By Willow Wei
Every Tuesday and Thursday are the most cheerful days for Peng Tingyu, 72.
She gets up earlier and prepares herself a decent breakfast. She leaves home at 7:30 a.m. and sets off to the Guangzhou Senior University, where she takes piano and singing lessons. She insists on arriving at the school 20 minutes before classes begin.
“I have never been late for classes since the first day I came here, not even once. I always come earlier to get myself prepared for the lesson,” Peng said proudly.
She heard about the school six years ago from her neighbor, who was also a student at the Senior University. At that time, Peng’s everyday life was only accompanied by a newspaper, grocery shopping, cooking and TV. After cancer had taken away her husband 10 years ago, she lived alone in an old apartment in the city center.
“At that time, I only had one friend in Guangzhou. That’s my neighbor. Most of my friends were in Shaoguan, a small place in North Guangdong Province. It’s where I used to live before retirement. After I had moved to Guangzhou with my grown-up kids, I lost all of my social connections. It wasn’t until my husband passed away did I realize how lonely and isolated I actually was in this seemingly crowded city,” said Peng.
Six years in the Senior University brought not only knowledge but also friendship.
“I have made lots of friends from the classes. We hang out together during weekends to go hiking or morning tea. I invite them to my house to make dumplings. We share our happiness and sorrows,” she said.
Peng said she was a pessimistic person in the past. “I used to complain about my kids all the time. They’re too busy and seldom spent time with me. I felt like my life was hopeless. The friends I made in the university saw my problem and persuaded me to look at the brighter side of life. I’m a much more optimistic person than before, which improves my relationships with my kids as well,” she said.
Peng is one of the 12,000 students in the Senior University of Guangzhou. The school was established in 1988 and offers more than 90 kinds of one-year programs. Piano, Tai Chi and singing courses are the most popular ones. Students can choose any lessons as long as there are vacancies, and they can stay for as many years as they want.
The university is financed by the Guangzhou government, and the tuition fee of the school is only around $50 per year for each student.
Guangzhou has 35 senior universities throughout the city that serve similar functions. “Some of this university’s students are lonely elderly who need classes and friends to fulfill their boring lives. Some are studious people who love to study and want to be a student again to know more about the current world. They have one thing in common, and that is they are grateful to have had a chance to sit in the classroom again, and they all have great class performances,” said Pan Shiwen, a member of the administrative staff in the university.
Zhang Dexian, 77, was an engineer. He called himself the most active student in the Senior University. For the past five years, Zhang had taken piano, accordion, calligraphy, yoga, social dancing and computer lessons. “My biggest motivation is the eagerness of not to be ‘left behind’ and staying young,” he said. “I learned the computer to catch up with the digital world. I took piano lessons believing in its power of delaying Alzheimer’s. I also took a year’s social dancing and yoga courses to keep fit and look young.”
Zhang thought the greatest blessing he got was not only being physically younger than his friends but also gaining a young heart. “Some of my friends aren’t as optimistic as I am. They sometimes feel too old to do anything and lose their passions for life. Being constantly exposed to new knowledge and learning make me feel curious and passionate about the world. I spend less time thinking about illness or death,” Zhang said.
Yan Shunlan, 65, is the mother of five kids and the grandmother of six grandchildren. Her house was always crowded with people, and most of her days were jammed with housework. She was busy but bored. Three years ago, she realized that she had been a homemaker for most of her life and housework was all the achievement she had. “I didn’t want my life to end this way. I decided to do something. I heard about the Senior University from my friends and thought maybe learning some knowledge could save my dull life,” said Yan.
She joined the piano class and later took painting lessons. “I spend two mornings a week in the university drowning in music and art. I’ll also squeeze time from my everyday life to practice the piano. I feel like my life is finally balanced now. It has become colorful and tasty. And I found inner peace,” said Yan.
Li Xingmei, 46, has been teaching at the Senior University as a singing and dancing instructor for two and a half years. She used to work for a municipal dancing and singing troupe. She first came to teach only to help her sick friend, who was a teacher in the Senior University. After teaching for a few days, she decided to stay and applied for a position. “I was so inspired by my older students that I didn’t want to work anywhere else. It’s them who told me that it’s never too old to learn. They are proactive learners who even cherish the studying opportunities more than young people. They’re self-disciplined and strictly follow their study plans that they made for themselves. I have a fair number of students who are suffering from illnesses but still look active and energetic in classes. Their strong faith and optimism towards lives raised their spirits,” said Li.
Li soon became friends with her students. “I always chat with my students during class breaks. We talk about everything happening in our lives. On weekends I hang out with them as well and go hiking or dining. They have rich life experiences, and I regard them as my life mentors,” said Li.
Xie Yuying, 73, used to be a nurse in a public hospital. It’s her 10th year in the Senior University. She had studied Chinese literature, English, electric organ, computer photo editing and video making skills. She is currently learning the piano. “I had a dream of going back to school for years. My parents weren’t able to afford my education, and I only had an elementary diploma. After having a job, I was too busy taking care of my kids and didn’t have either spare time or money to attend schools. Finally, I retired, and I knew my chance for achieving my lifelong dream had come,” said Xie. “For the first few years in the Senior University, my heart was filled with excitement every time sitting in the classroom. I was grateful that I had a chance to be a student again. As 10 years went by, attending the university has become part of my life. It’s my lifestyle.”
At the end of each academic year, Xie makes a commemorative CD for each of her classmates using the skills she learned from the computer photo editing and video class. “I take pictures and videos of some special moments of my class and make them into CDs to share with my classmates,” said Xie, “It’s my way of saying thank you to them for the joy and accompany they brought to me in the past year.”