This is a short piece about our encounter with the newest member of our scholarship fund, Zhang Xiaowang.
We trail behind one another like obedient ducklings in the light summer drizzle. June has just begun, but the weather in these high mountains is already sweltering.
At the front of the line, leading us, is the elected village head. His name is Yang Bao, but we call him ‘Mr.Lion’ because of his thick, mane-like black hair. He is the definition of a chatterbox; as we all stare attentively at the ground, intent on not soiling our Nikes, Mr.Lion walks carelessly in his sandals while he recounts wild tales, boasting and laughing to nobody in particular.
We finally arrive at our destination after a series of complicated turns, and are promptly ushered into a dim room. The only light comes from the cloudy sky filtering in through the doorway, and the orange glow of a small fire tucked at the edge of the room. Apart from the fire and a few low stools, the space is startling bare. The walls and floor are the same cement gray color, dust and sundry cobwebs gathering at unused corners. It would almost look eerie if it weren’t for the welcoming smiles on what must be the house’s owners’ faces as they urge us to sit down and press cups of hot tea into our hands.
“This is Zhang Xiaowang,” Mr.Lion tells us in his usual boisterous voice, “He’s one of my best friends. We grew up together.”
Their camaraderie is obvious as Xiaowang painstakingly uncaps a large plastic bottle of clear liquid; it is only two or three in the afternoon, but they all jovially clink their glasses together and down their shots in tandem.
“It contains over 50% alcohol,” Mr.Lion explains, looking smug, “We made it ourselves, with corn.”
He holds out the bottle in a silent invitation, which we quickly refuse. We wait until they’ve gotten the pleasantries out of the way to start asking questions. Xiaowang politely answers when he is addressed, while unsurprisingly, Mr.Lion is always interrupting to give his own two cents. They’re mostly harmless comments, like how everybody in the village is jealous of Xiaowang's naturally curly hair since he doesn’t need a perm, or that he is a notoriously maudlin crybaby when drunk. However, when we tentatively ask about Xiaowang's level of education, Mr.Lion shocks us with an brusquely candid remark.
“He is a philistine,” Mr.Lion says bluntly, “He’s uncultured. He doesn’t know how to read or write.”
The other villagers in the room carry on smoking their cigarettes, unconcerned. Even Xiaowang doesn’t look particularly offended, and he just nods, explaining, “I’ve never went to school.”
The reasons for the their family’s financial struggles become apparent as we continue talking. “I have eight siblings. My parents’ land was split between all of us,” Xiaowang says, “Most of them left to work in the city, though. One of them died not long ago.
“I would’ve left, too, but I’m staying in Xiaohusai for my kids,” He continues, “They’re still in school, they need a stable home. And…” He hesitates a little, “We’re still struggling.” He straightens up, “But things have improved a lot in the past couple of years! The village finally got running water, and it still seems surreal that we have electricity now.”
As we nod in understanding, a shadow falls dramatically across the doorway. A little girl leans against the door frame, her ponytail neatly adorned with an array of colorful butterfly clips. She blinks slowly and waves at us, revealing a missing front tooth when she smiles.
“Hey! Liu Yi!” Mr.Lion is the first to greet her loudly, then says to us, “She’s 6 years-old, Xiaowang's youngest child.”
The girl, Zhang Liu Yi, giggles shyly, and bashfully runs out of sight when everyone turns to look at her. A few moments later, we can hear the loud squawk of a chicken and the flurried sound of ruffling feathers from the courtyard. Liu Yi comes back into our line of sight, as she carefully holds a small chick by the belly in front of her.
“Liu Yi, leave those poor chickens alone!” Xiao Wang scolds loudly, but when we turn to look at him, he is smiling.