Portrait of Shanghai: a migrant’s perspective

Shanghai’s population recently breached 20 million and there is every indication it will continue accelerated growth in the near future. The glamor of city lights and the promise of prosperity has attracted people of every type to the city.  To know the city begins by getting to know its people, and I had some amazing opportunities to sit down and talk with many people in Shanghai. I am so thankful to God for bringing me in contact with these few.
The following posts will highlight some of the people in an effort to paint a portrait of Shanghai. Due to considerations for privacy and frankly, because I often forget to whip out my archaic 3MP camera, many of these people will not have a face associated with their names.
Lao Shi
Lao Shi is Chinese for teacher but I guess the better description for my next contact is that of a school owner.
David and I travel a bit further today, towards the outer edges of Shanghai. We are near the end of a metro line as we walk over to the school. Along the way I pass by industrial zones and heavy machinery. This seems like it would be a fairly loud place to have a school.
David primes me on the education situation that migrant children face in Shanghai. “Migrants” is a rather vague term that essentially includes anyone that has moved to the city from outside Shanghai. Most, if not all migrants have come from near and far in search for work and a better life. Not all migrants find what they are looking for, but instead find themselves in denigrating jobs and fighting an uphill battle to escape poverty.
In America, we limit public schools access to students who have a residence permit in the local area. Therefore those who live and pay taxes to the county have associated rights to educational and public resources. China operates in much the same way. Permanent resident permits are granted to locals who are fully documented and registered. This permit gives access to a full range of social benefits and protections (urbanatomy:shanghai 2009). Occupational permits are granted to foreigners and long term migrants who can afford a permit fee.
Without either of these two residential permits, citizens are not allowed to access resources, chiefly education for children. This makes sense from an infrastructure point of view. The flurry of incoming migrants drains resources but contribute little in taxes. For this reason, Shanghai residents are given access to schools while many migrant children are left to find alternative means of education. This continues the vicious cycle of poverty as a new generation of workers is raised without adequate education.
The situation is not entirely bleak as some privately owned schools have opened to help migrant children. If I start using the term “private schools” here, I do not want you to conjure up an image of crisp uniforms or Dead Poets Society. It looks nothing like that at all. Privately owned schools simply can accept anyone who pays, and often tuition is bare minimum because migrant families have little to pay.
We arrive at the gate and I hear loud sounds emanating from behind the large stone wall. We are unannounced visitors today. David hopes they will allow me to get a glimpse of the school and ask the teachers some questions. David recognizes a lady who opens the door and lets us in. It is not a large property and within a few seconds I am able to scan the whole lot. This is a no frills school, two two-story corridor stone buildings run down the length of the property with a large basketball court in between the buildings.
Portrait of Shanghai: a migrant's perspective

There might be a hundred or so children playing right now all around us, a disproportionate amount are boys. Some are playing basketball, some are jump roping, and a small group of boys are trying to kick each other off an elevated base (perhaps like king of the hill). It’s a lively place. In all the rowdiness, my initial reaction is uncertainty if this is what they mean by “school”.

David introduces me to a young lady and tells me to address her as Lao Shi. She is very young looking, and David tells me she is 22. When I ask David what she teaches here he says, “well actually she and her husband are more like school owners.”

She takes us to a vacate room but before I get a chance to ask questions, she talks for a good 20 seconds. I’m able to pick up a few segments like, “if you do not have friends in shanghai, we can be friends”. She only speaks Shanghainese so I turn to David and he replies, “she’s being very hospitable”.

She tells me that it is recess now, and that puts to rest my initial impression. The school has ~300 kids and about 10-15 staff. I’m not sure if that means including cooks and janitorial or just teachers. The level ranges from 5st – 8th grade and they are taught the basic courses of math, science, grammar, social studies, English and a few others subjects.

David has worked with this school in summers past, bringing a team of university students to teach a 3-4 week English camp. This is one of the schools that partners with Stepping Stones (see #18, Corinne Hua). The school is not in session in the summer but because American students come to teach, the kids come back for school. Students here thirst for education.

Portrait of Shanghai: a migrant's perspective
Lao Shi says that foreign students coming to teach at this school makes locals turn their heads. This is a privilege that most public schools do not get. It helps peak the children’s interest in learning, knowing that they are entrusted with a rare opportunity. You might not find any fluent English speaking students here but it’s a step in the right direction.

Looking down over the concrete basketball court, she says that a few weeks ago some sports people came to put on a clinic specifically for the girls. The boys were extremely jealous and a tournament has been set up next week to appease the boys. I’m itching to go down and play myself, but I am reminded that we are uninvited guests and Lao Shi is patiently waiting on us. Perhaps another time.

We tour a few of the rooms and each room has a basic set up of 30 or so desks all facing the front chalkboard. Most of the girls stay indoors at recess and the overall gender distribution of the school is fairly even. There are 10 books stacked on each desk and I take the top one off a desk. It turns out to be an English reader and the exercises look pretty simple. In one classroom three Christmas songs lyrics are written in Chinese on the back chalkboard, next to a decorated Christmas tree. I ask David if the school is Christian. It turns out that Lao Shi’s parents are believers but she was hesitant to say so about herself.

We wrap up the tour and thank Lao Shi for her time and hospitality. On the metro heading back into the city, David points out that we are seeing more people responding with “my parents are believers, but I am not sure myself”. This perhaps indicates a weakness in the church in discipleship and raising up children in the ways of the Lord. The church in many regions is still quite young and this is understandable, but it is one of the reasons David is here. To train leaders to raise up a generation of children in a community that will last.

David says a recent law is being put in effect that will include migrant schools under the umbrella of government education. Migrant kids will be able to have access to free education and I am excited at the news, but David not so much. It’s a step and the first of many towards equality, but the schools still remain separate and not equal. Shanghai locals will have better education and access to tutors as long as this stratification continues.

It’s been a long journey so we go home and rest a bit. Tonight we will meet a local.

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