Wujiang in Shaoguan city is just a stone’s throw away from Hong Kong but living conditions there may be outside the average Hongkonger’s comfort zone.
Roads in the northern Guangdong village, if any, are muddy and potholed. Wild ducks can be seen swimming in the puddles. Pollution is so bad no one dares to drink, cook or bathe with tap water.
Trees are seldom green because they are blanketed in the dust blowing in from a nearby mine on most days. Not that colour matters when the sun sets and the village goes pitch dark - dodgy power grids mean you get electricity only if you’re lucky.
With her Marc Jacobs watch, Paul Frank jumper and brand-new MacBook Air in hand, student Joanne Wong Yi-sin does not, at first glance, look like your typical volunteer worker.
After reading one too many stories of China’s left-behind children – the millions of young left in rural areas by parents flocking to urban centres for work – Wong packed her bags after Form Seven and journeyed north to see how she could help. This was two years ago.
Wong, now 22, was one of the first batch of participants to sign up for the Home Affairs Bureau’s Service Corps programme launched in 2011. The project is meant to promote understanding of the motherland amongst Hong Kong youths, but critics have labelled it a “brainwashing tour” akin to national education.
Now, the bureau is calling for volunteers for its fourth phase, which may take place in eastern Guangdong’s Meizhou prefecture.
Under the programme, participants, aged 18 to 29, are placed at rural mainland schools, where they either assist staff or teach underprivileged children. The scope of services includes teaching and knowledge training on hygiene and environmental protection for six to 12 months.
“Having to leave my friends and family to go to a place that I had, in the past, only seen on television, I was a bit afraid at the beginning, but then I got used to it,” said Wong.
Arriving at her dormitory at Longgui Primary School, furnished with no more than a wooden desk, chair and plank for a bed, Wong said she cooked food with “cloudy” tap water for a whole week before villagers told her it was “not safe for human consumption”, even after boiling.
“In Hong Kong, we get annoyed if the elevator takes too long to arrive or if our internet is slow. Over there, the pace of life is slower and it changed my outlook on life,” said Wong. “I realised that nothing is too big a deal.” Wong said educators applied a strict, top-down approach to teaching in rural China. Children are used to following orders and learning only by the book - those who don’t, usually end up facing the wrath of the “long wooden ruler” sitting on the teacher’s desk. Students are taught to love the country and that their instructors are authority figures.
“The teachers there are usually quite old, with the youngest in their late 30s, so they rarely bother to play or interact with the children,” Wong said. “Many of the kids live alone or with grandparents. Their parents leave to work in the cities and leave a month’s supply of meat in the refrigerator.”
Children spend their days playing with insects, looking out the window or sitting on their doorsteps watching wild hens roam the village. Boredom is the norm.
According to official statistics, there are an estimated 58 million “left-behind children” in China. Nearly two-thirds of left-behind children either lived on their own or with grandparents or relatives, said a recent study, a part of China’s 2013 BlueBook of Education.
Parents who work in cities are often unable to take on the high costs of bringing their children with them and are forced to keep them in inadequate schools in rural areas.
It also does not help that the number of rural schools has halved in the past decade due to a government-led initiative to “improve education quality” by closing more of these inadequate schools. Over 60 per cent of small village-level schools were closed during that same period.
The drastic changes have created more challenges for existing teachers and volunteers faced with more work, larger classes and fewer resources to teach with.
The ‘crazy’ ones
Ivy Cheuk Hiu-wai, a special-needs schoolteacher, armed with a bachelor’s degree in languages and a master’s in special education, wanted to see for herself the discrepancies between Hong Kong and rural Chinese primary school education. The 27-year-old thought she had seen it all. She had no idea what was in store when she left for Shaoguan in 2011.
Class sizes in the rural areas range from 40 for secondary school students to more than 60 for primary school students. By contrast, the average class sizes for Hong Kong are 30 students for secondary school and about 28 students for primary school, according to the Education Bureau.
The schools are sparsely equipped and suffer from a general lack of resources, let alone technology such as projectors or audio equipment for teachers.
English-language standards are at best dismal, as basic lessons begin only in primary four. Students rarely get a chance to use the language outside the classroom.
Scores of children born with physical and mental disabilities, such as Asperger’s syndrome and autism (which locals believe are linked to the heavy pollution and proximity to the mines), are often left unattended and isolated, albeit mixed with regular students in the class.
“The teachers there tell us not to bother with them as they’re the ‘crazy’ ones,” Cheuk said. “The teachers genuinely did not like children with special needs. They consider them a nuisance.”
Teachers, however, were curious about the Hong Kong team’s teaching methods, and the visitors were given a surprising degree of autonomy to experiment.
At Huaping Experimental School, Cheuk taught children about Halloween and Christmas. She helped them come up with English names like “Leabel” and “Nike”. They also held extracurricular activities, and students were given a chance to learn about the arts.
Learning out of the box
Adam Fok Tsz-nam, 26, said he signed up for the programme in 2012 because he was jobless and wanted to gain more experience as a science teacher. He ended up teaching music and English at the Shaxi Town Centre Secondary School – the subjects were ones that rural students almost never get exposed to.
“Extracurricular activities are non-existent,” Fok said. “Parents have to force their children to take piano lessons in Hong Kong, but over there, children are actually discouraged from doing it.” The school did have one electronic keyboard, which Fok used to teach students how to play.
“They didn’t like singing their ‘folk songs’ and ‘red songs’ so I let them listen to a bit of Canto-pop and J-pop and asked them to write down their feelings after listening to them,” he said. “They could not understand the lyrics at all, but one kid said he felt like he was flying after listening to one of the songs.”
Despite its objectives of educational volunteer work, the programme has not been free of controversy. Since its introduction in 2011, many have criticised it as a programme for manipulating Hong Kong youths into becoming more patriotic to mainland China. An Apple Daily story in March called the programme a “brainwashing tour”. The claims have been dismissed by the HAB.
“The Service Corps programme has nothing to do with so-called ‘brainwashing’ and all participants take part in the programme on a purely voluntary basis,” said Amy Tam, a senior information officer with the HAB.
“The programme seeks to develop young Hong Kong people's tenacity and potential, encourage them to serve others, and at the same time promote the spirit of volunteerism”.
For Wong, who emmigrated from Dongguan to Hong Kong in 1996, the experience was more about bringing education and service to poverty-stricken Shaoguan.
Wong’s father was a Hong Kong cross-border lorry driver whom she rarely got to see. Her mother stayed on the mainland and was only able to join her in the city in 2000. Wong said she knew first-hand about the feeling of getting “left-behind”.
For the volunteers, the programme can seem far from being any type of patriotic instilment. In between watching five-year-olds prepare food on wood-fire stoves and being forced to down multiple shots of baijiu with school principals, a trip into Guangdong’s hinterland can be a sobering eye-opener.
“We [in Hong Kong] have no idea what it’s like in the real China,” Cheuk said as she prepared to head back to Shaoguan.
Phase IV of the Service Corps Programme  is now open for application. Applicants can choose to apply for half-year programme or full-year programme