Posts Tagged ‘Rural China’

New Years in Middle of Nowhere, Hunan pt. 1

January 26, 2012

Cousin Katie and I spent Spring Festival 春节this year with 博哥’s family in Hunan. While this was the second Chunjie I’d spent in Asia, I

Picturesque Yi Yang

had spent the holiday during my year at Beida travelling outside China, and was thus excited for my first chance to have an authentic Chinese New Year experience. We flew into Changsha Hunan, early on Saturday morning, and 博哥’s mom (who I’ll call 李妈妈 for the purposes of the blog) and dad (李爸爸) met us at the airport for the drive to Yiyang 益阳, where 李妈妈’s family is from. Yiyang,a tiny (by Chinese standards) city of about half a million people, lies about an hour and a half northwest of Changsha. It’s got the rather drab uniform look of most middling Chinese cities: most of the buildings share a similar beige color and few are over eight stories high. We stayed in an apartment just off of the wide shop-lined pedestrian street (perhaps modeled after Shanghai’s Nanjing East Street) that is also a mainstay of all mid-level Chinese cities. It snowed most of the afternoon and evening of our first day there, such that the whole city was blanketed in snow by the second day. Covered in snow, the city resembled a less picturesque version of the homely town where the blockbuster Pepsi commercial I wrote about earlier this month is set.

We arrived in Yiyang mid-day on Saturday, in time for a massive meal with several aunts, uncles, and cousins, including a mid-sized bottle of baijiu split between the five men (including me) at the table. Unsurprisingly, non-stop eating and drinking were the dominant theme of the entire trip to Hunan, to the point of exhaustion. Every lunch and dinner became a big production,

All the meals were this awesome. Only thing missing from this photo is the boozeHanging out around the fire after a meal. It was too cold to do much else

with plenty of relatives crowded around a table piled high with food. The homemade food was, also unsurprisingly, amazing, although I was surprised that this Hunan crowd ate very little spicy food. Most meals consisted of a couple of large stews which boiled throughout the meal in electric kettles, flanked by an assortment of stir-fried dishes. As the meals wore on and the stir-fried dishes cooled, the remainders were dumped into the boiling electric pots, presumably to re-heat them and to soak up the flavor of the stew. Several family members live on farms, giving us ample access to amazing home-raised free-range chicken, and incredibly fresh home-grown vegetables, including some I’d never seen before.

Even this amazing food took a back seat to the single-mindedness with which a Chinese family at New Years pursues its alcohol. The level of drinking was

View from on top of a temple on a hill overlooking the city

exhausting. It felt like an act of physical exertion to drink heavily over a big lunch and then, just in time for the buzz from lunch to wear off, to start all over again. Luckily, this family was willing to spare us from drinking baijiu most of the time, leaving us to choose between beer and wine. The downside of drinking one of these, though, is that an appropriate toast often requires draining a full 5 ounce glass—whether it was full of beer or wine. According to custom, one is expected to toast everyone at the table, as well as be toasted back by the other drinkers. On several occasions, thus resulted in me finishing off more than a full bottle of wine to myself, to say nothing of the beer. A couple of times, 李爸爸 brought bottles of wine with him to toast us with when we went to visit other relatives. However, as the wine was mostly for our benefit (had it been up to them, they would have drunk just baijiu), few people had an opener handy. We watched instead as an uncle, showing remarkable ingenuity, drove an ordinary screw through the cork and used that as leverage to remove it.

While Chunjie festivities often last a whole week, the official start of the new

Burning "money" for ancestors to use in the afterlife

year was Sunday night. We gathered in an aunt’s apartment for the meal, but before we could eat, the family had to make a New Year’s offering to their ancestors. We gathered in the small apartment’s dining room, where several Mao posters overlook a round wooden table. We watched as Grandma laid out two plates of meat and a full stewed chicken in a bowl on the table, as well as a couple of plastic cups of rice, and two glasses each of water and baijiu. She placed a sprig of green onion over each of the dishes of meat, and lit a couple of sticks of incense. Each member of the family took turns bowing over the table, following which she burned a small handful of rough yellow paper, which I’d seen before to represent money. The little dish

Also from a temple overlooking the city. The low buildings in the background are a cement factory.

of incense was transferred to a small altar inset in the dining room wall.

I’ve decided to split this into a couple of entries since it’s too long for one blog post, but stay tuned next week for drunken fireworks.

Yup, rural China is still out there

August 15, 2011

It’s hard to believe I’m already nearing the three- month mark for my return to Beiijing.

