Monday, October 5, 2009

After 4 Years, the End of China for Me

I have already had many meaningful and insightful conversations in just three short months of travel. None up to this point, however, would I consider to be life changing. That was until I walked over for dinner on my second day at the Mei Xiang factory. To my surprise, I found Qiju and Wang Ai Yi (WAY for short), who are the parents of the shop manager Zhuo Ma (with the hats in the picture). They were just as surprised to see me, and immediately they asked why I was there and not back in Shangri-La or Kunming. I said that I had come to see the factory, and tomorrow I was going to Langdu to do some interviews. What interviews, they asked. I told them that I was researching poverty as part of a fellowship.

They didn’t like that - and before I go any further, I should mention that WAY is a retired government official. Qiju immediately went off on me with an aggressive tone I hadn’t heard from this generally reserved man, saying that there was no point and that this was a wrong thing to do. WAY chimed in, and going off of how I said I wanted to learn about the livelihoods of the poor, she said "Our lives are good, much better than years before." Qiju continued on his attack, saying, "The government wouldn’t accept of this. We don’t want you writing any articles." I told them that just because I was interviewing people didn’t mean I was going to write any articles, and who said they were going to be bad anyway. I said, "She [WAY] just said that your lives had improved so much. That’s great – I want to know how they have improved, and what the reasons are. This way, I can know how to help other people. How can you say this is bad?" WAY explained that our countries are different, so it won’t do any good to ask questions about China. We argued back and forth, with WAY maintaining that a foreign view of poverty would never be accepted and useful in China, and the same for a Chinese view in China. I said that if it was a good idea, it would be accepted. And how did she know? She said she knows how the US is – she had read about it on the internet and in books. I refrained from asking her if she had ever BEEN to the US.

Soon Qiju muttered, "You’re too young, you don’t understand." To which I replied, "You’re right, I am really young and I don’t understand. And that’s why I want to know." He said that if I wanted to know I should talk to a government official. I agreed that I should get many different viewpoints, and could he introduce me to an official? He said no, there’s no point. This entire time he wasn’t looking me in the eyes, and would only look away. I wondered, "How do you expect me to listen to your advice when you can’t even look at me when you’re telling it?"
After that Qiju, frustrated with the whole situation, lit up another cigarette and walked away. WAY continued to explain to me how the Chinese social welfare and development system worked, with the government giving each farmer the same amount of land and assets (livestock, housing) and leaving it up to the individuals to how much they would prosper. We both agreed this was fair, and she continued to explain it in more detail until dinner. I don’t think Qiju looked at me again until the next day.

I first started studying Chinese four years ago at my father's suggestion that I "give it a try" after he saw how I loved economics and business while noting the potential in China (not enjoying Spanish in high school didn't hurt either). I started studying for the business prospects and then fell in love with the culture. As my interests changed from profit-making business to poverty-alleviating enterprise, I convinced myself that China was still the place for me, even despite the rapid development in the country. I have a tendency to do everything for a purpose - every goal helps me prepare for the next. My experience in China certainly has an enormously influential place in this process, but maybe ending up in the country isn't a no-brainer like I once thought.

Indeed, there are still major problems for large minorities of individuals, Tibetans to name one. However, when considering how I can be of some help to this world, I inevitably come back to the idea of maximizing social benefit - helping the most people who need it most. From everything I've seen, these people are not in China. Bangladesh and India have been proof of this, and I am not talking strictly in terms of income. This argument was a wake up call. While WAY and Qiju certainly didn't convince me that everyone's lives in China were just dandy (I have seen poverty in rural China, and their viewpoint is that of a gov. official, which I won't go into), they did confirm what I already knew but didn't want to admit. China already has its legs on the development ladder and is making he ascent. There are other countries yet to grasp the first rung, and this is where the help is needed most. Does this mean I won't be attending Johns Hopkins in China next year? I never say never, but yes, it probably does. What will I do after this travel then? For the first time in memory I don't have a plan, and during the rest of this trip I will figuring it out. I am sure this comes as a surprise to many of you who thought a lifetime of China was in my future. It's a surprise to me too, and we'll see where this journey takes me from here. I look forward to hearing your thoughts (and suggestions!).

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