stubbing your toe on Chinese materialism: happiness elusive no matter your lot

[Note: This is a modified version of an original article (“Rural life is changing, for the better and worse”) published in the Shanghai Star, a weekly expat rag owned by the China Daily. I feel this version more accurately expresses my thoughts on the matter. The original article only exists on web archives like google cache anyway. Flickr photos of the experience here. –JJW]

I didn’t expect to sit at the head table, but that’s what happens when you’re the first foreigner of non-Chinese descent to set foot in a Chinese village. My memories of this “Roots & Shoots wish School” groundbreaking would have been clearer had I not been asked to say a few unprepared words to the 200-plus students and their relatives as the “blond haired, blue eyed” American. I told the group that, as a volunteer with the Jane Goodall Institute, I was honored and excited to learn more about life in rural Anhui.

We were there as visitors, teachers, and—though none of us seemed aware of it at the time—part of the new grassroots of Chinese civil society. We were not there for our own re-education, but that’s what happened, at least to me.

Unlike much of the more developed world, most Chinese city dwellers consider a trip to the countryside less like a Sunday drive and more like an excursion to another country. There are wide divisions of knowledge, experience, and means between big city folks and villagers.

In some ways, Yangshan Village seemed like stepping back in time. There was almost no trash on the ground, almost all of our food was natural and huge forest insects tried to make friends with us. Roots & Shoots staff prepared well. We brought cooks, doctors, and a carefully recruited team of volunteer teachers. Our group of thirty camped in sleeping bags on the floor of one classroom. We made a showering room by taping together straw mats and refrigerator boxes.

One morning in pouring rain on muddy mountain trails, we trekked to a Ming Dynasty house with a family of four generations. Chairman Mao and the God of Wisdom shared wall space next to their harvest calendar. The farming peasant family had a booming coffin-making side business.

All six families we visited on our eight hours of hiking that day have electricity. Many have stereos and small appliances. No one goes hungry. Yet everyone seemed old or infirmed, even on a day when no one was working in the fields.

I got back to the school to find our volunteer doctors finishing up physical exams and eye checks. I stepped into one of the dirt floor classrooms to watch the last five minutes of a messy, hands-on art lesson. The other room was full of grins as children learned about dinosaurs.

No young people except us youth

We spent our evenings searching in vain for mobile phone signals, singing songs, showering, cooking, cleaning, or feeding the maggots in the outhouses.

There was a simple explanation for our lack of interaction with the locals. There are no young people in Yangshan Village; not one over 14. County leaders told us that over 60 percent of the overall population is laboring elsewhere. By the age of 20, most have already been mailing money back to the village for many years.

Then, even more astonishing to me was the realization that, in our group, at 26 years, I was one of the oldest.

There is a freedom gap between those who live in the city and those from the less developed areas. Chinese in cities are growing up empowered; more and more realize they have developed the resources to fulfill their dreams. Villagers, more than their city counterparts, are still playing catch-up.

Being rich is glorious; being fulfilled is harder

While the young people from China‘s countryside migrate from one dangerous, undesirable job to another, villagers in Yangshan watched TV in their dirt-floored huts receiving signal from homemade tin-can satellite dishes.

That glitzy fake life has appeal. No wonder the villagers complained to me about their simple lives and how lucky city people are. In some ways, they have reason to be jealous. Their children’s education is half as good as a city kid’s—if they’re lucky.

Villagers do not understand urban discontent. They were not privy to my conversations in that big classroom where we volunteers slept. They did not hear tear-filled confessions from Shanghainese volunteers in which they confided their darkest fears. Villagers did not hear recent college graduates tell me they don’t know who they. Villagers have never experienced the hollow feeling of materialistic consumption where enough stuff and enough success is never enough.

Meanwhile, villagers welcome rising incomes, but do little to offset the familiar effects of economic development. The increasing number of consumer goods—batteries, food wrappers, cleaning supplies—means trash and pollutants are slowly accumulating in the otherwise pristine river valley. Farmers are getting sick by misusing pesticides.

The glory of the country life

Try as I did, I could not convince many villagers of the uniqueness of their country lives, which I perceive very clearly, having grown up in the comfortable countryside of the United States. They did not believe me when I told them that if I hadn’t been visiting as a volunteer, I would have paid to stay in their homes, or that more than a few rich Chinese urbanites would pay for their children to have their own, shall we say, revolutionary experiences.

The family in the Qing Dynasty house is demolishing their ancestral home to build a modern box. Ice cream wrappers speckle the river valley. The county plans to pave the only road into the village next year. Development continues.

Soon these students will have a new school given to them by a benefactor who hopes to give them the educational resources they need to reach their full potential. They will be able to communicate more with the outside world with net connectivity and computers. They will be exposed to new ideas and new peoples.

But will these young people grow up valuing what they already have–or keep waiting for a better life? Only through understanding choices between pursuing created wants and being satisfied with what one needs will China build the harmonious, egalitarian society it aims to have by 2020.

The cities are aswarm with volunteers. There’s hope in the air. I just hope the teachers in China‘s new “to the hills” movement are able to learn from their students. The material life isn’t a destination, but a stone in the path to a harmonious society.


1 Response to “stubbing your toe on Chinese materialism: happiness elusive no matter your lot”

  1. 1Dianne Dutson

    Great story.. I am going to require a good amout of time to ponder the post.

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