Near a Teach For China placement school. I admit I didn't take it, but pretty nonetheless...

Work at Teach For China has been pretty exciting thus far; the work is really fast-paced, the office full of smart and motivated people rushing around in an attempt to get too much done in too little time. My first grant proposal, written frantically in my first week of work, unfortunately failed; the Canadian Embassy’s charitable fund decided this year to focus on women’s empowerment. However, the mild disappointment at this has been almost completely lost in the flurry of other new and exciting work. The Development team’s fall fundraising campaign is starting in earnest next week, and I’ve recently been anointed manager of Teach For China’s social media campaign. I blame this new gig primarily for my lapse in maintaining regular blog updates; tweeting is considerably more time-consuming than I ever would have guessed, and it’s hard to convince myself to sit and type at a co outer in my free time when I already do it from 9-6 Monday to Friday. In the absence of regular updates here, I instead make a shameless plug for the Teach For China WordPress, which I’ve now been updating with regular stories from teachers’ (called Fellows) lives in Yunnan. I’ve been gathering really great stories from their lives in the boonies, with great pictures to boot.

Though I’ve settled for now back in the big city, I was inspired to write this post the other day by a sudden reminder of my time in Sichuan. Devoted readers will remember Qiu Yukun, my friend in the rabbit-raising business who during my time in Sichuan tried to rope me into scheme of starting a restaurant in his hometown. He continued to try to sell me on this idea right up until I left Sichuan; and I, unsure of how to deal with the situation, continued to give him noncommittal responses right up until when I returned to the US. When I returned to Beijing this time, I sent him a text, but by then he had already switched phone numbers, and I feared I had lost touch with him for good. Then last week I happened to sign into QQ (the Chinese instant messenger) and to catch him online.

It really was quite a stroke of luck that I managed to run into him; Yukun rarely used QQ, and I hadn’t signed into the Chinese chat program since leaving Sichuan over half a year ago. Yukun was ecstatic to find me. When I met him last year he was already married, but I was shocked to hear that, in the time since I had left, his wife had given birth to a son. In the two years since graduating college, most of my friends have started some kind of graduate school, and only a tiny handful have gotten married; in the last couple of months, I’ve been so proud of myself for crossing such major milestones to adulthood like renting an apartment, and having a kitchen with actual pots and dishes. Speaking to Yukun was a jarring reminder of how, in a place like Yilong, Sichuan, real adulthood comes along a lot more quickly.

We exchanged phone numbers again, and since then, he’s called and texted repeatedly, but mostly during work hours and I, guiltily, sent only apologetic text messages in response. Today I happened to be already out the door of the office as his call came through. “Finally, you answered!” he exclaimed, but our exchange of pleasantries was followed by an awkward pause in which neither of us new quite what to say to each other. “When are you coming back to Sichuan?” he asked, and I struggled to find a diplomatic answer. I would, of course, love to go back, but as a real person with a real job now I only get a limited number of vacation days a year, and will inevitably spend many of those visiting family in the US. Yukun seemed equally uncertain of when he would have a chance to return to Beijing—he previously worked here has a migrant worker for several years, but now he has a family and a farm to take care of. “You should hurry back, I can introduce you to a nice girl to marry here too!” he insisted, and rattled off the appealing traits that I must surely be looking for in a future wife. “I know some very pretty ones, very tall, and with light skin!”

The conversation had the same anxious air that I remembered from conversations with him and some of my other friends in Yilong. I’m still the only foreigner he knows, and must still represent his only window into the larger world outside of rural northern Sichuan. As I’ve written about before, Yukun was one of several friends in Yilong who, throughout my time there, was constantly approaching me with new schemes of how we could go into business together. He seemed certain that I was the secret to getting rich quick—either as a source of American investment capital for his restaurant scheme, or simply as a front man who would attract business simply by virtue of being white. Somehow, as a foreigner, I represented an elusive alternative to the rather dismal choice that most young people in rural China face: stay at home and farm for menial gain; or live the hard but comparatively lucrative life of a migrant worker.

Unfortunately, the chances of my becoming the financial backer for his restaurant are pretty slim. I thus attempted to deflect his invitation politely, not wanting to get his hopes up. “I really want to come back to Yilong, I’m just not sure when I will have time,” I urged. Though I really meant it, the words sounded hollow, even to me. I suddenly remembered the attitude he and some of my other friends had taken on the day I left. I had insisted then that I would certainly come back, but many had seemed skeptical; foreigners had always passed through periodically, to teach English, or volunteer with Wokai or another international charity, but then they returned to their own lives. I realized that, just as Yukun was desperate to maintain a link to the outside world through me, so I, a suburban Midwesterner, want desperately to maintain some connection to his world, which I gained access to for a short period of time but even now remain intensely curious about.

