreign journalist to come to the region since the 1930s. The very sight of us had created unusual excitement. Now, having reached the end of our visit, our little expedition was getting ready to leave. The road before us was long and difficult, and our driver was impatient to start.
At that moment a village woman wearing the white head covering of the Chinese Muslims approached us. She held a letter and three small brown notebooks covered in finely drawn
Chinese characters. She insisted, as if her very life depended on it, that we take them. We left a few minutes later, carrying this mysterious and apparently precious bundle with us.
A translation of just a little of what we had been given revealed a startling text, as well as the identity of its author. She was Ma Yan, then a girl of thirteen, in the midst of a crisis. In the letter, addressed to her mother -- the very woman who had given us the notebooks -- Ma Yan shouts a protest. She has just learned that she won't be able to go back to school. After five consecutive years of drought, her family no longer has the money to pay her school fees.
"I want to study," Ma Yan exclaims in the headline of the letter, written on the back of a seed packet for green beans. The letter had been scribbled in anger, as the various tears in the paper show. To pay for the ballpoint pen she used, we later learned, she had deprived herself of food for fifteen days.
The three little brown notebooks that came to us with Ma Yan's letter contained her personal diary. These pages gave us an intimate sense of the everyday life of a teenager whose life mirrors that of millions of others in the Chinese countryside. Many share her passionate desire for the education that will allow her and her family to escape poverty; many are tormented, like her, by the anxiety that they won't make the grade; many struggle against constant hunger and the sometimes harsh human relationships that can be part of an impoverished life.
Page by page, Ma Yan shows an increasing command both of her writing and of her feelings. Her first days as a schoolgirl in 2000, when she is thirteen, are the subject of the briefest, most understated notes. Then, before our eyes, Ma Yan gains in stature. Her life is a tough and fast teacher.
A month after our first visit, we decided to return to Zhangjiashu to meet Ma Yan and her mother.
We discovered that Ma Yan has returned to school. Her mother understood her distress and made the sacrifice of going off to do hard labor two hundred and fifty miles away to earn money for Ma Yan's education.
When we finally met Ma Yan, we found a girl who has short hair and a lot of character. She was simply dressed in a white shirt and red canvas trousers. Around her neck there was a small plastic heart on a chain, and she sported two silver-plated hoops in her ears. Lively and intelligent, she beamed at us, so very happy to have taken up her school life again. She didn't hide her joy when she learned that we've come because of her.
Without any sign of being intimidated, Ma Yan told us her story, recounting her great sadness when she thought she might never be able to return to school. She talked about the gratitude she owed her mother and about the hopes her family had vested in her, their eldest child. Her sense of duty to her family was linked with defiance. If she can only get far enough with her studies, she'll be the first to escape from the dual burden of a harsh, desert soil and a strictly traditional society. She was fired up by the challenge.