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I visited a K-12 boarding school in China last week.

The school was in a rural area outside of a major city. The campus was large and well-equipped with sporting facilities, dormitories, a canteen, and a testing center, among other amenities. Like many of the private schools in Asia, fees are high, between USD 10K-20K a year.

Primary classroom before start of school

For two days we ate our meals on campus, Chinese cafeteria style, which means the food was plentiful, lots of dishes to grab from the serving line: vegetables, beef and potatoes, kung pao chicken, fried dough, mian bao, and of course rice. Typical of Chinese dining we did not have anything to drink though, no bottles of water or soda fountain, not even a pot of tea. The Chinese do not supplement their meals with large glasses of liquid like Westerners do (unless its beer), fizzy and full of ice, straws, a whole production unto itself.

In the hall outside the cafeteria was a long glass fridge/freezer with drinks and ice-cream together, the kind of contraption you see in convenience stores with the sliding glass tops. There was cold flavored teas but no water. I only once saw someone manning the cash register. At the end of a day of working with teachers, I was well fed but thirsty.

So on the way back to my room one night I stopped at the campus commissary. It was small, just a store front really, stocked with boxes of processed foods and more ice cream. In the cooler behind the register, I spotted cold bottled water of an indiscriminate brand.

I asked the cashier, a young girl, for one bottle. She told me it cost 15 kuai. I gave her a 20, which is all I had. She took the bill and disappeared toward the back of the store. When she re-emerged she held out to me a small wrapped lollipop. “Sorry, no change.” And she laughed a shy laugh.

Sorry, no change.

Sorry, no change.

I kept that lollipop. It is worth 5 RMB or about .81.