I hope you can maintain a friendship on that.

One Chinese Peasant’s Story of Personal Development, pt. 2

February 26, 2011

Last week I wrote about a friend of mine in Yilong, Yang Taigang, whose search for a new job and source of income fascinated me. I was struck by the way he talked about his own “development” (fazhan 发展), his search for career advancement in a rural environment that provided few economic opportunities.

On subsequent visits to Yang, his development remained a major topic of discussion. He seemed in particular to take meeting me as a tremendous opportunity and peppered me with endless potential cooperative business ventures. He proposed that we open up a Chinese hot pot restaurant in the US; that we export baijiu alcohol or some other Chinese product to the US together; that I could serve as translator for a tour company based at Jiuzhaigou national park. Here, it appeared to me, was a would-be rural Chinese entrepreneur if there ever was one. As I rode along with him on his motorcycle, he frequently stopped to greet people and to schmooze. He seemed to be friendly with everyone we encountered along the road, and went out of his way to pull over and introduce me to them—which was nice, but which made me feel a little bit like a trophy, as if his social capital was increased by his prominent visibility with a foreigner.

The last time I saw Yang left me with a still different impression which puzzled me even more. He had informed me on our first meeting that he had a friend who ran an alcohol distillery and, still thirsting for the blog scoop that had propelled our first meeting, I convinced him to take me to visit it during my last week in Sichuan. When he showed up on his motorcycle that last time to meet me, it was without the usual big grin and friendly greeting that had accompanied our other meetings. Before he would drive me to the distillery he insisted that I come back to his house first; his Internet connection had mysteriously stopped working and he wanted me to attempt to fix it. He was preoccupied, even glum, as he drove me home, failing to make small talk or pitch business schemes as usual.

 

This home belonged to another ARDY volunteer, but it is similar to the house built by Yang Taigang and most families who had earned enough money through migrant work to build one

Yang’s many years of migrant labor had earned enough money to build a concrete, two-story abode of the type that has become ubiquitous in rural China today. Though the bare concrete walls are rather sparse and cold, the structure is roomy and has all of the modern utilities: electricity, gas, Internet (a personal Internet connection is, I believe, still somewhat of an impressive luxury). His wife’s parents occupied the concrete house next door. Yang dropped me on the second floor with his basic Lenovo laptop and then rushed out to meet a friend, with whom he said he was considering starting a small trucking company. Unfortunately, my limited technical expertise was even more curtailed by the Chinese version of Windows. After fiddling around in the network settings for a few minutes, I returned to the ground floor and chatted with his wife while we waited for Yang to return. Yang’s wife had a hard day of farm work ahead of her; it was the end of the fall harvest season, and time for the family’s patch of sweet potatoes to be picked. Suddenly painfully aware of my own frivolous plans for the day, I apologized for whisking her husband away to accompany me. “It doesn’t matter,” she said as she strapped the basket to her back which would hold the sweet potatoes, “He never helps me anyway. I do all of the farm work, I harvest the crops, I tend the pigs, I do everything all by myself, and he never helps. He’s always off trying some new scheme, or looking for a different job.”

 

 

Yang's wife cleaning fish

I really didn’t know what to make of this; I certainly had never been privy to Chinese marital troubles before. She chuckled good-naturedly as she complained, though, as if this was something that she had long resigned herself to. “Whenever I need him for help on the farm, he always rushes off somewhere else. Last week he went off to a birthday party for an old army buddy in the county capital. He drank too much and then crashed his motorcycle.” It wasn’t until he returned from his “meeting” that I saw the evidence of this crash, which I had somehow missed at our first meeting that morning. Yang’s right cheek was scraped up and swollen, and he was missing several front teeth. Had he first greeted me with his customary big smile, it would have been obvious.

 

As he drove me back from the distillery, we returned again to his favorite topic. “I can’t just stay around here for the rest of my life, I have to get out, I have to find a way to develop myself outside of my hometown if I’m going to make a living and raise my family.” Though he had already worked for years to provide his family with a home, the pressure to keep supporting them was no less acute. The pressure he felt served, sometimes, to drive him further away from his family, to the chagrin of at least his wife. As I learned that day, furthermore, Yang’s relentless pursuit of his own and his family’s “development” wasn’t without a reckless streak.

