Tonight, my hairdresser and I talked America.
About what it’s like to grocery shop without understanding the language, how hard it is to be an immigrant, and how long it would take for him to learn to speak English. Xiao shared his big dreams about moving to the United States and he asked what the hair salons are like there. He said he was planning to go to Sichuan later next year first to work a bit, get things in order, and then head to America. He had big plans. I shared about my family’s experience as immigrants, what my job was and why I moved to Lincang, Yunnan two and a half years ago. We talked the whole hour and took a photo together at the end.
It was a great conversation with an obviously thoughtful, enthusiastic and ambitious young man.
And then Xiao told me he was 17.
And that he had dropped out in 6th grade at 12 years old.
He was clearly hard-working - he said although he only started in the hair industry 10 months ago, he was picking it up quickly and had done most jobs around town over the past five years. Chopping vegetables at restaurants, being a cashier at the grocery store, learning to drive a bus... you name it, he likely did it.
I asked if there was ever a way for people who dropped out to further their education. And that’s when he insisted that he would never, ever want to return to school and that people who stayed in school were the stupid ones, because he was already out earning money for the past few years. He named all the jobs he could do and how he was earning so much more than his friends in school.
All of those things are true. And with the high unemployment rate of even young college graduates in China from lower tiered universities, Xiao’s likely earning a bit more than some older than him.
I get paid to make sure young people have access to a great education inside and out of class so they can have way more choices in life. I am not in the business of judging people and their personal decisions. I also come from a family of hard-headed immigrants and have learned never to scoff at other people’s dreams, no matter how far-fetched.
Yet I was sad for Xiao because I knew that if he was ever going to make it to America or to open a salon in Sichuan Province, it was going to take something really major in him like it did for so many people before him who went against the statistics. He probably needs a friend to talk through whether that was really a vision he wanted and the critical thinking skills to analyze the hard reality of it would really take to get there. He probably needs a teacher to help coach him in the necessary academic and trade skills. And he needs advocates to help him form the grit and perseverance needed at the worst of times.
I don’t know Xiao (though I did promise to stop by next week), but I sure hope that someone he trusted had let him know that while dropping out was the end of tests and homework, it was only the beginning of really needing to be creative, hard-working and relentless in pursuing your big dreams.
The opinions expressed in Lessons From China are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.