Ma Xiaoyang, Yangjuan graduate and elementary school teacher.
I met Ma Xiaoyang for the first time on a hot summer day at his college in Guang’an. The first thing I noticed about him was that he seemed older than the other Yangjuan students there. Everyone seemed to follow his lead and he helped me carry my backpack and find a hotel. Ma Xiaoyang seemed to act as an older brother to his younger relatives, taking care of them and joking with them. He had a tendency to call everyone (including me) haizi or “child” and we often joked back, calling him “Uncle Ma.” Whenever he made jokes, Li Musa would role his eyes at him and Ma Huaying would hit him on the arm. Seeing this, I asked Ma Huaying if he used to tease her when she was little and she replied “Of course not! He was our older brother and took care of us!” And although Li Musa sometimes acted annoyed with him, he later told me “Whenever I feel sad, Ma Xiaoyang can always cheer me up. I’m glad he goes to school here with me.” Ma Xiaoyang also had many friends in his class. At their class graduation party, he shifted from table to table, joking and laughing with all of his classmates.
I visited Yangjuan last winter when Ma Xiaoyang was fulfilling his internship requirement at Baiwu Elementary School. I visited to his class for a day and he introduced me with his trademark humor: “This is Yang Yingqiu. She has an English name, but I can’t pronounce it.” The children roared with laughter. It was clear he had a good relationship with his students.
That afternoon I visited Ma Xiaoyang’s family’s house and we took a walk up the mountain behind Yangjuan. Walking up a quiet lane between mud-brick walls, Ma Xiaoyang told me the following story about when he went to work in construction with his father in Beijing:
“When I was working at the construction site, I didn’t want to tell the boss that I was a college student, because I was afraid he would think I had no construction skills. So I hid my identity as a college student for a few weeks. One day, all the workers had to fill out forms, but I was the only one who could write, so I filled out the forms for everyone. That day the boss called me to his office and said “You have good penmanship, are you a college student?” and I confirmed that I was. He smiled and told me going to school was a good thing. He didn’t fire me and even ended up paying for my 300 kuai ticket back to Sichuan.”
On the mountainside, Ma Xiaoyang walked ahead clearing a path for me. Along the way he pointed out various landmarks, the hill where he used to collect firewood and some large stones where he and his cousins used to sit and study. We made it to an area with a good view overlooking the entire village and all the way to Baiwu, but we stopped there because Ma Xiaoyang was afraid I was too tired and said “if you pass out, you’re too tall for me to carry down.”
Steve first visited Ma Xiaoyang’s family in 1993, when Xiaoyang was a small boy. When I first went to their house, Xiaoyang pulled out a slightly wrinkled photograph of their family with Steve holding Xiaoyang’s older brother Muga on his lap. Steve still has the original slide.
In the spring, Ma Xiaoyang was living in Xichang. When I asked what he had been doing recently he smiled and said, “I’m picking up glass bottles and turning them in for five cents apiece.” Everyone at the table laughed, as they often do whenever Ma Xiaoyang tells a good joke. In reality, he had finished his internship and was focusing on studying for teacher placement exams. He often spent time with his cousins and classmates from Yangjuan who went to Xichang College. In the day he went to the library at Xichang College to study for exams. In the evening worked at a quiet bar serving Snow Beer and peanuts to college kids.
Ma Xiaoyang periodically messaged me that he was passing through Chengdu to take teacher placement exams in various cities around Sichuan. One day in July he messaged that he had passed the test for Leibo County in Liangshan and would soon be placed in a teaching position for the upcoming school year. He is now teaching a third grade language arts class in a village in Leibo County. He recently posted a photo of him playing with the children during recess. I commented on the photo “cute.” He jokingly replied: “cute, but also a little scary.”
I am thankful to Ma Xiaoyang for his kindness to me over the past year and I wish him the best of luck in his new job!