 

 

One Chinese Peasant’s Story of Personal Development, Pt. 1

February 21, 2011

My friend Yang Taigang, impeccably dressed as always

I wrote a post near the end of my time in Sichuan about Yang Taigang, the old army buddy of one of the volunteers at the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County who took me fishing while wearing a coat and tie. Yang was an incredibly interesting character, and in the few times that I hung out with him besides the fishing trip I took some other notes about him but never managed to write anything after them. I know that for last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to get more into current events with this blog, but I hope the reader will indulge me a turn for the more Peter Hessler-esque this week.

I got to know Yang originally out of some rather strange happenstance—he was passing through Jincheng one day and the ARDY volunteer who had been in the army with him invited him to lunch with us, but beyond the standard comments about me being able to speak Chinese (which by that point I had more or less begun to just tune out), we didn’t speak much. That afternoon was a particularly boring day at the office and, thirsting for new blog material, I took off in search of an alcohol distillery which I had been promised was close enough to reach by foot. I had been walking down the main road off the mountain which Jincheng is built on for about ten minutes when Yang drove by on his motorcycle and pulled over to talk to me. I told him of my plan and he revealed that the distillery was actually much farther away than I had thought, and offered to give me a ride on his way to run some errands. I leave it to the reader to judge the advisability of getting on the back of a motorcycle belonging to a man I just met, but pretty soon we were speeding off down the mountain. I had been driven around on motorcycles frequently since getting to Yilong, but Yang drove even faster than most, and I did my best to conceal how tightly I was gripping the back of the seat with both hands.

After another ten minutes (it would have been really far to walk), we came to the distillery, but it turned out to be closed. Rather than face the prospect of an entire boring afternoon in the office, I accepted Yang’s offer to follow him around on his “errands.” We drove uphill into the next valley, and he revealed some of his back story as he told me his plans for the day. As I discussed in the fishing post, Yang had been in a paratrooper division of the army with my friend and fellow ARDY volunteer, leaving in 1999 to seek work as a migrant laborer. He moved up through the construction hierarchy, finally saving enough money to quit in 2008 and set up his own hot pot restaurant. The restaurant failed, though, and he has been back in Yilong since then planning his next business move. He explained that he was still in the research stage, and had spent a while looking around at what different business options in the area seemed to be working. In particular, a large fish farm on the main road just outside the town of Dingziqiao 丁字桥 had caught his attention, and he was driving over there today to talk with the owner and check it out.

Yang’s voice was full of energy as he spoke, which seemed to be a symptom of his profound impatience with his current predicament. He had been out of work for several months and was itching to get a jump on his next career move. As he shouted to me over his shoulder above the din of the motorcycle, he made frequent use of the Chinese word fa zhan 发展, “develop,” in a way that sounds a little bit strange in English. The term can be used to describe economic and social development, but it can also refer to personal development, whether economic, educational, or in terms of career—to participate in the Bildungsroman of one’s own life. People tell me that I’ve come to China to “develop” myself. “I’m the kind of person that, in this life, has to keep developing. I can’t just stay in the same type of job; I just have to figure out the best way to develop myself.” Yang explained to me.

The fish farm outside Zhouhe, also funded in part through microloans from ARDY

Eventually we reached the fish farm, and I watched him explore this potential option for his development. Unfortunately, the owner wasn’t there that day, and I think we were outside the optimal fish-farming season. Across the street from the farm the land dropped off into an expanse of farmland where a grizzled old man was pounding the earth with a hoe. Yang pumped the man for information about his neighbor, though I followed little of the rambling conversation in Sichuanese that followed. He explained to me later that he had learned that the fish farm was not particularly well run—the owner had failed to make some necessary investments in it and the farm had seen a drop in returns. Yang was apparently disappointed, and had decided that this particular venture was not his ticket to “development.”

I’ll post the continuation of this story later this week

Using Chinese Twitter to Combat Human Rights Abuses

February 10, 2011

A really inspirational story has been all over the Chinese media and generated some buzz in the China blog sphere the last couple of days. Amid the continued uproar over human rights abuses in China, the issue of human trafficking rarely gets much foreign press. A Chinese NGO called Baobeihuijia 宝贝回家 (literally, “Baby Come Home”), has been working for several years to confront the grievous and ongoing problem of human trafficking in China. The organization owns a website which posts photographs of missing children and tries to help parents to reconnect with them. China Geeks reported today about a really cool development in this movement:

Yu Jianrong, a Beijing man, set up a Sina Weibo account and asked people to do something simple: take photos of child beggars, and send them to him to be republished in his feed…. Yu Jianrong’s microblog has accrued nearly 95,000 followers, with no signs of slowing down2.

