Imagine this. You are seven years old, and in your short life you have already moved from your countryside home to the city so your parents can find work in a factory, or shop, or labouring. Your parents, hoping for a better life, have discovered that city life is harsh, and that the local people call you ‘wai di ren’ – outside place people, outsiders, strangers. You live in the poorest suburbs of Shanghai, and go to school at special ‘migrant schools’, dreadfully lacking in resources. You learn in a classroom with a bare concrete floor, without heating, and your teachers manage with the barest of equipment – a blackboard, chalk, and a few well-thumbed books. You have never owned your own pencils, and you certainly have never had someone give you toys.
But this isn’t a sad story. Today I give you an inspiring true Christmas story of real joy, as you can see from these happy faces. Seven years ago a foreigner living here started a programme called The Giving Tree, as a way of bringing practical help to these ‘outsider’ children in the way of a bag full of warm winter clothes, books, pencils and toys every winter. International schools help out by distributing the bags to school families, who then buy items to fill them – usually a new coat, sturdy shoes or boots, a warm hat, school supplies, and toys. Each bag is marked with the name, age, height, weight and shoe size of the child who will receive them, so that everything will fit.
Yesterday, I was lucky enough to go along to the school where our bags were being distributed in a ceremony involving 400 children.
Welcome to Yu Hai Xue Xiao. Its poetic name, the Cloud Sea Little School, is at odds with the dirt road leading to the very rudimentary classrooms and concrete playground.
Inside the classrooms, the children are brushed and polished and wearing their best, best clothes and their red ‘young pioneer’ scarves in preparation for our visit. They’re doing their best not to be distracted by the rows of Giving Tree bags lined up at the front of the classroom. A bell sounds, and everyone races outside for assembly to line up, smallest to biggest.
The children are buzzing with excitement and find it very difficult to stand still and listen to the Principal’s speech. This is Yun Hai School’s first year as Giving Tree recipients, and all the children know is that the arrival of those exciting red and white bags has something to do with us foreigners. Then our principal explains that her students’ families have filled these bags with gifts for the children, because we are guests in their country, and we want to show how much we appreciate living here. There is a stampede back to the classrooms when the Principal says it is time for the bags to be given out.
There is fever pitch excitement back in the Grade 2 classroom as Teacher calls out the names of each of her fifty seven-year-olds. It is clearly an agony waiting for your name to be called, and the chidren sit tense and expectant, eyes wide and hands clasped.
One by one, they come to the front of the room and receive their bags. Some stride with great energy and proudly say ‘Sank yoo!’ as their teacher has taught them, others shuffle shyly to the desk, barely able to make eye contact, then shuffle shyly back again and hide the bag under their chairs, perhaps fearful that someone will take it away again.
Finally only a few children are left, among them this little girl, and her expectation is palpable. Is it me next? she wonders. No, someone else’s turn. It must be me next! I’m the last one!
At last the teacher points her way and her million watt smile can be seen from space. It’s me! It’s me!
I expect her to return to her desk and rip open the toys, like every child I know. But something unexpected happens. In the top of the bag she finds a card, hand-made by one of the children at our school, with a wish written in Chinese. She looks at it for a very long time, smiling to herself, then looks at the paper butterfly on the front, and reads it again, marvelling that some child she has never met has made a card for her. Around her, the same thing is happening at every desk. I have tears in my eyes.
The room erupts then, as the kids delve deep into their bags and to their wonderment find toys, pencil cases, pens and books. The noise and excitement is intense as fifty seven-year olds squeal,laugh and shout together. I watch the reactions around the room. One little girl has been given a jigsaw puzzle. Clearly, she has never seen one before and has no idea what this plastic wrapped box is, with a pretty picture on the front. It doesn’t occur to her to open the wrapping and look inside, beacuse she thinks the box is the present. Even when it is explained to her she doesn’t want to take the plastic wrapping off. Nearby, her friend has been given a rubik’s cube in clear plastic packaging. She doesn’t take the packaging off either. I ask the teacher if they have been told to leave everything in their packets. No! she says, surprised. It’s just that they haven’t seen toys in packaging before. I’m stunned.
I notice a quiet girl in one corner. She has her bag on her lap and she is taking out the items inside one at a time. She turns the first, a packet of hairclips, over and over in her hands for several minutes, absorbing every detail. She places it carefully back in the bag and takes out the next item, a pen. The same careful consideration. She repeats this with every single item in her bag, only ever taking out one at a time. When the last item is done, she tucks the bag firmly under her desk and sits silently, looking at her hands. I can see she wants to smile, a smile is struggling to pop out, but each time she pulls it back inside, and it’s gone. I think about her all afternoon.
For the others, though, there is easy joy and the room fills with laughter and smiles. We play some games, I teach my first game of Uno in Chinese, and the children visiting from our school sing Chinese songs they’ve learned, as the whole class joins in the chorus. Something about a cat, I think. Or maybe a rabbit. I’m a bit shaky on my Chinese animal names.
All too soon, it’s time to go. Forty-nine smiles, and one almost-nearly-not-quite-smile, wish us on our way.
We leave with happy hearts.
I have found it incredibly difficult to find the right words to write this. It really was a truly joyful experience. When you live in an enormous city, where the gap between those with, and those without seems to widen every day, it can be difficult to know how to help, and where. The Giving Tree was established by someone with exactly that wish – to help out in a very concrete and practical way. So far, bags have been distributed to more than 26,000 Shanghai migrant children, and this winter an incredible 15,000 bags will be filled and delivered.