Caught Between Childhood and Adulthood, Shuang Faces Her Last Chance

Shuang stands in her garden. The yellow-blooming plants behind her are mustard greens, which along with rice are her family’s staple food

Fourteen-year-old Shuang doesn’t have time for fun anymore. There are too many chores and, as a 9th grader, this is a critical school year.

There is only time to study.

After the 9th grade, Chinese students compete for scholarships to continue their education. If they score highly on their exams, admission to a good high school could set them up to perform well on the national college exam three years later. Being admitted to a top college could change their life. However, if their score is only average, the risk of dropping out increases exponentially, especially in rural regions.

Shuang’s mountainous home north of the Vietnam border is so rural, it takes more than two hours on motorbike for her to travel to the boarding school where she lives from Monday to Friday.

During the school week, Shuang studies with her friends when they have free time.

Shuang’s sister, Jiu, walks up the path from their rice paddy and creek to their home.

But when she’s home over the weekend, there is so much work to do on her family farm. Wood to cut. Water to haul. Mustard greens to harvest for a week of meals. At home, Shuang and her family eat the bitter, leafy plant with rice for every meal.

Shuang knows that if she wishes to escape poverty or one day raise children who don’t subsist on mustard greens and rice, this is her critical year.

How well she performs on her exams could make or break her future.

That’s why she’s studying so hard: for the chance to win a prestigious scholarship and change her own destiny.

And Shuang deserves that chance.

Views of the isolated gully where Shuang’s family lives. Several ponds and a creek flood their rice paddy and also provide water for drinking, bathing and washing clothes.

It’s impossible to overlook her potential. She’s got the focus and drive that would allow her to become a doctor, scientist or great academic.

Shuang is short and strong, with a kind face and black bangs that cover her forehead in a perfect, crisp line. She has a natural seriousness about her, and is uncommonly mature and polite — carrying a sense of gratitude well beyond the average 14-year-old. She likes to read and re-read Chinese language books she received from her school. She’s a strong student in her class and her work ethic is unmatched.

But, the hardships she’s faced have aged her. Her smile rarely reaches her eyes.

Shuang just needs a chance.

Shuang gathering water in buckets from the family’s spring.

A HISTORY OF POVERTY

Jian Chen, Holt’s vice president of China programs, lived in Nanning during the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution. During this decade in China’s history, established institutions like conventional education were eliminated.  Rather than attending school, children learned from soldiers, peasants in the countryside, and workers in the factories.

The breakdown of formal schooling radically shaped the lives of all those who lived through it. Jian and thousands of other children and teens were sent from the city to work in the countryside alongside the peasants.

Jian recalls at times literally hauling buckets of human excrement across her back. She didn’t receive formal education, and instead spent two years doing farm work as a peasant.

But following the Cultural Revolution, Jian received an opportunity that changed her life.

When the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death, the new leadership re-opened colleges. Jian and all her classmates studied rapidly for their shot at a scholarship. Jian says she received a dose of good luck on her English exam and scored well enough to be admitted to one of the best colleges in China.

“That changed my life over night,” Jian says. “Suddenly, I was important in my village. My father had never given me much attention, but then he was so proud of me. My entire life changed.” 

Shuang’s brother Dao sits on his bed in the room he shares with both his sisters.

EDUCATION BARRIERS

In China, as everywhere, education remains the single most effective tool to reduce poverty and create the type of generational change that may eventually eliminate some of the country’s most pressing social issues, from family instability, displacement and child abandonment, to drug addiction and even one of the leading causes of abject poverty in China — lack of access to affordable healthcare.

Primary education is free through the 9th grade — but parents are required to supplement government funding with fees, uniforms, supplies and, as many children from the countryside attend boarding schools during the week, additional money for room and board.

Shuang’s mother stands at the kitchen door.

In rural areas, public schools generally receive less government funding than urban schools and the school system is weaker overall. As a result, rural families often pay more supplementary fees. This is counterintuitive as poverty is also more pronounced in rural areas. But because education is highly valued in China, many parents are willing to make tremendous sacrifices to keep their child in school.

“It’s very frustrating for these kids,” Jian says of children living in poor or rural communities. “They know how important a good education is. But they have no opportunities. They have no chance.”

These supplementary costs can overwhelm already struggling families.

Not only do children from poor rural families have fewer educational opportunities, they also have more exhausting household duties and generally poorer health and nutrition. In order to eat, many children help cultivate rice and gardens, and do more time-consuming and exhausting chores like hauling water and washing laundry by hand.

