Sunday, April 15, 2007

We are the Village Green Preservation Society

I'm sure I've mentioned my students' "duty week," one week each term during which they attend no classes and instead don their matching school uniforms and sweep the campus or burn garbage. In this peculiar Chinese tradition of unpaid-labor-as-education, there was a day set aside last week for the English department to plant trees in light of a recent environmental holiday. We were not forced or particularly encouraged to take part, but me and Andrew are usually up for anything silly, and so we were out in front of the library at 8am just like the students. To our slight embarrassment, we were shuffled onto a special bus for teachers and rolled past our students, who were walking en masse with humongous flags. Especially with their matching blue outfits, they resembled the least-threatening invading army in the world.

As it turned out, "promoting environmental awareness" looked a lot more like "free labor for the new Zhangye park," and "planting trees" looked a lot more like "digging a ditch." Because of the novelty factor for me and Andrew, the two of us seemed to be the most enthusiastic in the morning, grabbing our shovels and practically taking the lead while everyone else eased into the day's work. It didn't take long to figure out we were digging through farmers' fields--I mentioned in the last post that the government often repossesses people's land for its own use, and in this case the government of Zhangye had given these farmers money in order to put up a new park. We were assured the payment was adequate and everybody was happy to give up their land.

The Zhangye work philosophy often seems to be get twice as many people as you need working half as hard, and especially with the English department consisting of 90% Chinese girls it was not exactly the toiling under the sun I was expecting. Our students are fond of "chatting" and "taking a rest," activities at which they excel, and before long there was a lot of relaxing and lounging around. The digging of the big ditch branched out into digging big holes in the ditch, followed by an extensive lunch break. It was clear the work was just about finished by noon (there must have been over 500 students), but the leaders weren't interested in letting the students go back early and we mostly spent the afternoon goofing off and getting sunburned. We never did get to plant any trees.

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