Laughing in China

The following is an article I published with Free The Children on my time building a school in rural China.


Abing was 9 when they cracked her chest open. It was a necessary surgery that just about didn’t happen. Raised in rural China, in a small, agricultural village called Waer, Abing’s parents couldn’t afford the heart surgery. But it wasn’t going to stop her from walking 10 kilometers each way to school every day.

Abing’s story, sadly, isn’t a singular one in rural China. A story that I learned from the bright student while building a school with 10 students from Nanaimo, British Columbia last month.

Leaving Beijing on a 2-hour plane ride followed by a 9-hour overnight train, Alison Olsen (a Me to We facilitator connoisseur), the 10 students, two educators and I arrive in Xichang, China. Resting on a large lake and surrounded by mountains, Xichang is booming with condos and ever-increasing infrastructure. An apt barometer for most of urban China. As we leave our hotel in Xichang daily, we drive no more than 20 minutes to the city’s edge. There, perched on a small mountain above the city, rests the village of Waer. In a word, the village of 5,000 is picturesque.

In another word, Waer also shows the stark divide between rural and urban China. That word might be dichotomy. Or perhaps poor is the word I’m searching for. Overlooked. Ignored. Resilient. These words all work, too. No matter, the divide between rural and urban is harrowing. In walking around Waer for 15 minutes you notice the lack of water piping. There’s no health care or passable sanitation in sight. Only one section of the school is standing after the other was knocked down in the 2008 earthquake. It now only serves Grades 1 to 3 with 70 to 90 students per classroom. Most of the residents live off the land. Some, like Abing’s father, have taken second jobs in the city to make ends meet. But the children – it’s always the children – are all smiley-faced and eager to join in a game of What time is it, Mr. Wolf. It never fails.

It’s in those games that everything comes together, where our call is answered. We’re here to work on a school for these very kids. These curious, smiley faces that bolt in all directions when the big bad wolf turns around.

And we’re here to build a school so that Abing will no longer have to walk 10 kilometers to school come September.

Ryan Bolton is a book editor and writer with Me to We, Free The Children’s best friend. When he’s not traveling, he tries to play with words.  To see more photography from the trip, go here.