Paper Animals

It was the last day.

At the beginning, I had found myself counting the days. We had arrived here in the heart of winter. The little village was located up in the mountains, a place so untouched by globalisation it seemed to have been left forgotten by the rest of the world. Our objective was simple. We were here on an overseas community service expedition to bring about positive impact to the lives of the underprivileged. We had much; they had little. We would give; they would receive. In the months leading up to the expedition, we had all invested time and effort in preparing lesson plans for both the teachers and students of the village school, making logistical arrangements, and organising activities and workshops for the students.

Twenty hours of travelling on three different modes of transportation finally brought us here. The ten of us, in our lined winter coats and portable heat packs, unloaded our bags from the vehicles. As night fell, we unpacked to discover that light was a luxury that only daytime could afford. The next day, we bought ourselves candles from the nearest store that was an hour’s walk away. I gradually became accustomed to the sound of chattering teeth each night. In the mornings, we awoke to the signs of the world awakening. The cries of the cockerel. The caresses from the first light of day. The wafts of thickening soup broth drifting in the air.

Our first weekend was spent with the teachers of the school. We walked the same routes schoolchildren between the ages of five to thirteen traversed each day. These walks typically ranged from two to three hours in length each way. They also involved navigating steep terrain in the mountains with no marked pathways. It was strenuous for the group of us, and I imagined the children who had to make these treacherous journeys alone regardless of the weather, oftentimes having to set off in semi-darkness. “What about their parents?” I had asked in the first days, before coming to the realisation that there were questions that were probably better left unasked, unanswered.

On the first Sunday, we were invited to lunch at one of the teachers’ homes. After a three-hour walk through the mountains, we arrived at a relatively large hut with a spacious backyard. There were several children in the neighbourhood, curious to see how their foreign teachers were like. We were shown around the place before ending up in the backyard where a hog slept. Unbeknownst to us, its fate had already been decided. In a ceremonious gesture of hospitality, the hog was due to be slaughtered that afternoon in front of our eyes.

I did not stay to watch the glorious spectacle. Instead, I ventured out to a nearby field where a group of children were playing. My role soon transformed from observer to participant. I learned all of their names, and they learned mine. A pair of siblings caught my attention. It was difficult not to notice the tender affection between the older brother, Jie Hui, and his sister, En Hui, who was the only girl in the group of older boys. Her eyes sparkled with a wonderment of the world that I wished would never fade, and her chin rested naturally at an angle of defiant confidence. She was one of them; she did not need her brother’s protection. Her brother clearly thought otherwise. Weeks later, I would come to learn that the pair shared a single mother but different fathers, and that they would soon be forced to part, with their mother having to leave the elder brother behind.

I returned to the backyard that was now saturated with the metallic odour of sacrifice. Dark crimson seeped into the earth. The ground turned into a canvas peppered with scarlet footprints. The teachers split themselves into two groups: the women squatted by buckets filling fresh blood sausages, while the men stood dividing the remnants. It should have come as no surprise, then, that our lunch that afternoon comprised steamboat with an extensive selection of pork parts. I left the table feeling bloated with nausea, and turned vegetarian for an indeterminate time thereafter.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I became inducted into their way of life. Things were simpler here in the countryside. Happier, even. There was a sense of comfort from the routine by which we conducted our hours. There was a sense of security from the knowledge that I would arrive at the village school promptly at seven each morning to see dozens of eager children before me, hungry for knowledge. There was a sense of assurance from the mountains and valleys that stood unperturbed around us, whose length of existence had far surpassed our own.

We spent hour after hour together. While other teachers sought respite from the rowdiness during break times, I was often found in the fields playing with the children. I came to learn of their likes and dislikes, dreams and aspirations, and inclinations and dispositions. Gradually, they ceased to be just another student whose face remained nameless in a sea of schoolchildren. Each child became a friend, taking on his or her own individuality, in the same way I was granted acceptance into their worlds.

Little did I know, then, of the darker secrets that remained hidden beneath the cheerful façade. As I fell deeper in love with the beauty of this place, of its people, and particularly of its children, I began to learn things of a more ominous nature. I came to learn that the reason for the relatively long two-hour lunch break was so that the children who lived about an hour away from school could head home for the possibility of lunch prepared by their grandparents. As for those who lived more than an hour away, lunch was but a distant dream, as most of their families could not afford to spare the money.

