Day 3: Awards and some amazing little girls
Since this was the 15th anniversary of Millicharity's involvement in the town, as well as the 100th trip to visit, the local powers that be had arranged a ceremony to thank Uncle Zhuang and other members of the group.
In the morning, we all donned our new shirts (complete with Chinglish mistranslation of the slogan that I had previously given a correct translation of for some vests worn on another trip
) and walked to a school near the hotels.
There, we gathered and listened to lengthy speeches by various government and education officials. There was also a video complete with pictures of Uncle Zhuang when he first came to Feng Huang (Now we all what he looked like before he went gray). Amazingly, Uncle Zhuang's 5 minute speech only ran 7 minutes.
Then there were some short speeches by some people who had been sponsored as children. One is now an English teacher.
Finally, the award part came. Uncle Zhuang got a very nice trophy and was awarded an honorary citizenship in Feng Huang. Those who had been in the group and made many trips got a lower level awards. Finally, there was the 3rd rank of awards that somehow I qualified for. I've got a nice certificate, complete with my Chinese name as well as a glass crystal heart-shaped thank-you plaque for being such a nice guy.
I do really like those items, but I got something a million times better after the thank-you lunch.
We piled into vans for our first trip out into the countryside. Oooohhh.... native Miao and Tujia territory.
Sadly no one was singing.
When we arrived at the first primary school, I tried to find out if this was the school where one of the girls I sponsor goes. My wife asked and there was some confusion on the point. While the sponsorees were being rounded up, I found myself in the schoolyard surrounded by about 80 or 90 kids. It was fun at first, but then the boys decided they should take turns shoving their friends to force them into physical contact with this strange foreign creature who had invaded their territory. So, every time I looked one way, some hapless boy got slammed into my from the other side. When I turned around to see what was happening, some other kid would get shoved into me from the other direction. I decided that I'd make a habit of keeping my back to one of the vans or a wall at future school visits on the trip.
I got in a quick interview with someone from a local Feng Huang TV station. It was awkward, since I didn't yet know if my girl would be there. Finally, all the kids were in one place, but I couldn't get my lovely wife to look at the list. She was having too much fun uploading pics of kids getting smacked into me to her WeChat account from her cell phone.
Finally, I heard a name that sounded correct. There she was.
How to describe her? Third grade, but so tiny and thin. She looked ready to play a waifish street urchin in Oliver Twist or Les Miserables, even down to the dirt smudged on her perfect little face. From her surprise (and thankfully only slight terror), I'm guessing she wasn't expecting a furry foreigner.
Eventually, I found out the reason no one was sure what school she was at. Somewhere closer to her house, there's a tiny little school that only does 1st and 2nd grade. She'd just started 3rd grade at the larger elementary school.
Things got even more entertaining - about half the group (including the TV reporter) piled back into some of the vehicles and we headed off to her house in a tiny little Miao village near the school.
One thing I love about China - no matter how far out in the boondocks I get, no matter how low-tech the area is, someone's always got a satellite dish (not my girl, but one of the neighbors). Who needs silly things like electricity and running water when you've got a direct hookup to space?
On the way to the house from as close as we could get the vans, my little girl lead. I have a suspicion that the reporter has a foot fetish. For some reason, he spent about 4 minutes trying to video her feet as she walked. Somehow, the most of the others lagged behind, so it was just me, her, and the reporter when we met her father. He seemed a little confused when the reporter introduced us. Then he said my wife's name - that cleared up the confusion of how he and the girl weren't expecting anyone quite like me to come calling.
Since the sponsorship money is often sent by postal wire, it's infinitely easier for my wife to send it with her name on it.
The house was a traditional local structure, adequately sized for a family of 5, but was surprisingly lacking in one feature - interior walls. Instead, there were 3 curtained off beds (one for parents, one for the son, and 1 for the daughters). I got interviewed again, this time without the confusion about whether or not I was in the right place and with my little darling right there.
Finally, sadly, it was time to leave.
There was a local traditional laundry facility (flowing water and a flat surface) next to where we parked. I recalled that the entire time I'd been in Hunan, I was walking on asphalt, concrete, or stones. I finally stepped off the path and took my first step onto Hunan's soil while trying not to loose my balance and end up in the water next to the women doing their washing. I like to think of this as One small step for a Lunatic, one giant leap for all Lunatic kind.
At that point, I'd have been happy to declare victory and retreat to the hotel for a little celebratory
but the day was far from over. . .
The next stop only a few scary kilometers over sort-of roads away - a middle/high school.
This stop seemed a little less organized than most (perhaps "more fractal than most" would be an alternate way of expressing things
) - either that or the school was waiting for certain classes to end instead of sending all the kids over at once.
So there we were, parked on one edge of the running track (for some unknown reason, the track was built out of dark gray gravel mixed with dark gray powder that would stick to everything - maybe it was really the school's winter supply of coal spread out in a big oval
) with random kids coming up alone, in small groups, and in packs. As the crowd slowly grew, I was getting lots of "hellos" and "nice to meet you" statements, but no one seemed to really have any English skills above that. I conveniently kept my back to one of the vans, since I didn't want some kid almost as big as I am to get hurled against me.
I was chatting with the TV reporter (who spoke some English) when this one tall girl in the crowd got a bold look in her eyes, strode forward, and started speaking English about as well as the reporter did. We ended up having a very nice conversation and some of her friends also got brave enough to join in. Every now and then, I managed to lure my lovely wife close enough to translate words we got stuck on. Then came the question that anyone who doesn't want to spend an extra 8 hours per day tied into chat dreads getting from a pack of students - "What's your QQ number?"
Giving my QQ to one or two high school girls is something I can handle. By this point, I had a pack of 20 all yanking out pens to write down the number.
Happily for me, I don't know my own QQ number or even my own phone number (it's not like I call my own mobile very often). What I failed to mention that both numbers were conveniently located in my phone. I did end up with a piece of paper with that first, very brave girl's contact info as well as one of her friends (both got QQ invites from me as soon as I got back to DG). Both were in the sponsored group, so when the time came for the group photos, for once, I wasn't standing next to Uncle Zhuang, but instead was off to one side with my own pack of very pretty fan girls.
Sadly, time ran out and we had to move on.
But I'd made some wonderful new friends.
Finally, there was one more middle school to visit in the evening. In this one, they kept us and the kids contained to one room (better organized, but much less fun). Then a few of us went out for another run around the old town. I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever see it in daylight or not.
We kept bumping into MilliCharity people in the hotel and in the old town. Uncle Zhang kept visiting schools for most of the week. I'd loved to have gone along, but he was leaving for the more remote ones in the morning when we had to work (normal people get vacations - for me, a vacation is working only 5 hours per day during
). For me, this meant the Mission of Mercy was over.
Rain or shine, there were other missions to accomplish before the trip was over.