I spent yesterday learning how to fish with Yang Taigang, who is an old army buddy of one of the local volunteers at the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County. As I learned how to thread a worm on a hook and cast a line, lessons which had been missing from my boyscout-less childhood, Yang told me about his life. He joined the paratroopers in 1993, in a period when there were few other economically viable options for someone from a family as poor as his. The military salary of less than 100 RMB a month was enough at least to relieve his parents of the economic burden of supporting himself. Today, after over a decade of economic growth in China, a Chinese soldier earns several hundred RMB a month. Jumping out of airplanes, he explained, is something one picks up quickly by necessity, but “the first time was scary. The first time my instructor just pushed me out of the plane.”
In 1999, after six years in the military, Yang left to seek work as a migrant laborer in Beijing. After two years of manual construction labor he was able to gain promotion into a construction management position. Much of the money that he saved by working in the city went to building a new house for his wife and children, which was recently completed. In 2008 he invested some of his own money in his own hot pot restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant failed to take off, and since closing it he has been back in Yilong since, planning his next business move. I was quite surprised when Yang showed up to our fishing trip this morning in a sport coat, a tie, and leather dress shoes. The land surrounding the lake where we fished was taken up mostly by rice paddies currently out of season, and after an afternoon of stomping around in the mid his leather dress shoes and dress pants were completely caked with dirt. When I asked him about his choice of attire, he replied, “my family was always poor growing up, we didn’t have much choice of what to wear.” Now, that he is able to afford to Yang always tries his best to look professional.
I should note, though, that not every peasant in Yilong shows up to the fishing pond dressed to the nines. When I told this story to the ARDY volunteer through whom I met Yang, he laughed. “Yang has always had peculiar dressing habits, even in the army,” he replied. In any case, the story seemed to me to be an interesting example of what China’s recent economic explosion meant for one individual. For Yang, looking the part is only the beginning. While his first private venture, the hot pot restaurant, failed, he has spent his time back home talking to neighbors and learning more about the different types of businesses currently being run in Yilong. He explained to me that in the China of his childhood, in the years before and the first years of the Open and Reform movement, one’s economic options were so limited that the amount of effort that one put into self-improvement was irrelevant. Now, in contemporary China, “if you work hard, if you struggle, then you can make a better life.”
While Yang landed around 20 small fish by himself, I was proud enough to manage to reel in 4 or 5. We took them back to his home that night, where his wife cleaned and gutted them, then boiled them with pork fat, pickled vegetables and chili peppers to make a delicious sour soup. I asked her if the time Yang spent as a migrant laborer, during which he could only return home once a year to spent Chinese New Year with the family, had been difficult on them. “That’s just the way it is,” she replied, resigned, “when he had time he would call home. It’s the same for most families around here.”\