Song Ping Chen enjoyed reading my China tour book on the train.

Diary from China -- Monday night, August 8, 2005
Ö we ended up sitting across from two very nice men, one of whom (Song Ping Chen Ė pictured on the right) spoke fairly good English and wanted to practice. Turns out they work for a company that makes beautiful china, Mr. Chen is an accountant, and the other man is his boss, the Finance Manager. Their factory is in Feng Feng and they had seen us at the hotel there, where they had also stayed. Mr. Chenís wife and their 6-year-old daughter live in their home town in Hubei, while he works at the companyís headquarters in Beijing, I think he said itís 20 hours away by train. His wife works part time as a teacher for middle school and as a tour guide (she speaks fluent English) -- they come to stay with him during the summer and he visits them several times a year on holidays, each of which last for a week in China. He enjoys reading English, and recently read Gone With the Wind! Anyway, as the train arrived, since we had made no plans for a hotel, he offered to have his company car take us to a hotel that his company uses. I felt so badly as Mr. Chen hauled the HEAVY suitcase up 4 flights of stairs. Stephan was advised by a security person not to go with them, as some foreigners have been robbed or worse under similar circumstances, but we went with our instincts and decided to trust them. Besides, by the time we made the decision, the luggage was all packed in their van!

Thank goodness we did -- they gave us two beautiful bowls which Iíll treasure as a momento of our encounter, and drove us first to drop off Mr. Chenís boss in a very nice apartment complex next to their office headquarters where he and Mr. Chen both live, then we were driven to the hotel. The hotel is used by their company a lot, and they got us about a third off the price.

UPDATE - March, 2007: Several years after our trip, I was finally able to contact Song Ping Chen, and we have been enjoying a friendly correspondence. I asked him, "How often can you visit your family? Oh, Chen, I am sad to think of you being separate from your family. I forget why your wife and daughter don't live in Beijing with you?"

He responded:

"My family and I have spent Spring Festival together. It is the New Year in the traditional Chinese calendar, generally taking place in beginning days in February. I stayed with them about ten days and had a good time. Spring festival is the biggest holiday of all, and values the gathering of families. Wherever you stay, you must go home. We have a lot of fun, eating gathering foods, lighting firecrackers, visiting relatives and friends. The festival atmosphere lasts for two weeks, but the first three days are the most intense.

"It is always a pain to leave home, but I had to. Now I am back in Beijing again.

"Maybe you want to know the reason for my separating from my wife and daughter.

"Many years ago, most people in China stayed at home and did not go outside to find jobs. As you maybe know, our country implemented reform policies about thirty years ago. China is big, but the development of the economy is unbalanced -- southeast China by the sea is prosperous, but central and west China are poor, and job opportunities and salaries in big cities are higher than in small and medium cities. This situation created the surge of emigration of workers, but the related social insurance measures did not match the situation, so we face difficulties.

One example is the education of my daughter. We do not have citizen identification with Beijing, so she can not obtain a student identification for BJ. She can attend a school in Beijing but when she grows up, she must come back to our hometown to participate in exams for college entry. Knowledge difference will be her biggest obstacle for the exam. The competitive status of this kind of exam is very hard in China so we must take account of it in advance.

"Another reason is that the cost of living in big cities is high -- high price of apartments, high cost for peace of life, high pressure. I am not confident about all that and my health is not very good. So one day this year I may come home to find a new job and lead a life of ease."

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