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A Brother's Sacrifice Opens School Door

In China, a teen is resigned to menial labor so his sibling can find a way out of poverty -- for himself and the family.

October 05, 2006|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

YANGAO VILLAGE, China — Huang Ting and his brother Huang Meng were born only a year apart. But at 18 and 17, they are separated by a world of difference.

Ting is a schoolboy with a strong build, broad smile and sunny disposition, seemingly troubled by nothing more than the weight of his reading glasses. Meng is silent, wiry and hunched over like an old man.

This fall, Ting left the family's mud brick home in eastern China's Shandong province, for the People's University in Beijing. Meng headed down the road, to sweep the floors of a factory.

But as Ting prepared recently to leave for the big city, it was not the pride of being the first person in his family to go to college that sent tears streaming down his cheeks. It was guilt.

"I owe my brother way too much," Ting said. "He's younger than me, yet he took on so many more responsibilities."

For many impoverished Chinese in the countryside, the divergent fates of the Huang brothers tell a familiar story. Too poor to educate more than one child, they have had to make a kind of Sophie's choice: Trade in one child's future to salvage that of another.

Economic reforms have strained the nation's education system, which lacks adequate funding. Hit with new fees for education that once was free, families sometimes go broke trying to provide a child with a path out of poverty.

In one dramatic case reported by Chinese news media last year, a father had his son and daughter draw straws. The winner would go to school. The other would work. The daughter lost. She ran away and jumped off a cliff.

In another family, all three sons were able to finish high school only because the parents begged their daughter, then 19, to prostitute herself.

The Huang brothers had to grow up in a hurry when their father died about 10 years ago, poisoned by the insecticides he sprayed on his crops.

He made a little more than a dollar a day, but he had been the sole breadwinner for the boys, their ill mother and their grandmother, who became the head of their household.

At first, the boys begged a tuition break, and borrowed from relatives to get by. A few years later, Meng discovered life at the dump during a chance trip there with some adults from his village. They showed the boy how to turn trash into cash. He asked to join them.

"I knew he was only 13 at the time," said the grandmother, Cheng Yulan. "But he saw a chance to make some money. We had zero income. We had no choice but to let him do it."

The trash heap where Meng toiled rises from the flat fields like a small mountain. Up close, raggedly dressed farmers compete with vultures, poking around for scraps to recycle or resell -- paper, metal, glass, plastic and the occasional repairable appliance.

"If I stay there for just a minute I lose my appetite for hours," said Ting, who is overcome with emotion every time he recalls his limited experience with the dump.

Unless there was a big rainstorm, or the heap was shut down during the Chinese New Year holiday, Meng would be there from dawn until sundown.

"He gave himself a quota; he wouldn't go home unless he filled three big bags," Ting said.

To save time, Meng would not go home for breaks. When he became tired, he would nap on a plastic tarp, among the swarming flies. Because his work was too dirty, he couldn't bring his food with him. He relied on his grandmother or disabled mother to bring him some bread for lunch.

"She walks slowly," Ting said of their mother. Sometimes, he said, Meng had to go hungry because she never showed up.

His brother never complained, Ting said. "Not even about the horrible smell."

But the older brother can see the physical toll the job has taken on his sibling.

"His back is already looking bent from repeating the same motions over and over," Ting said. "His immune system is down. He has little appetite, and he's so skinny."

Asked how he felt, Meng answered with silence, or a few barely audible words between long awkward pauses.

"I can't go to school. This is the only thing I can do," Meng finally said.

"I don't like it," he murmured. "If I don't do it, the family doesn't eat."

Their grandmother tried to explain that Meng was never as good a student as his brother.

Ting disagreed.

"My brother is quiet because he rarely has anyone his age to talk to," Ting said. "But I know if he has a chance to go to school, he would be a better student than me. He has amazing handwriting. You would never believe it's written by him."

The brothers are very close, even though they saw each other only once a month, when Ting came home from boarding school. When he wasn't doing his homework under the family's lone 40-watt bulb, Ting would help bring the scraps his brother had collected to the market. The job was left to Ting because it required math skills.

It was hardly a bustling trade, but the $75 a month covered food for the family and Ting's school fees.

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