Friday, May 14, 2010

Returning Home

A couple of my favorite scenes in the show《蜗居》 - "Dwelling Narrowness" - that I wrote about a couple weeks ago involve young women thinking about whether they are cut out for life in a sprawling Chinese metropolis. In both instances, the woman questioning whether to stay in the big city is in a very difficult position. Her life is up in the air and it is not clear how everything will turn out with her.

This dilemma about whether to remain in the city or to return home to a simpler life is one that tens of millions of Chinese people must, at one time or another, face. There's no doubt that most of the people migrating to Chinese cities are benefiting from their move. Saying that, things in "special economic zones" and 10%+ annual growth are not always rosy. Life in such rapidly changing places can be disorienting.

Leslie T. Chang in the book Factory Girls does a great job of tackling this issue of migrant life in Chinese cities. Chang profiles a number of young women who are trying to make it in the southern boom town of Dongguan. Chang is a good writer who weaves nice narratives for the reader. But the thing that really makes Chang's book special is the access that she gets being a Chinese American woman. She gets the chance to do things that most western journalists never have the chance to do.

One of the passages that I enjoyed most from Factory Girls is the story of Chang accompanying a factory girl home for the Chinese New Year to the village in Hubei Province where she was raised. The description of life in the village is fascinating. It's a glimpse into a world that most westerners, even the ones who've lived in China, never get a chance to see.

This following passage from pages 272 - 4 is a beautiful summation of a Chinese migrant's life:
In lives blurred by journeys to strange places, there was one fixed point in the migrant universe: a farming village that was home. Agriculture brings little economic benefit now; family plots, of just under one acre on average, are too small to be profitable. But across China, the family farm is still being tended, because that is what people have always done. The land is less an income source than an insurance policy - a guarantee that a person can live and will not starve.

The continuing link to a family farm has stabilized China in an age of mass migration. Its cities have not spawned the shantytown slums of so much of the developed world, because the migrant who fails in the city can always return home and find someone there. A teenager may go out for work, leaving his parents on the farm. A husband who migrates may have a wife at home tilling the fields, or sometimes the other way around. A married couple might go out together, leaving young children in the care of their aged parents. In the city, a migrant might look desperate, but almost every migrant has a farm to fall back on.


At home, the travelers (migrants returning home for the Chinese Spring Festival) fall back into the slower rhythms of the farm. Hierarchy governs village life: The older men, the chief decision makers in their families, choose what is best for the community too. A family eats and farms together, and at night the children often sleep with their parents in one large bed. The older children discipline the younger ones, and the younger ones obey. Guests show up unannounced and stay for days; communal routines of eating and sleeping and, these days, television viewing absorbs them easily. There are no secrets in the village.

In the city, this way of life is already dead. Small families live in high-rise apartments alongside neighbors who are not their kind. People forge relationships with those they do not know. Young migrants in the city have lived freely among strangers; they have competed for jobs; they have dated whom they pleased. No matter how fondly they recall their rural childhoods, in truth the village cannot take them back.

It is not a new story. The ache of the traveler returning home is a classic theme in Chinese literature. One of the first poems a school-child learns, from the eighth century, is about a man who goes back to his village after a lifetime away, to find that he no longer belongs.
I left home as a youth, and as an old man returned,
My accent unchanged but my temples turned gray.
The children see me but don't know who I am,
Laughing, they ask where this stranger is from.
After reading this, I asked Qian whether she knows this poem that Chang quoted. I started reading it to her in English. In the middle of the first line, she interrupted me and rattled off the rest of the poem in Chinese. She is definitely familiar with it. She says that the poem "is written with simple language but is wonderful."

She found the original poem for me:
For nearly all young people in China, life in the countryside just won't do. Young people of Chinese villages are leaving their native hamlets in droves. This poem, written more than a millennium ago, is particularly pertinent today.

I'm sure everyone reading this post has heard the "largest migration in the history of the world" talk about China's countryside spilling into its cities. There are good reasons young people want to leave the countryside. Life there is rough and there is almost no opportunity for personal development.

Life in developing Chinese cities does not guarantee happiness though. What is more of a sure thing is that a person who's lived in a city will not be able to happily return to life in a village. Going from an urban life to a rural one just doesn't happen very often, or at all, by choice.

It's hard to say exactly what the pull of life in cities is. As I noted in my discussion of "Dwelling Narrowness" a couple weeks ago, many migrants do not get to enjoy any of the benefits or culture that big cities provide. Instead, they are either working day after day in a factory or are saving up doing a white collar job to buy a condo. But the draw remains.

My knee-jerk analysis is that Chinese people are attracted to the opportunity of life in the big city. Just as Europeans a century or two ago were drawn to America, Chinese cities gives those in the countryside the chance to do something different with themselves. Like in America, there is no guarantee of success in Chinese cities. But, as evidenced from the emptying of small villages into cities, the possibility of a better life is enough to be a magnet for the masses.


Anonymous said...

I think you posted a Modern Chinese translation of the original poem from the Tang dynasty.

唐 贺知章

Mark said...

You're right, Anonymous. Qian and I were not on the same page with that. I edited this on the post. Thanks for pointing this out.

Ramesh said...

Factory Girls is a brilliant book. I too was struck by that beautiful story of returning to the village for the Spring festival.

I think there's no going back "home". The simple village life does not exist anymore.Despite all the difficulties in cities, those who go can rarely come back, I think. A very similar phenomeno happened in India - it started much earlier and happened over two generations rather than the explosion of the 20 years in China. Its only the first generation that has moved that thinks of going back.For the next generation there's no "back".

Great post Mark. Wonderful read.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, good stuff.