These responsibilities are more heavily felt by girls, who are traditionally expected to carry this workload.

For a student like Shuang, the responsibilities outside of her classwork are so distracting, so exhausting, so time-consuming, it’s easy to see why she is at a severe disadvantage in the competition against more wealthy students.

“What I experienced as a child, it’s not the same in China anymore,” Jian says. “But the lack of opportunities is still the same. I have so much empathy. For poor children, there is no investment in their education. They don’t have any hope unless someone helps them.”

HOLT PROGRAMS

In the seven years since Holt began family strengthening services near Shuang’s village in Nanning, this program has twice been named one of the 40 most influential projects in China by the Civil Affairs Ministry and China Charity Federation. A total of 2,500 of the most vulnerable children in the region are enrolled in sponsorship. With the support of their sponsors, they receive assistance with their school fees, as well as nutritional support. 

Every child chosen to participate in Holt’s family strengthening program comes from one of the poorest families, and most children have lost one or both parents. More often than not, students from poor families — like Shuang — drop out of school soon after the 9th grade to begin helping on the family farm or to work in nearby factories.

But in Holt’s programs, every child is matched with an advocate who encourages children to stay in school.

Children receive school uniforms and supplies, which helps reduce the burden on their families. They also receive a few dollars in pocket money so they can purchase things like toothbrushes and soap, clothing or, during the New Year, some food and snacks that they would normally not have, like meat or treats.

“Sponsors also make children feel special,” Jian says. “It makes them feel good to know that someone is thinking about them and supporting them. Sponsors give kids confidence.”

Eventually, the goal is to help the family earn enough income that they can provide for their children independently.

And when sponsored children score so well on their exams that they are admitted to great high schools or universities, Holt donors may provide additional support. 

HOME LIFE

If you stumbled upon Shuang’s home by accident, you would probably assume the house had been long abandoned.

Shuang and her family live on a one-acre plot of land in an isolated gully overlooked by three hilly peaks. Shuang’s two eldest sisters moved to the city to find work, so now it’s just her mom, dad, 17-year-old sister, Jui, and 8-year-old brother, Dao.

Their three-room mud hut is built on a shallow cutout in the side of one of the hills. Their house has no electricity or running water. One room serves as a kitchen, where besides a small, clean metal table and a few shiny knives, everything is covered in soot and dirt from the indoor fire pit that they cook over.

A chicken picks through a trash pile outside Shuang’s kitchen.

In the second room, Shuang and Jui share a wood-plank bed. Dao has his own small bed, too. Their tiny room is so full and muddy, it’s hard to think that the three of them sleep here.

“I don’t have anything special,” Shuang says, looking around the room. Her eyes settle on a stack of books and notebooks on one corner of the bed. “It’s hard to study here. It is dark and there is no light at night.”

Outside the mud walls, in a 10-foot “yard” that drops dramatically down the hill, there’s a brick chicken coop, where about 10 chickens and 10 new baby chicks chirp quietly. A small, disheveled mother dog watches her two rambunctious puppies. If anyone walks too closely, they duck into a burrow they’ve dug under one wall of the home. A clothesline marks the perimeter of the yard.

Shuang looks past the clothesline, down the 30-foot drop to a small creek where the family washes their clothes, and beyond that, a small rice paddy that’s flooded with an inch or more of water. Both sides of the rice paddy are marked by small ponds, which form here because rain channels down from the mountains.

“Both our ponds have a spring, too,” Shuang says.

Three times a day, Shuang carries two 5-gallon buckets down a steep and overgrown path and fills them from the spring water, which is cleaner than the muddy ponds, but barely.

A flock of white ducks swim nearby. Shuang is excited that because it’s Chinese New Year soon, they will get to eat duck. In the north pond, the family also raises fish, which they can catch with hooks on string. Once in a while, they will also eat fish with their meals.

“I eat chicken sometimes, once per year,” Shuang says. “Otherwise, we sell our chickens and eggs in the market.”

To make additional income, Shuang’s parents gather kindling from the mountains around their home. It’s backbreaking work, even with the help of their horse and cart. The selling price is low.

“It’s hard to find wood to gather close to the house now,” Shuang says. “Sometimes my parents walk two hours to gather firewood.”

