Candles, shoulder poles and mice are engraved in the memories of three college volunteers who came to teach in a junior middle school in southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region more than one year ago.
The three have corrected pupils' papers by candle light when there was no electricity, fetched water with buckets and shoulder poles from frozen rivers in winter and fallen asleep to a lullaby of squeaks and scratches in a mouse-infested dormitories.
In September 2003, Ma Youde, Juan Falong and Chen Ping -- three graduates from teachers college -- volunteered to go to the Tsona Junior Middle School in Tibet's Tsona County, in response to the government's call of "Go to the west (China) where talent is badly needed."
They will teach in Lhasa for two years.
"I've gotten used to all of this here," said Ma. "Most importantly, we cherish even a bit of achievement as long as the children here need us."
The three volunteers teach Mandarin Chinese, mathematics, English, physics, geometry and physical education to students of different grades, with 16 to 20 classes a week for each of them.
The pupils -- all minorities -- come from primary schools in villages. A year ago, they knew little Mandarin Chinese, let alone English or computers, Ma said.
After these volunteers came, all that began to change.
Even those students who knew little Mandarin Chinese can speak the language now, he said. They have seen cameras and guitars for the first time. Some are determined to go to universities for further study after graduation.
"They speak good Mandarin and know much more than us," a pupil named Zhue'ma said. "They treat us just like elder brothers would. "
"College students are quite rare here because of the area's bad natural and teaching conditions," said Benba Toinzhub, deputy head of the school. "These volunteers are a great help to us."
Not all volunteer teachers like this place, however. In 2003, 10 volunteer teachers left after their service term expired.
The pupils have done what they can to try to persuade their beloved volunteer teachers to stay after their service term ends. They often wash clothes and fetch water for their teachers.
Ma and the other two volunteers say they will stay and work here.
"We will not leave this school as long as it needs us. To work here makes us quite happy and feel a sense of success," Ma said. At the end of 2004, the three volunteers signed a contract with the school to extend their service term.
Of the 219 college volunteers who have gone to teach in Tibet, 179 remain, 18 of whom have decided to stay and work here, according the local government.
"After one and a half years of working here, I have gotten the most valuable thing in life -- a sense of being respected and needed that I never felt before." Ma said.
(Shanghai Daily January 19, 2005)