I think this type of migration always occurs as a country's economy expands at a break neck pace. True, not on this scale, but if we look back at old black and white American movies there was a common theme of the small town boy, or farmer boy, dreaming of a move to the big city to make it big, ala Jon Boy.

What strikes me now, is I here people in Las Vegas talking all the time about wanting to move to a small town or a rural area. The lowest rates of unemployment now are all in states like Montana, the Dakotas, etc.. Granted they couldn't stay that way if cityfolk migrated en masse, but it is interesting to think about a migration to the rural areas of the country and the possibities it may present for a changing economy.

I suspect China is about to go through a major transition towards large scale farming. I just don't see how it will be feasible for these small family farms, now understaffed due to the migration, to meet the demand of the hungry booming cities. Unfortunately for all the Dorothys in China, someday, they may not be able to click the heels, hop on the train, and claim there is no place like home.

Anonymous said...

ugh, hear not here, sorry but I am a stickler for stupid mistakes like that.... thats what I get for rushing.

Mark said...

@Ramesh - Thanks for recommending "Factory Girls" back several weeks ago. I picked up per your recommendation. Definitely a worthwhile read!

@Hopfrog - No problem on typos. It sucks that Blogger doesn't allow to go back. No matter!

I think that moving away from big cities is somewhat acceptable in the US. Saying that, there aren't going to be many New Yorkers clamoring to move to middle America, but I don't doubt that there is some urban to rural migration happening.

I think there's something to be said for midwest/"Flyover America" living. The economy never got as speculative or as irrational as much of the rest of the country did. Therefore, things in the midwest, while not great, aren't nearly as bad as some other parts of the US.

I think I'm something of a case study on "returning home." Now, I'm not a migrant worker or anything so I'm not even going to pretend that my move is analogous to what my post is about.

But, it has been interesting for me to move from Xi'an, a city of 8 million people, to the suburbs of Kansas City, a city of 2 million people. So far, so good.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah man, I think you make the mistake that many people do, in not truly seeing your journey for what it is.

Think about it... (and forgive my errors and chronological mistakes)

Kansas boy goes to China, travels the country, teaches English, plays in a band, meets Girl, becomes world famous blogger, marries girl, has Chinese wedding, comes back with girl, has American wedding, lands job, buys cool moutain bike, has incredible commute to work.

Seriously though, its why I wish you would have written a book. I love Hessler as much as the next guy, but I am getting a bit sick of all the gushing he gets from the sinospere. Your time in China is probably every bit, if not more, interesting than Hessler's. I think if you had your bro's gift for gab, you'd have quite a book. Your blog is great, you do a great job of capsulating and presenting, but I think there are probably hundreds of untold stories from your experience that would make a great tome.

Mark said...

That's a nice summary, Hopfrog! Not sure it's all accurate. Especially that world famous blogger part. But it all sounds good to me!!

It's cool that you can pick up on my story and appreciate it. I too regret that I haven't, and most likely won't, write a book. With everything else going on in life, I just don't see how it's feasible for me. We'll see.

I have a photo book close to being done. I probably need to spend another good 5 hours on it and it'll be good to go. If I could get that cranked out and be available for purchase on Amazon, that would make me feel like I've produced something tangible about my experiences (although my hundreds upon hundreds of posts on my blog have to count for something, I suppose).

I hear what you're saying about Peter Hessler. And I say that realizing that one could very well label me his #1 fanboy.

You may have seen this before, but there was a nice give-and-take between Hessler and a blogger who wrote the blog post "Peter Hessler Has Ruined My Life."

Hessler actually saw the blog post and sent the guy a nice letter.

In summary, Hessler said that his experiences in China aren't particularly unique or special. He thinks that people care about him and his books because he is a good, experienced writer.

I have to agree with him on this.

There were points when reading Hessler where I felt really bad and a lot of regret about my experiences in China.

Why didn't I put more effort into getting my Chinese more fluent? Why didn't I put more effort into developing relationships with Chinese people instead of spending so much time with the expat community in Xi'an? Why did I waste so much time and energy going to night clubs and drinking?! Etc.

But I've come to realize that I really shouldn't have these kinds of regrets. I had amazing experiences in China, many of which Hessler, and anyone else on Earth for that matter, have never had.

Also, I was 22 when I went to China. I had already graduated from college and was most certainly not in study/do productive stuff mode my whole time in China. I grew up a lot during my time in China.

My jobs in China, my travels, my friends, my students, my Chinese teachers, my relationship with Qian, my relationship with Qian's family... these things, and the countless other experiences that I had there, are special and different from anyone else's.

It's taken me a while to realize this. But I'm glad I finally have.

So I guess what I need to do is become a better writer so that I can fully express what I've done. Improving my writing, possibly more than anything else, has been the benefit of this blog for me.

I know that I'm not a great writer. In fact, I was very disappointed in this blog post upon which we're commenting! Saying that, I have to have improved my writing as "Mark's China Blog" has morphed over the years.

As you note, my brother is a better writer than I am. There are plenty of China bloggers who write better than I do (or ever will) as well. But this practice of throwing my ideas onto the internet has definitely had some positives for me.

Whether the result of my blogging ends up in me writing a book (it probably won't), improving my writing is a positive in itself.

To wrap up, I don't have regrets reading Peter Hessler any more. I am happy about all the stuff that I've done. Life is good!

Anonymous said...

Mark, that comment was a great read.

You may not be the wordiest writer in the blogosphere, but for whatever reason, your topics always seem to make me want to comment and always seem to be the topics I am interested in.

I did read that post about Hessler, but didn't know he responded. Classy and informative response.

Looking forward to placing my amazon order!