Tuesday, January 31, 2012

So I want to talk about China

I've been too lazy to blog recently. Plus since I got back from China life has been so monotonous and repetitive and materialistic and lazy and safe and devoid of emotional turmoil/philosophical enlightenment, that 3 weeks have merged into one giant long day of haziness. And most importantly, since I feel so useless these days, I wanted to make sure I'd blog about something important. Something meaningful and provocative and good. Today I was feeling reminiscent of China, and I think I found something.

When you walk into a new country, sometimes it's like nothing has changed. Sometimes it's like everything is different. The ground you tread on is a dirt road, the sky above you is a murky grey, the air around you is crisp and stale at the same time, woven together with a tinge of sickly sweet. The 'sickly sweet' is a result of the mid-afternoon sun beating relentlessly on those few unfortunate mandarins that have fallen off from their branch a little early.

That was one of the most valuable experiences I gained on this trip around China. The feeling of bicycling down a country lane past fields of green, acres of not-yet-ripe mandarin trees, and an endless expanse of untainted silence - occasionally harmonised with a few bird calls, the 'ring-ring!' of another bicycle bell, or a steady tutting sound fading off into the distance as a scooter makes its way home.

Of course, it isn't a lost paradise. Even amongst the pandora-like mountains of Guilin, where the scenery along the Li Jiang river is so insanely beautiful it becomes surreal and my eyes at first refused to accept what it was really seeing, there are ordinary locals going about their harsh daily routine to make a living: Sons born along the river spend everyday rowing gondolas for money. Women wash clothes on the banks. The grandpas sit quietly inside century-old stone cottages, feeding chickens, cows and fish eagles. The grandmas sit outside with giant bowls of silk worms, spending the whole day peeling off silk to sell. The little kids run around the streets, playing with sticks, chasing chickens and drawing shapes into the dirt.

Older kids have already left for school in a nearby town. When we asked a little boy for directions, he opened his mouth and told us in a mature and serious voice. He then turned around and carried on playing with his friends and some empty fruit shells on the ground.

People in beautiful places like this don't get to experience the beauty. One of the gondola rowers told me, the locals born into this place often curse the beautiful mountains for existing. They're too steep to climb, too much stone to grow crops on, too stubborn and dense to take down. The only thing they're good for is to look at. So the whole city of Guilin, all the surrounding towns and villages dotted around its many rivers, thrive on the flocks of tourists, laden with cash and LV bags and iPhones, to provide them enough money to send their kid to school so that they can grow up not slaving over manual labour for a living.

My dad said to the gondola driver, "You're very lucky, this place is very beautiful. To be able to wake up and see a scenery like this everyday, you're very lucky."

The gondola driver replied: "Lucky? We don't call this lucky. We think people like you are lucky, people with enough money to travel, to see places, to eat whatever you want to eat and go where ever you want to go."

And my mum said to me, "Look at this place. Look at how the people live here. What if you'd been born here? What if you had to grow up feeding chickens and growing crops, toiling day after day and never given the opportunity to leave or to be better. Isn't it unfair how people are born into different places? Some people are born here, where little kids start working as soon as they understand how; some people are born into a rich house with rich food and never know the true meaning of 'work' or 'labour'."

Isn't it unfair? Isn't it unfair that there even exists on this planet, people who are so fat that they are at risk of dying if they get any fatter? These people whose gluttony knows no boundaries, whose government feeds them, and when they're about to die, gives them an operation worth tens of thousands to save their pitiful life so they can keep on sitting and eating.

Compare them to the old grandmas who peel silk all day to sell; to the old grandmas who walk around the streets picking up plastic bottles and adding them to the big bag over one shoulder; to the old grandmas that swarm around tourist vans gently begging you to buy a flower wreath they weaved themselves for just 2RMB, their eyes filled with sincere pleading.

I know that there are millions, if not billions all over the world living in such undeveloped places, living in the past, living where such ordinary things to us are treated as luxuries by them. I also know that often, the financial situation of families can be so dire that they resort ro petty and cruel ways of making money, getting little kids to beg to invoke sympathy, even mutilating their own child so that they can horrify more people into opening their wallets.

But seeing these people and these places with your own eyes is very different to knowing. The faces of old people pleading me to buy their hand made flowers remind me of my grandma. It reminds me that they're probably a grandma to some kid, and unlike me, that kid might depend on his grandma's many 2RMBs to be able to eat something yummy tonight for dinner or to be able to get a new school bag. Even if these people are knowingly taking advantage of your pity, even if they're tricking you to pay more, ripping you off, even if there are far too many of them for you to be able to help, the truth remains that they need your 2RMB much more than you do.

The most painful truth about all this is that really, there's nothing that can be done to change the lives of these people. At least, nothing immediate, nothing on a scale smaller than a revolution, nothing that can be achieved without ensuing more damage or suffering first. The fact is that China, like India, just has so many people. So. Many. People. How is it possible to ensure all of them can live a decent life? You can't. China's huge. Massive. Compare it to New Zealand, this small, minuscule country with a history of around a hundred years, versus China, the Middle Kingdom that began developing over 5000 years ago, the economy, the culture, the language, the way of living, all thousands of years old. How do you change a way of thinking and a way of living so ancient, so ingrained into everyone there?

I don't really know what I'm trying to say. All I want is for those old grandmas out everyday begging tourists to buy their hand-made things to be able to live a life where they don't have to.


Li Jiang River, mountains of Guilin (image edited using iphone)

View from within an alley in a small village tucked away on the river bank

My dad's gondola raft rowing past a patch of houses along Yu Long river

View from my raft down Yu Long river. Surreal beauty. So tranquil. Water so clear and still, it's amazing.

Old grandmas peeling a sort of vegetable by hand in a village

Mother gives her child a ride while doing work

Someone's door

Letting hand made noodles dry in the sun

Three person journey.