Yu Jianrong then forwards the photos and information about the child’s last known location to Baobeihuijia, which can help track them down and get them help.

I’m excited about this story for two reasons:

1. Implications for Human Rights in China and the growth of domestic human rights civil society: The US State Department continues to list continued rampant “trafficking in persons” as one of the major blemishes on China’s human rights record which the “government” had “failed to address.” This is a major issue that has been going on for a long time, especially in Xinjiang  Province. Unattended young children are picked up off the street and transported thousands of miles to another province, where they are then pressed into slavery as cheap workers or as beggars. I learned about the practice from a friend of mine who has spent extensive time in Xinjiang. “A van will drive around and find kids, and someone will call out that they’ll go buy ice cream or candy.” Ethnic minority children, such as the Uighurs of Xinjiang, are especially vulnerable because they may not be able to speak Mandarin. “They’ll find themselves in a place with no ability to communicate and no one to contact. Then they’ll be forced to work for free until they can learn enough Mandarin to escape.”

According to C. Custer at ChinaGeeks, 9,165 cases of selling women and 5,900 cases of selling children were reported in 2010. However, public reporting for this tragic practice is often lost among the great media fanfare surrounding more politically charged human rights abuses in China. The lack of political liability around this issue, though, also means that there is a space for Chinese domestic participation without any fear of suppression from the government. I would like to think that this issue represents the emergence of exactly the sort of civil society institutions which foreign human rights and democracy advocates have long been working to foster in China. A domestic community of individuals and organizations has emerged on its own accord to fight on behalf of the victims of these crimes. A space for public activity on human rights abuses already exists in China for issues that are essentially apolitical in nature.

2. Implications for the future of information technology in politics: The growing political presence of internet social media has become everyone’s favorite catch phrase since it was decided that Facebook and Twitter had played a big role in the political upheavals in Tunisa, Egypt, and throughout the Middle East. I hope readers will excuse a sudden spike in the nerdiness level of this post, which is probably at least the result of my having recently read a William Gibson novel. In any case, the way in which technology, in this example, is being used to transcend limitations of space and distance is really exciting. C. Custer explains that child traffickers have, for a long time, been able to “remain relatively anonymous even in the middle of the street when no one was paying attention.” The vast distance which they carried the child away from their home was enough to conceal the crime. Now, however, the internet is being used to pool information about where they encounter these children, creating a public record of the child’s whereabouts and making them easier to locate.

For anyone still in China, you can contribute to this effort by forwarding information and pictures about child beggars you see to C. Custer at China Geeks:

custerc at gmail.com, or twitter @ChinaGeeks and weibo @ChinaGeeks

 

Another article on this at the China Media Project: http://cmp.hku.hk/2011/02/08/9929/

Dating and Romance in Rural China, part 2

January 30, 2011

(Continued from “Dating and Romance in Rural China, part 1)

Within just a week or two of dating, Jin had already begun to weigh the possibilities for their future life together; would Li commit to stay in Yilong with her, or would she have to come with him if he went to work for an NGO in Chengdu which had previously employed him? I was utterly baffled at the speed with which their relationship had progressed to this planning stage, and skeptical that Li, who had worked with a different NGO in a different city each of his four years since graduating from college, would agree to settle down so soon.

Nevertheless, these broader questions of the future were often forgotten in the early days of their relationship, as they often are. In the early days the two of them were as giddy as any young couple of Chinese high schoolers or university students I had ever seen—Li would grin broadly as the two of them held hands and sat next to one another at one of the restaurants that we often frequented (me always eager when one of Li’s other friends came along as well and I could be a less obvious third wheel—or, in Chinese, deng pao 灯泡, “lightbulb”); they would hold hands as they walked the streets of Jincheng together, even occasionally pecking one another on the cheek.

Despite this willingness for PDA, however, their traditional upbringing held strong. I don’t think the two of them spent the night together in the entire time I was there, even when the opportunity presented itself. Though Jin would sometimes visit the ARDY office and stay until late at night, Li would always walk her back to her aunt’s home. I remember one night in particular when the other ARDY volunteer who lived in the building with us, in the room adjacent to the one I shared with Li, went home for the weekend and left his room vacant. Jin had stayed over late that night, and I, hoping to be a good roommate, offered to sleep in the empty room and give the two of them some privacy. Not only did they refuse my generous offer of self-sexile, but I think Jin was even offended that I would suggest that she were that kind of woman.

