The People Who Must Walk On Their Hands by B. J. McLean

“Education makes a greater difference between man and man,
than nature has made between man and brute.”
John Adams

“By nature all men are alike, but by education wildly different.” Chinese Proverb

In the Harbourview Room of the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre, my eyes roam photographs taken in China’s smallest province, Ning Xia. Beside me at the display board is an immaculately dressed Chinese man with little more height than my own five-foot-two. I am correct in my guess that he was born in China rather than Hong Kong. He points to a picture.

“I too, went to school in such a place.” He nods as if to say, “Can you believe that?”

I return his nod. “So did I,” I reply. “Only the coal was in buckets instead of piled in the corner.” His gaze questions me. “It’s true,” I assure him.

“How is this so?” He is genuinely puzzled.

We are about the same age, late-fifties. I tell him about the decrepit cottages that served generations of school children until the late forties in the coal mining city of my birth on the Canadian prairie. But the similarities in our backgrounds stem from quite different reasons. I went to school in “such a place”, because the plan to construct a new school had been halted by the outbreak of WWII. He had gone to school “in such a place”, because he was born into the poverty of China, as were the children mirrored in the photographs displayed before us.

Together, he and I plumb the pictures for their stories, and while doing so we discover another childhood similarity. While my parents had teased me with the story of being able to dig through the earth to China, his parents had bedeviled him with a tale of the people on the other side of the world who must walk on their hands so as to not fall from the earth.

“Once, I borrowed my dad’s spade to dig to China,” I tell him. “But it was bigger than I was, so I talked my mother out of a serving spoon. ‘I’m going to China, I told them.'”

“Ah, a very big job for a little girl. Yes?”

“Yes indeed. Impossible. But now you. Here you are. For a long time now in the land where you must walk on your hands. Can you?” I tease him.

The background chatter in Mandarin and English swells: a stream of people are arriving to attend this dinner where funds will be raised in support of the Soong Ching Ling Children’s Foundation of Canada. Our continued exploration of the photo boards reveals a heartening story.

It is not a world war that has threatened the school construction project in China’s northern province of Ning Xia. It is drought conditions, the worst in 60 years. But in the face of hardship so severe that it makes even the purchase of water a construction expense, triumph prevails. As winter approaches, project completion is near, and the education and welfare of these children who face so hostile an environment has been advanced through the joint funding and efforts of people on opposite sides of the earth.

Lovingly, the Chinese gentleman’s slender fingers trace a photo. Rows of little children are bundled in winter clothing to combat the frigid temperature in their classroom. The cold does not discourage broad smiles for the camera.

“Children are so precious, aren’t they?” I say.


“Precious.” I enunciate the word clearly for him. “It means valuable. Very valuable. Like gold, silver, diamonds. And children are of much greater value than precious metals or gems. Do you agree?”

“Oh yes. Precious. They are very precious. Precious. That is a good word. Thank you for teaching it to me.”

“How do you say it in Mandarin?” I ask.

“I think….,” He ponders. “I think maybe gui…maybe baogui.”

I take a stab at it. “B…ao, bao…gui?” I mess it up. “W-e-l-l, that’s a nice word too…when you say it.” We laugh.

Following one another along, we examine more photographs of the areas served by the school projects. Thankfully, we see where cramped and dingy cave homes have been evacuated for roomier homes of mud and brick construction. Their luxuries include windows, improved sleeping accommodation, and better cooking facilities. The before-and-after pictures of the school projects give me a sense of
money wisely invested. What better investment can there be, than one made in the education of a child? And what better a thank you, than the expressions of gratitude that we read in the translations of letters from the youngsters and their teachers.

“This is good.” I say, tapping a photo of a new school. “Look at the difference.”

“Yes!” His dark eyes twinkle. “Just look what we people who must walk on our hands can do, when we dig to China.”

~B.J. Mclean (Canada)

Return to In Class: Poems & Stories about School Life & Education (Asian Voices)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s