The family’s only connection to paved roads, rural markets and nearby villages is a small, dirt footpath, wide enough for their horse cart, but too thin, steep and unstable for a vehicle. It takes 40 minutes to walk from Shuang’s house to the two-lane highway that winds over a particularly dense stretch of mountains. From there, the closest village is a 30-minute drive.

AN ACT OF CHARITY

Shuang’s Holt sponsorship advocate is a kind and compassionate man named Mr. Pan.

Mr. Pan worked as a teacher before joining China’s government in the Ministry of Education. Now, in partnership with the local government, Mr. Pan meets with children and families in Holt’s programs and works to keep them in school, ensure their basic needs are met and explore long-term solutions to reduce or eliminate poverty.

“Shuang’s family is the poorest in this area,” Mr. Pan says, “So I’ve spent more time trying to find ways to improve their situation. Their lives are very hard. They are very isolated. During the rainy season, I can’t even reach them because the path to their house is too muddy.”

When Mr. Pan first visited Shuang and her family, he was struck by how difficult life is for this family.

“How can you study here? How can Shuang find enough time to study?” Mr. Pan asks rhetorically, standing in the muddy yard in front of her home. “Shuang is so happy and positive, but still her life is very difficult. The father had a leg injury, and that makes work difficult for him. Shuang’s mother has kidney problems. And they live so far from anyone. Even it is hard for the community to help them. I want to help Shuang stay in school.”

Three days before the Chinese New Year, Shuang and her family have reason to celebrate, and a genuinely excited smile breaks through Shuang’s typical calm when she shares her good news. 

Shuang is moving into a new house as soon as the concrete floors dry.

Shuang’s new house is ready for move-in as soon as the concrete floors dry. People from Shuang’s village plan to bring furniture and other items for the family.

After Mr. Pan first visited Shuang and Dao — who is also in Holt’s sponsorship program — he took it upon himself to see how he could help. He contacted several companies in Nanning to ask if any business would help Shuang’s family.

Finally, a printing company offered to build a new home for Shuang. As charity is a relatively new and novel concept in China, this offer was exceptionally rare.

Adjacent to their current home, a new, whitewashed cement structure waits for the family to move in. The roof is tin and the windows and front door are just hollow frames, but already this is a clear improvement to their current home.

This new house will greatly increase the family’s overall security. It will help Shuang and Dao perform better in school, reduce the children’s chores and help the family grow stable.

Shuang walks through the door to the main room, with doors to the left and right leading to the home’s two additional rooms.

“We will sleep over there,” Shuang says, pointing to the left room. “My parents may sleep in this room or this may be a living room and they will keep sleeping in the other house.” Shuang walks into the third room — the kitchen — which has a half-wall separating off a small, closet-sized space near the back corner. “We have a bathroom now!” Shuang says. “Before, we had no privacy. We had to wait until night.”

Shuang’s new house and old house sit on the hillside.

“They still won’t have running water or electricity,” Mr. Pan says. “I have asked other companies to help with solar panels, but I haven’t had luck yet.”

As the family has little furniture, Mr. Pan asked the nearest village to donate some items. In early February, villagers will help carry new beds, a stove and some other home goods along the same long, slippery path that Shuang and Dao walk on the days they go to school.

“We have a new home for the New Year,” Shuang says. “I am so happy.”

Shuang is also excited for another big change coming to her family’s farm — another opportunity that Mr. Pan helped create for her family. Soon, they will be hosting 100 cows or more at a time, cows owned by the largest landowner in the area. About 50 yards from Shuang’s new house, two laborers are building short, brick walls that will eventually be a roofed, but mostly open-air, barn.

“The family will get money for keeping the cows here,” Mr. Pan says. “It’s not too much extra work for them, but the extra income will really help.”

Shuang with her mother and sister, Jui.

SECOND CHANCES

Like most children in China, Shuang is not sure what she wants to be when she grows up. That would likely be determined by the needs of her country, and she would accept the offer to study in any college, regardless of subject.

Generally, Shuang’s attitude is one of joy and gratitude.

“I love my family,” Shuang says. “I’m happy to help them.”

But, if she receives the opportunity to continue her education, she will take it.

As she leads up to her exam day, Mr. Pan and Shuang’s sponsors will do everything they can to help reduce the burdens she faces and give her the confidence and support she needs to keep pushing forward. To give her a chance at the future she dreams of. 

WRITTEN BY BILLIE LOEWEN | PHOTOS BY BRIAN CAMPBELL

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