Their relationship left its chaste honeymoon phase after only a couple of weeks. Though I never got many details about the first fight, I have little doubt that the fights started when Jin started talking about the marriage in more concrete terms. She had already discussed it with her parents, Li related to me; Li’s parents, who were public officials in Beijing, would come back to the homestead for Chinese New Year, giving them a chance to meet Jin’s parents. They could then be married soon after the spring festival. After that, they would settle down in Yilong. Li, however, who had spent the last eight years of his life moving about the country, was already getting restless. He had already contacted his close friends at an NGO in Chengdu the capital of Sichuan, and was already making preparations for when he would leave Yilong and go to work for them.

They were in the middle of one of their nightly hour-long phone conversations when the first fight took place. Li hung up on her in anger and returned to join me at the adjacent computer in the main office; within minutes I received first text messages, then a phone call from Jin in a desperate attempt to get a hold of Li. This put me in a rather awkward position. However, Li was by far my closest friend in Yilong, and to be honest I sympathized with his desire to stay unfettered far more than I did with Jin’s premature domestic instincts, so I respected his wishes to end the conversation for the night.

While I had refused to intervene, however, the family did not. The match had, of course, been originally conceived by Li’s aunt, who occupied the apartment adjacent to that of Jin’s aunt. Li received a phone call from his aunt the next day, asking him to come and have dinner with her; or more accurately, ordering him to come to dinner. I was, understandably, fascinated that his extended family would intervene into the relationship in such a pronounced way, and incredibly curious as to what role the aunt’s opinion would play. However, Lin returned from the dinner visibly drained and unwilling to talk about it in length. He did, however, tell me that the aunt had explained to him “how to deal with women.” I have to imagine that the aunt had in fact lectured him about the importance of bowing to the needs of his fiancée, and likely about the importance of settling down at his age. Li was, at 27, after all, quite old to still be a bachelor by rural Chinese standards. I had other friends in Sichuan (in particular, my friend Qi yukun the rabbit farmer) who were married by 23, my age.

Outside intervention proved to be only a temporary solution. Within a week, the two had gotten into another fight. I found myself more and more often put in the awkward position of having to take sides. Each time Li stormed out of our room, closed cell phone in hand, I knew it would be only minutes before my phone rang, either with a text or a call from Jin in desperate attempt to reach him. On one of my last days in Yilong, I was out to a farewell dinner with other friends when I received another phone call from Jin. Knowing what must have happened, I answered, and she launched into a heated diatribe about her unreliable boyfriend. “He’s so selfish,” she complained, “he only thinks about himself, and how he wants to go off to Chengdu again. I’m not so young anymore, you know. It’s not right for a girl my age to stay unmarried and alone. I can’t be expected to take care of my mother all by myself. She’s complexly alone since my father died last year, as you know. We need to move back to my village so that we can take care of her. He doesn’t think about what anyone else needs, though, he only cares about himself.”

I certainly sympathized with Jin’s dilemma. I was taken aback, though, by the complicated interconnected network of responsibilities within which she made her decisions. Li had only been dating her for a couple of months, and already he was expected to shoulder the burden of helping her care for family members. I tried my best to remain neutral, though the relationship seemed to have little hope at this point.

I’ve been staying in touch with Li since returning to the US, and the last I heard from him he is planning on going to Chengdu right after the New Year.

Dating and Romance in Rural China, Part 1

January 23, 2011

A bridal car 婚车 of the sort that carries off the bride and groom after a wedding

In coming to Yilong I was particularly eager to learn whether or not the rapid changes in romantic attitudes in urban China had made any headway into rural China. What I observed first and foremost, however, was that the lonely heart in rural China faces a much bleaker landscape than one would in a big city. Even without having to deal with more conservative social norms, the severe drain of young people to the cities to work leaves few options. Out of the few young people I met who had stayed behind in Yilong to work, many of them were already married, even those close to my age; I could probably count on my fingers the number of young single people I met in my whole three months there.

