Perhaps the biggest challenges that I faced during my time in Sichuan was, of course, the language barrier. My Mandarin was good enough for most people here to understand what I said, and for me to communicate with very little difficulty with most people who had learned Mandarin at school, but I had great difficulty understanding the more rustic brand of Sichuanese 四川话 that most of the borrowers of the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County spoke. However, it became clear to me by the end of my time in Sichuan that simple language skills were not the only thing standing between me and effective communication with Sichuanese peasants. Had I, miraculously, been some sort of brilliant linguistic scholar with a specialty in rustic dialects, I still wouldn’t have been qualified to help ARDY’s staff and leadership in their grassroots organization and mobilization efforts. This is because effective communication on this level also requires a fluency in the way that Yilong’s peasants see the world and the way that they express themselves, which goes beyond just grammar and pronunciation.
ARDY director Gao Xiangjun adopts a particular persona whenever she conducts meetings or training sessions for borrowers or for rural cooperative managers. She speaks slowly and deliberately and explains things in simple, concrete terms whenever possible (which is great for me, because it means I can understand more through the Sichuanese pronunciation). She jokes with them frequently, and allows them to joke back. At a meeting with the rural cooperative directors for the town of Dingziqiao, one peasant was particularly feisty, frequently making wisecracks and interrupting the session. Gao responded to each wisecrack with “你个狗日的,” which is hard to directly translate into English but approximates some variation of “fuck you”—generally a pretty severe insult, but in context was taken as light-hearted, eliciting no more than another laugh from the audience.
“Do you think this way of speaking with them, half-joking, half-teaching, is natural?” She asked at a training session for ARDY staff, “I’ve developed this over ten years of working with and teaching the people here. As you teach them, you have to keep their interest and their trust, otherwise you lose them.”
Effective communication also requires taking into account the customs of the community. In particular, it requires rather delicate management of the local alcohol culture. It is standard practice to eat both lunch and dinner with a healthy dose of baijiu 白酒, the fierce local hooch that, if you’re lucky, is only 110-120 proof. On many of the occasions that I’ve accompanied ARDY staff and volunteers on trips into the countryside, a morning’s worth of meetings and talking has ended with a big lunch and enough baijiu to bring on a sizable daytime buzz, frequently followed by a lazy afternoon of playing cards and chatting.
This habit poses a problem for Gao whenever she holds training sessions for peasants. After one morning meeting a couple of weeks ago, the group broke for lunch and went to a nice restaurant near the office. When asked if the party would be drinking alcohol, as is customary for the peasants, Gao refused, imploring that the group still had important work to do in the afternoon. However, the message didn’t pass quickly enough to the entire wait staff and several tables of peasants eagerly poured pitchers of alcohol before Gao could get a word in. She stood up in frustration, and politely but firmly told the peasants not to drink, an order which they, giggling, ignored. Gao stood in silence and contemplated the situation for a few minutes, before apparently deciding to concede lost territory and resolving to only scold the wait staff, “don’t bring any more alcohol! If you bring more we’re not paying for it.”
At a training session the next day for staff only, she scolded the staff for drinking too much with the peasants. “You go out into the countryside to meet with them and to teach them, not to have fun and party with them.” She acknowledged that this is a delicate balancing act for ARDY staff, however. Social engagement is a necessary part of their work; they drink and play cards with borrowers to build mutual trust and respect. Without a doubt booze plays an important part of social customs and cannot be completely erased. When ARDY opened a new branch office in the town of Le Xing several weeks ago, the opening meeting was followed by a big banquet for all of the community leaders and organization staff, in which ARDY provided the baijiu.
Correspondence with local stakeholders is thus a delicate balancing act. Fluency in local customs allows ARDY staff to build relationships with borrowers and community leaders. However, as Gao seeks to build local capacity she must also confront those elements of local culture which could undermine successful integration with China’s transforming economy.