Saturday, July 3, 2010

Next Stop: Sandy River

We boarded the outbound Express 345 bus at MuDan Yuan East. MuDan Yuan (牡丹园) which means Peony Garden, was the bus’s last stop in Beijing City proper. The electronic voice announced, “Next Stop Sandy River. This bus does not stop at MaDian Bridge.” At this point, the three girls who came on board just after us asked to get off, since, despite what the ticketing agent had alr­eady told everyone upon boarding, they did not realize that Sandy River was the next stop. At first the ticket agent refused, but the bus driver relented and opened the front door at the last traffic light before we turned left on to service road leading to Badaling Highway.

Sandy River (Sha He, 沙河; sha or = sand; he or = river) is a small village less than 20 kms north of Beijing city limits and is just off the modern day Badaling Highway. Badaling Highway, now renamed the Beijing-Tibet Highway, is the expressway that leads to Badaling portion of the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. Our bus took us past North Beach (Bei Sha Tan北沙滩), West Second Flag (Xi Er Qi, 西二旗), Hui Long Guan (回龙观), … before turning off the highway. I think we passed Sha He river immediately after the highway exit. The ride from MuDan Yuan to the first stop in Sandy River took less than 25 minutes. (At around 2 PM on a bright April Sunday, there was not much outbound traffic.)

GongHua Cheng (巩华城, or literally, “Strengthen China” City) was the old name of Sandy River. It was used as a temporary midway palace for Ming dynasty emperors enroute to their hunting expeditions in the grasslands to the north. Now all that was left from those days were parts of the old city walls. On our way from the bus stop, we saw a few markets (selling veggies, fruits and sundries) and stores (selling mostly cell phones and other small electronic gadgets). There were people in front of cartfuls of used books and magazines. There were carts with pots & pans. There were stores blasting loud music and selling electronics. This part of Sandy River reminded me of (scenes from Chinese novels and movies of) the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s---the early years that of the Reform and Opening.
My wife had made an appointment to meet with some of the Zigen Fund ( workers & volunteers at around 3 PM. Three of her students and I decided to tag along to see Sandy River.

Zigen Fund’s outreach program in Sandy River was based in a small building located next to the old city walls. Here’s a photo of the south city wall and gate.

Along the arcade through the south gate, there is a blackboard listing Zigen’s regularly scheduled programs. For adults, there are movies from 7:30-10:00 PM every Wednesday and Saturday evening; chess and card games on Thursdays from 7-9 PM; karaoke from 7-9 on Fridays and Sundays; and English class from 2-4 on Saturday afternoons. For the children, there are Fudao (辅导,辅助 & 指导, i.e., guidance) classes in Chinese, Math, and English from 8:00-11:30 every Saturday morning; Techang (特长, i.e., specialized) classes in arts and crafts from 8:30-11:30 on Sunday mornings; and Chengzhang Wenyi (成长文艺, arts related to growth and development?) classes also from 8:30-11:30 AM every Sunday.

The Zigen Fund building, aka the West Gateway Community Activity center, is a small building housing a handful of rooms. (Here 西门洞 "West Gateway" or "West Doorway" refers, presumably to the building's location within the old city walls.) The middle of the three entrances leads to the two big activity rooms: one for showing movies and hosting karaoke and another, slightly smaller, room in the back for children’s activities, mainly arts and crafts. One of the other entrances leads to the small library and also to where some of the workers slept.

When we walked in to the main activity room, one of the Zigen workers was writing up the next set of activities on a chalk board in the corner. There was about 10-15 kids drawing and playing in the activity room. Teacher Yu, who was in charge of the Zigen operations at Sandy River, ushered us next door to the small library. Also visiting were two undergraduate students from Beijing Normal University.

Teacher Yu explained a little what Zigen workers were doing in Sandy River. The city of Sandy River is made up of mostly migrant workers---former peasants from mainly Hebei province (the province that surrounds Beijing city)---and those who provide services to these workers. Zigen runs a small school for the kids of these migrant worker, some of whom decide to keep their kids with them instead of back home with the rest of their family.

Over the last decade, Sandy River has seen many migrant workers and migrant worker families come and go. Most of the workers are construction workers who on building Beijing (Xi Er Qi, Xi San Qi and Hui Long Guan are some of the closest communities that come to my mind). A while ago, there were 2 schools for the children of these workers. But since Sandy River is slated for “urban renewal” (rumor has it that real estate developers have their eyes set on Sandy River because of the proximity to the city and the ease of access via the expressway), the 2 schools faced cutbacks before they were completely closed down.

In addition to the school, Zigen also runs movie and karaoke nights for the adults. The weekend evenings are packed with activities. The local police bureau was not so happy at all, but then quickly realized that Zigen is keeping the migrant workers out of trouble (keeping them from drinking and gambling).

At around 4, Teacher Yu took one of the Beijing normal students and my wife to meet one of the migrant worker families. Part of the Zigen's program at Sandy River is based on one-on-one guidance and Teacher Yu wanted to introduce to family to possible volunteers. She thought it would not be a good idea if the entire crew tagged along.

So my wife's students and I started to head back to the bus station. Along the way, we got into a heated debate about what should be done to the education system for migrant workers. One of the students argued passionately for keeping the kids in their local home town and not allowing them to following their father or parents to Beijing. The others wanted to keep the schools going at all costs. In any case, for Sandy River, the migrant workers and their families will be staying only as long as there is work on the construction of country-side villas, gated communities and high rises. And then they will move to the next Sandy River.

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