I spent this fall in rural Yilong County, Sichuan, blogging on behalf of the American microfinance start-up Wokai from the office of their local field partner, a grassroots Chinese development organization. Though I was only in rural China for a few months, I was grateful for the opportunity to learn through my friends there about the challenge of attempting to make ends meet in rural China.
In particular, I was struck by the very sparse number of choices which people in Yilong County face. Very few opportunities for economic advancement exist at home. Most families, through farming the small plots of land redistributed to them during the Deng Xiaoping-era economic reforms, or through small-scale commerce, can make just enough money to scrape by. This reality drives many to join the throngs of rural migrant workers who seek employment each year in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, and China’s other booming metropolises. Even a menial job in construction or in the service industry can earn 20,000 to 30,000 RMB a year, more than twice the amount one can make farming the family plot of land. However, the migrant lifestyle is taxing, and has already produced a measurable strain on the social fabric of rural areas like Yilong. Except for children who are still in school, Yilong is nearly devoid of young people. School-age children are left on the homestead to be raised by their elderly grandparents while their parents work in urban areas. This pattern is increasingly traumatic for a society so traditionally focused on the family.
While older workers may spend as many as ten years in the migrant lifestyle, they eventually relent to the pull of the family and return home. The steamed bun shop where I bought my breakfast each morning was run by a couple who had worked hotel jobs in Beijing for five years before coming back to start the shop. “We’re not young anymore,” the wife, Mrs. Luo explained to me, and two years ago “we decided it was time to come back. All of our family is here; this is our home. In a person’s life, you have to return home eventually.” They now work longer hours—the couple must wake at 3am each day to start preparing buns for the morning rush—and make less money than they did in Beijing. However, the pull of the family was too great to refuse.
This set of tradeoffs, between family and financial stability, between tradition and freedom, is, in my experience, one of the major challenges facing rural Chinese today. It had a profound impact on how my friends in rural Sichuan interacted with me. In an environment with only a few distinct economic options, a rare foreigner like me, because of my perceived access to foreign money, my ability to speak English, and even just through my foreign appearance, represented a new opportunity. Over the course of my time in Sichuan I received constant proposals from friends to go into business with them. One friend begged me to start a tour company with him at a nearby national park, with him managing the logistics and me acting as translator. Another friend suggested we market a variety of locally brewed alcohol to the thriving foreigner bar scene in Beijing.
In the most memorable of these, I was invited by a friend to have dinner with a number of his friends. When I arrived at the restaurant, my friend introduced me to the other diners as a potential backing investor for their scheme to start a restaurant in a nearby town. As I was plied with alcohol and hot-pot each of the friends toasted me in turn and made extravagant claims about the sure-fire nature of the investment. “All we have to do is put your face, a foreigner’s face, on our advertisements, and tourists will flock to the restaurant. You’ll get a full return on your investment within the year!” one assured me. The zeal of my would-be business partners exceeded their alcohol tolerance. When the meal was followed by an impromptu session at a local karaoke bar, I soon found myself the last man still singing Beatles tunes long after they had all passed out.
Through me, my friends in Yilong perceived another choice, a rare advantage that would allow them to make money faster than the conventional options or at least to live more freely while still earning a living. I struggled with the ramifications of this discovery throughout my time in Sichuan. Did people view me first as a friend, or as a scarce resource? If I respond honestly—that I’m not particularly interested in leaving my life in the United States behind to become a rural restaurant entrepreneur—will I lose opportunities to connect with people?
I imagine that this is a common challenge faced by people doing development work in impoverished areas anywhere. In our quest to form sincere relationships with people from such different (and less privileged) backgrounds, how do we confront the inevitable ramifications that our positions of privilege must have on those relationships? I think that some tension is inevitable. However, I would be curious to hear what other readers of this blog have to say or if they have had similar experiences.