Beyond this general scarcity of potential mates, I was fascinated to observe the contradictory forces at work in the dating scene in rural Sichuan, which I imagine are even more extreme than those operating on romantic conventions in more cosmopolitan parts of the country. On one end, arranged marriages, or at least extreme family involvement in the orchestration of matches, are still quite common. I met several couples in their late 20’s and early 30’s who, when I asked how they had met one another, replied that they had been “jieshao” 介绍–“introduced,” or essentially set up, by family members. On the other hand, the practice of dating in high school, still controversial in urban China, has already started to percolate into the countryside. High school couples can occasionally be spotted discreetly holding hands leaving the school. I once walked by a pair of high school kids who had found a secluded corner besides the old MiG fighter plane on display at the memorial to the civil war hero and Yilong native Zhu De 朱德 and were using it to practice some aggressive PDA.

Chinese Gothic: My roommate's aunt and uncle had had an arranged marriage

This collision of traditional values with evolving attitudes was even more vividly brought home to me by the experience of my roommate and fellow volunteer at the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County. In many ways, Li (names omitted to protect the innocent) personally embodies this dichotomy of traditional and modern. A native to Yilong and the son of local officials, he was one of few of his classmates able to attend college, in the northern city of Dalian. After graduating, he spent several years working and volunteering in various NGOs in different parts of the country before returning to Yilong to work at ARDY. While proud of his roots and staunchly traditional in some respects, his views have also been inevitably changed by prolonged exposure to Western colleagues in various NGOs. Over the course of two months I observed his surprising and rather increasingly conflicted courtship of a local girl, Jin. Jin had studied at a teacher’s college in Chengdu and returned that year to teach English at a local middle school in the nearby town of Ma An 马鞍.

The two’s meeting had been a classic case of old-school match-making. Li’s great aunt had invited the two of us over for dinner on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival. It was only after we arrived for dinner that the aunt informed Li that she had invited a potential suitor as well, much to his embarrassment. The two barely spoke to one another for the whole course of the evening; however, Jin had procured Li’s cell phone number from the aunt and called him the next afternoon, and the two ended up chatting for over an hour. These hour-long phone conversations soon became a nightly ritual, though it was over a week before Jin was able to get a reprieve from teaching and take the 40-minute bus from Ma An back to Jincheng and see Li in person again.

I was utterly shocked how soon it was after this second “date” that the two began to talk about marriage–somewhat jokingly, of course, but nonetheless with definite intent behind it. I went to pay a visit to Jin’s classroom the week after they had started dating. Over lunch, she told me that although she had barely spoken to Liu Yi at their first meeting, she had felt an instant connection with him, “as if we had been married in the previous life.” She had already begun to weigh the possibilities for their future life together; would Li commit to stay in Yilong with her, or would she have to come with him if he went to work for an NGO in Chengdu which had previously employed him? I was utterly baffled at the speed with which their relationship had progressed to this planning stage, and skeptical that Li, who had worked with a different NGO in a different city each of his four years since graduating from college, would agree to settle down so soon.

I realize I’m already over the conventional length limit for a blog post, so you’ll have to stay tuned for the shocking conclusion later this week.

I’m Famous!

January 18, 2011

So I was interviewed a few weeks ago for an article in the People’s Daily about foreigners volunteering in China. I didn’t realize until today that the article had already been published in December, so here it is. I’m just a little miffed at them for picking the other guy for the picture. And for massacring my last name (“Komblun?” *sigh*). The corny title also is a quote from one of the other volunteers they interviewed: “Stories of Foreign Volunteers in China: ‘A Smile Bridges the Distance Between Me and China.'”

Here’s the parts about me, translated back to English from their rough translation of my initial interview responses:

…“I think the person who often benefits most from volunteer work is often the volunteer him/herself, who gets the chance to learn about a new environment, to learn from the people they meet, and to understand a society.” Evan Kornbluh, who graduated from Harvard in the spring of 2009, arrived in China this year.

He taught a year of history at Peking University before starting work this fall with the American microfinance organization Wokai’s rural partner organization, the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County. He works with his colleagues to connect donors all over the world with Chinese microfinance borrowers, and to help these borrowers to escape poverty and eventually achieve self-reliance. Besides his daily work responsibilities, he traveled from village to village, recording everything he saw and heard. He wrote about his experiences on the Wokai website, so that American donors could better understand rural China.

More and more foreigners are coming to China to do volunteer work, and as they work alongside their Chinese counterparts they inevitably encounter obstacles relating to language, culture, and way of life.  “Sometimes because I was a foreigner, I felt that people treated me like a child, everytime I would go out I was bombarded with superfluous safety advice,” says Evan. Most of the time, however, foreign volunteers work happily alongside Chinese volunteers, leaving them eager for closer interaction with Chinese young people.

