Aired on Kansas Public Radio Aug. 20, 2008 6:35/8:35am
My job in Henan China was to lecture to biology student teachers on the value of real labs and field work. This included reasons why real plants and animals are more valuable educational experiences than pictures, and why pictures can be more information-laden than words in a textbook.
The university student understood my English, but a translator provided my message in Chinese for the older professors.
Every day, I had a university driver who drove me from school to school.
He didn’t have a college education but he sat at the back of the classroom and listened to the translation. After my week was over, he drove me to the railway station. As we pulled in, my colleague leaned back and said the driver would like to tell you something before you go.
“You talk to the young teachers about how to identify tree leaves,” he said. “I know a different way. I know which leaves to eat and which will make you sick.”
I could see in his eyes his tragic childhood memories. It had not occurred to me until now that I was in northern Henan Province, the site of a terrible famine in 1959 and 1960.
After liberation in 1949, the Communists had ensured that everybody was equal. Equally poor. But the food supply was spread even and nobody starved...until the time of the Great Leap Forward. Then a combination of bad policy and bad weather caused a famine in this area and about 28 million people died of starvation.
My driver had been a child at this time, and he survived. He went on: “That was under Mao Tse-tung. After Deng Xiaoping, that will never happen again.”
The train ride back to Beijing was a long one, through the farmlands of Henan and Hebei, and past hundreds of villages, I could glimpse literally tens of thousands of people tending fields, working in shops.
Many were older with childhoods from that tragic era.
To understand China, you must understand “chr ku,” swallowing your bitterness and getting on with life after great loss and suffering. China’s attitude of success is based not just on better times that are coming but also on the memory of far worse times.
The parents of today’s Chinese students know hunger.
Their grandparents know starvation.
And they will make sure that will never happen again.
Perhaps America had a similar period. Our grandparents who survived the Great Depression and were forever goading our parents to work and save. But that history is beyond the understanding of my generation, let alone my students.
And perhaps in another 40 years, China wil also lose the motivation tht somes from remembering hard times.
Back in the United States, every time I teach my biology students to identify leaves, I remember my driver from Henan.
My students don’t notice that sometimes I turn away and face the blackboard to pause regain my composure. They don’t know that identifying leaves can be a matter of life and death.