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A little known fact of life in China came to light when the diary of a 14-year-old peasant girl made it from a remote town in rural China made it to the bestseller lists in France. The book, which has now been published in 16 countries around the world, tells the story of a young girl who is desperate to stay in school, despite the problem of sky-high school fees, which her parents can not afford.


7 mars 2004 7 07 /03 /mars /2004 00:00
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Letter 22 - March 2004

March has been an important month for us : Ma Yan went to Paris ! She was invited by the publishing house Ramsay to attend the 2004 Paris Book fair celebrating Chinese literature. She went with He Yanping, the translator of the diary who is very involved in the association. This was 16 year old Ma Yan’s first trip outside of China : she not only discovered France, but also understood the impact of her story abroad and the size of the support for the Ningxia children who were not as lucky as she was. It was also a wonderful moment for us as we watched the young girl who three years ago had no future, blossomed into a young girl full of optimism.
The most wonderful moment in the whole trip was, without a doubt, when we went to visit the ORT high school in the Paris suburbs. Two years ago a teacher, Emmanuelle Polack and her students read the story of Ma Yan in the newspaper and collected 100 euros which they sent to Ma Yan. This time, the students gathered again and gave a warm welcome to the young Chinese girl ; they had written poems, slogans, all translated in Chinese, they had drawn maps of China, posters to encourage people to participate in the association. They welcomed Ma Yan with a loud “Mayan we will never forget you !” which deeply moved her.
Ma Yan thanked the French children for their help, and talked with them with emotion and happiness. She had lunch in the very plain school cafeteria, which still seemed luxurious compared to the one in her high school. She actually enjoyed that meal more than any of the other meals at fancy restaurants. She left the school with gifts and with a small book telling the story of the children’s involvement and the special link that was created between their town - Villiers le Bel - and Ma Yan’s Yuwan.
The meetings with French schoolchildren were by far the most emotional moments of her stay in France. During the Book Fair, at the Ramsay booth, Ma Yan met some readers of the youth magazine Okapi. These readers asked her extremely detailed questions, which showed how much they had learnt from Ma Yan’s diary. On Wednesday, which was a special young readers day at the Book Fair, the booth was filled with children, who have been the most devoted readers of the book.
During her stay in France she also had the opportunity to go and visit the Liberation offices. Liberation is the newspaper which first published her story. There, she met 30 of the founders of the association. Ma Yan thanked them and talked with emotion about the impact that the association had had on her life and on the life of all the children that we are now helping. The founders appreciated meeting this young smiling girl, who has - incredibly - remained herself through this life changing experience. She never forgets where she’s from and never forgets all those who are now living in the nightmare that she was so lucky to escape. This informal meeting was also the opportunity to talk about the current actions of the association.
In the midst of all the interviews and meetings, we managed to set aside some time for tourism. Ma Yan had seen the Eiffel Tower on tv once, and kept her eyes wide open throughout the visits, including the visit of Chinatown ! He Yanping and Ma Yan were also welcomed in the house of our friend Linda and her family. Ma Yan was thus exposed to the life of a typical Parisian family. During her stay she continued writing in her diary because her high school classmates had requested a detailed report on her trip. She left with thousands of pens - pens are such an powerful symbols in her story - sent by one of our association’s members who had some leftover merchandise from a publicity campaign. She will distribute them to her schoolmates.
The second book “Ma Yan and her sisters” published by Ramsay was launched during the Book Fair. Half of the author’s profits will go the Association. The book is in part the sequel to the first as it tells what happened to Ma Yan after the beginning of this adventure and recounts the creation of the association, its goals and its achievements. It also traces the portraits of other young girls from Ningxia, with the letters they sent us. Some of those letters have been included in the monthly newsletters. The book also focused on Ma Shiping, Ma Yan’s cousin who was forcibly married at 15. We met her in December last year and she’s now the mother of a little girl.
Ma Yan and He Yanping’s visit and the publication of the second book will certainly have an impact on the association which still attracts interest from a wide group of people. The forgotten children of Ningxia have become a “cause celebre” and we are hoping that all the latest media flurry will result in concrete actions in China. This is our goal for the next few months.
We will benefit from a great new tool : The association website - www.enfantsduningxia.org - which was created and built by a group of Chinese students (and their teacher) currently enrolled in the ENST - the national school of telecommunications in Paris. Their work is already impressive and will be even more so in the next few weeks. The site will be available in French English and Chinese and will contain the archives of the association, with all the monthly newsletters, photos, and the presentation of the current actions.
The adventures of Ma Yan’s Diary have just begun... I am writing this newsletter from Barcelona, Spain, where I am launching the Spanish edition of the book. Then, on to Lisbon, Portugal, for the Portuguese launch. The book will be published in English on July 1st. All told it will be available in 14 languages, which will help spread its message around the world.
I hope that even more children from this terribly poor farmland region will benefit from our actions.

Pierre Haski



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