“My Chinese friends and my American friends are not that different from one another, they are familiar with global affairs and eager to learn about different peoples and cultures.” Evan has met many Chinese young people in the course of his volunteer activities, and he believes that “Chinese and Americans can work together and learn from one another as long as they are familiar with and respect one anothers’ cultural differences.”

It’s a fairly faithful translation of what I said, except for the error that I actually first arrived in China in 2009. Can’t argue with free publicity.

The End of Microfinance’s Honeymoon

January 17, 2011

ARDY's Fu Xing branch office

I’m a couple of weeks late, I know, in commenting on article in the New York Times about the recent image issues that the microfinance industry has suffered. The article describes how major microfinance lenders, in particular in South Asia and in Latin America, have begun to come under greater public scrutiny, and even resistance, from the media and from political leaders. In the most extreme example of resistance, the government of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has banned microloans altogether.

…as with other trumpeted development initiatives that have promised to lift hundreds of millions from poverty, microcredit has struggled to turn rhetoric into tangible success.

Done right, these loans have shown promise in allowing some borrowers to build sustainable livelihoods. But it has also become clear that the rapid growth of microcredit — in India some lending firms were growing at 60 percent to 100 percent a year — has made the loans much less effective.

Most borrowers do not appear to be climbing out of poverty, and a sizable minority is getting trapped in a spiral of debt, according to studies and analysts.

…even as the results for borrowers have been mixed, some lenders have minted profits that might make Wall Street bankers envious. For instance, investors in India’s largest microcredit firm, SKS Microfinance, sold shares last year for as much as 95 times what they paid for them a few years earlier.

The article confirms something that we probably should have known all along–that an organization isn’t necessarily doing good for a community just because it labels itself as “microfinance”–rather, effectiveness is inevitably going to vary by organization and each microfinance firm must be evaluated individually in order to determine its effectiveness. In my experience, the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County is one of the better-run organizations, and its successes carry lessons for both implementing microfinance successfully, and for evaluating the reliability of other organizations.

In the last month of my time in Sichuan ARDY hired an outside software distributor from Nepal to help them install a new data management system–something I’ve blogged about previously here. The two men who came in from Kathmandu to oversee the installation process had been to China several times before to work with other microfinance firms in various parts of the country. When I asked them how ARDY compared to the other Chinese firms they had worked with though, they respondingly responded that ARDY was quite different. Many of the other organizations, it seemed, fell into the same pattern that the article describes as inspiring suspicion. They ran their operations strictly as a business, beholden primarily to the profit motive, and with little concern as to whether their borrowers were really being lifted out of poverty. ARDY, they said, was the only Chinese microfinance distributor they had seen which was really motivated by social goals, and which really worked to change peoples’ economic situations.

As I have discussed previously in this blog, one of ARDY’s really unique characteristics is its organic relationship with the local community. Gao Xiangjun and the other directors all grew up in this community, and have a strong sense of personal dedication to improve it. They know what local inhabitants need and are personally dedicated to providing them with the instructive and material support that they need. However, I was equally impressed by the shrewd business acuity which Gao and her colleagues display in their work. ARDY maintains an incredibly high repayment rate, and reinvests much of its profits from interest back into the organization, such that its lending pool increases each year. How can an organization combine both profit motive and social good?

I think one important element is the need to distinguish profit motive from profit as a performance indicator. ARDY seeks to help local farmers by creating sustainable local enterprises which borrowers will be able to manage and develop themselves. Traditional indicators of business performance, in particular profit, are the best way to determine if borrowers are in fact moving toward financial independence rather than simply accepting handouts. They should also inform the way in which potential microfinance entrepreneurs manage their new enterprises, and ensure that they can eventually turn a profit on their own.

However, in order for these more conventional business practices to be successfully integrated into a community which previously lacked them, they must be combined with an intimate understanding of the community and a willingness to work with borrowers to overcome the greater obstacles that inevitably arise from starting a business in a more extreme environment. When a borrower from ARDY fails to make a payment, a loan officer visits them at their home, and works with them to figure out a strategy for repaying the loan and, hopefully, salvaging their failed business endeavor. Without this sensitivity to local conditions, any organization that treats profit as its bottom line is inevitably going to leave some people behind. Instead, profit motive should inform socially motivated projects, allowing an organziation to meet its social goals within a competitive capitalist environment and with a more efficient use of resources.

How to Talk to Peasants

December 25, 2010

 

Gao Xiangjun speaks at a training session for community leaders

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.”

 

Community leaders from the town of Le Xing celebrate the opening of a new ARDY branch

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.”

 

A training session for Yilong Peasants

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.