"Hallo!" shouted the bicycle girl, her smile beaming. She was part of a gaggle of students, mostly girls and I would guess about third grade, who were rushing home from school at noon.
"Hello," I replied, and they giggled and headed on home.
Soon another group of elementary students sauntered by, more in a kick-the-can-down-the-road mode than exuberant. They too were heading home for the 2-hour break that brings the parents back home from work and provides time for the mid-day meal and some family together-time. It is no indefinite siesta because at 2:00p.m. everyone will be back at school or work until 6:00 p.m.
What was the difference between my first gaggle of giggles and the second sullen group? Students in the first group all had red neck-scarfs; the second group did not.
Red neck scarfs are the emblem of the Young Pioneers, the youngest stage of what I can only compare to our Scouts or 4-H. Western media often portray these as little communists. And yes, if they want to join the Party when they reach college age, they must start a this point. But look in their little eager faces and you will see little Scouts, not ideologues.
To become a Young Pioneer is to commit to working hard in school and always giving your utmost effort. These youngsters — ages six to fourteen — organize at this tender young age to make sure that the teachers’ blackboard and erasers get cleaned everyday. As they grow older, their tasks to serve others become more extensive. They don't earn merit badges, but their attitude is amazingly parallel to our youth organizations.
The pledge for our Boy Scouts is: "I will do my best, to do my duty to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight."
In Kansas, rural students may be more familiar with the 4-H pledge: "I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world." [Incidently, the original 1918 wording was by Kansan Otis E. Hall.]
The Young Pioneer ceremonies are very similar to ours, with older members tying the first red scarfs for the new youngsters. A Young Pioneer salutes by holding their right hand over the head, with hand flat and fingers together. Their slogan translates to: "honesty, courage, enthusiasm, unity." Their pledge is similar to the 4-H and Boy Scout pledges in that it includes a promise to love their country and people, study hard and keep themselves fit.
Yes, parents worldwide have the same desire for their children to love their family and their country.
Contrary to the definitions in many Western dictionaries, children in China are not required to be Young Pioneers. There are about 120 million Young Pioneers in China, which is a big portion of the six-to-14-year-olds. By being both state and community supported, it is far more massive than our voluntary clubs and associations.
But the continuous extra work, expectations and pressure eventually takes its toll. The numbers of red neck scarfs dwindles each year as the children grow up.
Each year there is a nationally-televised program that honors citizen heroes across China. One example this last year was a woman who was coming home and looked up to see an infant about to fall from a ledge many stories up. She dropped everything to run and catch the falling infant. Although this broke her arms, the infant was unhurt. As Young Pioneers presented flowers to each of these citizen heroes, there was not a dry eye among viewers. In some ways, these youngsters in red neck scarfs serve as examples for some of the older Chinese officials and businessmen who have forgotten the values of their youth and perhaps strayed from their concern for other people.
Of my young married friends here who have a little child about to go to school, I can ask: "Will your child be a Young Pioneer and wear a red neck scarf?"
For those who have any aspirations for their child, the answer can be nothing other than "Of, course!"