Strength in Adversity

Children at CapitaLand Xingfuzhilu Hope School in Inner Mongolia moved volunteers with their maturity and optimism despite hardships

Issue: Dec 2011

(First from right) CapitaLand staff volunteers paying a home visit to nine-year-old Ma Wen Chao and her four-year-old sister
(First from right) CapitaLand staff volunteers paying a home visit to nine-year-old Ma Wen Chao and her four-year-old sister

In Inner Mongolia, China, where the landscape is largely dominated by mountain steppes and arid land with frigid winters and scorching summers, is the home of nine-year-old Ma Wen Chao, her four-year-old sister Wen Yue, their parents and their grandmother. The family of five live in a one-room home in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia where the bedroom doubles up as a living room and study. When the weather turns cold, they would squeeze into a single bed in the master bedroom to hurdle for warmth and share their only heater which is placed under the bed.

"I learnt to be contented and to treasure what I have after I saw how they lived," said Carine Mak, Leasing Executive of Raffles City Singapore, who visited the Ma family during CapitaLand's staff volunteer expedition to CapitaLand Xingfuzhilu Hope School in Inner Mongolia last month (read Weathering Extremes to Warm Heart and Enrich Lives).

Despite her difficult circumstances, 10-year-old Gao You Han works hard in school and hopes for a better future
Despite her difficult circumstances,
10-year-old Gao You Han works hard in school and hopes for a better future

The Ma children are considered the luckier ones, though. Gao You Han, whose mother died in a car accident and whose father has disappeared since, is only 10 but since she was young, she has been doing her own laundry and cleaning up after herself. She lives with her grandparents and her grandfather is the family's sole breadwinner. Despite all this, Gao is an exemplary student, a gifted singer and dancer. Her difficult childhood seems to have made her stronger. With an education, she hopes for a better future. Some children in Inner Mongolia may not even get this opportunity.

"Such a young girl who can thrive under such difficult circumstances and be happy, well-adjusted and mature, how can I not be in awe of her?" said Sun Yan, Marcom Manager of CapitaMalls Asia (China), who met the girl on a home visit. "She makes me want to face life with courage."

"It reminded me to cherish what I have and not to take things for granted," said fellow volunteer Terence Yap, Senior Executive of Economics Unit, CapitaLand.

Bian Shangzhi, Management Executive of CapitaMalls Asia recalled the story of a boy that he met in school. This little boy has a sister in High School but his parents are contemplating to get her to quit school. The boy's grandfather is gravely ill and his father had to stop work to care for him. His mother tries to eke out a living in the neighbouring villages doing farm work. They are not making enough to put the children through school and have had to borrow from relatives. The situation cannot be sustained for long.

"I was born in China in the 1980s, so I have experienced similar poverty and hardship in my childhood. I understand what it is like," said Bian who was saddened by what he saw. "I definitely want to do what I can to bring knowledge and information to these children to improve their education."

Although many of them never flew a kite, the naturally talented children excelled at this activity
Although many of them never flew a kite, the naturally talented children excelled at this activity

Brilliant Despite Limited Opportunities

The children were bright and excelled in all the activities, which showcased their artistic and sports talents. This was a pleasant surprise to many volunteers.

"We wanted to teach Math and Science classes in a fun way through challenging mathematics quizzes and science-related stories to the Primary 5 and Primary 6 children. However, the mathematics quiz proved to be too easy for the children, and we had to pose tougher questions," said Leong Chew Meng, Management Executive from CapitaLand Residential Singapore.

The children are thirsty for knowledge and new experiences, seemingly knowing that education may well be their only way out of poverty.

"They were very keen to learn and showed a lot of talent and eagerness. They don't get much exposure to new things so everything we showed them was received with appreciation," commented Lee Inn Siew, Property Executive of CapitaLand Commercial Limited who co-taught an English class.

Added Zheng Wenying, Management Trainee from Human Resources, CapitaMalls Asia (China), "The children were so bright, attentive and eager to learn when I taught them photography."

Despite the hard knocks in life, the children, featured here with volunteer Joey Ng, remain enthusiastic about life.
Despite the hard knocks in life, the children, featured here with volunteer Joey Ng, remain enthusiastic about life.

Almost all the volunteers agreed that the children they met were mature beyond their years. Guan Yingni, an IT engineer from the Shanghai office of CapitaLand China Holdings was impressed by the fact that the hard knocks in life did not take away their enthusiasm. They were not afraid of strangers and were warmly interacting with everyone.

"One little girl in my movie appreciation class would ask me all kinds of questions and was not shy about trying out new things or even going on stage to perform," said Guan.

"Life may be hard in Inner Mongolia but I find that the children are more resilient, more willing to strive to do better and are more grateful for everything that they have," said Crystal Xu, Marketing Executive from the Shanghai office of The Ascott Limited. "City kids may be better off materially but they are not as mature. In a way, I think they miss out more."

One boy Xu met wants to grow up to be a scientist. For now, he is his mother's care-giver as she has breast cancer. When she is too ill to move, he does the housework. But he still excels in school.

Volunteer Yang Shu Ling, with 12-year-old Qifeng,  is all praise for the children who are constantly of good cheer despite living under trying circumstances
Volunteer Yang Shu Ling, with 12-year-old Qifeng, is all praise for the children who are constantly of good cheer despite living under trying circumstances

Sanguine Despite Sad Circumstances

Most of all, the children were continually of good cheer. Even though Ali Bin Omar, Audio Video Technician of CapitaLand Commercial Limited, could not speak their language but that did not stop the children from becoming good friends with him. "The way they greeted me ‘teacher' every morning made me look forward to each day," he recalled.

Yang Shu Ling, Customer Service Assistant of CapitaMalls Asia in Singapore, said, "I think they have something we don't. They need so little to be so happy and contented. They can appreciate what life gives them and they are very warm despite their situation."

Hattie Wei, Corporate Services Assistant from CapitaValue Homes (China), taught English during this expedition and was particularly touched by the lovely gesture from a little girl whom she named Ivy.

The young Ivy next to her heart drawing for Hattie Wei brought happy tears to the latter
The young Ivy next to her heart drawing for Hattie Wei brought happy tears to the latter

"She pulled me aside one day as I was walking into the classroom and pointed to a red heart with my English name, telling me that she drew it especially for me in my favourite colour. That caused me to cry as she remembered I like red despite a casual mention and from not knowing an alphabet of English to writing my full name in English," recalled Wei tearfully.

In the end, it was the volunteers who came away feeling that they had been the ones receiving precious life lessons instead of giving the children lessons.

"This is the first time I am volunteering but it is the most unforgettable experience in my life," said Zheng.

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