I also came to discover the reasons behind unspoken absences. For instance, a boy named Zhao Wen in third grade had stopped attending classes since the second day I began my teaching duties. The teachers shared with us that many of the children’s parents had gone to the city in search of work, in pursuit of higher wages and a better life for their children. Most of them would end up working in industrial factories, often with precarious working conditions. It was not uncommon for these parents to disappear after some time, never returning to the villages again. While the reasons were manifold, this was usually due to accidents that these parents met with, either in the factories or elsewhere.

Zhao Wen’s parents had gone missing about a year ago. His grandparents and teachers had tried to break the news to him, but to no avail. He continued to hold an adamant belief that he would one day locate his parents. A month ago, his grandfather lost his sight and his grandmother, her mental capacities. Shortly after, he, too, lost the will to go to school. Instead, he climbed onto a rusty, broken bike each morning, cycling for hours to the city, making round after mind-numbing round, in the hope of catching a glimpse of his parents. Their forms continued to be so vividly etched in his mind, and yet seemed to be clad in an air of invisibility in his wretched reality.

Each child, so bright-eyed and full of promise, to whom I had grown to become so attached and for whom I wished nothing but the very best, in fact carried a story within that told of pain, loss, and the circumscription of opportunities in life, purely by virtue of the circumstances in which he or she had been born. An acute sense of injustice tore through me. Inequality is a concept that is easy to grasp. Inequality is an enormous global challenge that should be addressed by some larger body, some higher order, to which we could contribute little. But when inequality stares you in the eye in the form of a hundred shining eyes looking expectantly at you – each child with his or her own story, each child with his or her own aspirations – it leaves you debilitated and in indignation at the unnerving unfairness of the world in which we live.

It was the last day.

I wanted to wish each of them the very best. I wanted to reassure them that things would turn out fine in the end. I wanted to galvanise them to study hard and to pursue their dreams. I wanted to convince them that their dreams were within reach, however dire their circumstances might be. I wanted to hold their small hands along each step of the way, to prove the validity of my words. I wanted to accompany them through the various stages of their lives, to see them grow up, graduate, and strive for the things they believed in. I wanted to tell them that their future occupations need not be dictated by that of their parents. I wanted to impress upon them that they each had a voice of their own, which they should let resound brightly. I wanted to show them the world, and the myriad of roles that they could each play in it. I wanted to help them to believe in themselves, and in their futures before them.

I wanted to do all of that, and more.

Yet, I could not bring myself to tell them half-truths.

And so in my incapacity to tell them all that I wanted to, I bade them a feeble farewell. We spent the morning saying our goodbyes. Shoulders were patted. Hugs were exchanged. What we hoped not to be our final words were uttered. Photos were taken. Letters were presented. Handmade gifts were given. In the flurry of activity, we did not realise that it was time to leave. Our bags were already loaded onto the vehicles, waiting at the gate. At the teachers’ commands, the children quickly formed into two long lines with practiced ease.

This is it. I took a deep breath. My vision was blurred. I willed myself to inscribe every detail to memory. But all I could recall from that scene was the cacophony of goodbyes that resounded in the air, the snatches of tear-stained, flushed faces, and the little waving hands that disintegrated quickly from their neat rows into clusters of fluttering anemone.

And then, one final scene I would never forget: He Jun Jie – my dearest pupil from fifth grade – called out to me, running across the field towards me under the bluest of skies, holding in his outstretched hands a paper boat overflowing with paper animals and a folded letter.

As he emptied his hands to fill my cupped palms, I realised who had been the true beneficiary all this while.

This is a reprint of work originally published in The Desire for Elsewhere.

Agnes Chew is the author of The Desire for Elsewhere, first published by Math Paper Press in 2016. Her writing has been published in Southeast Asia, the UK and the US. With a keen interest in socioeconomic issues, she has worked in public, international and nonprofit sectors. Born and raised in Singapore, Agnes has spent time in Vienna, London and Germany, where she is currently based.

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