international development

Big Fish in a Poor Pond: Confronting Chinese Rural Poverty from a Position of Privilege {Guest Post by Evan Kornbluh}

The following blog is a guest post from Evan Kornbluh, who was generous enough to lend his time to writing about his experiences working in rural China. Thanks, Evan!
A typical home in Yilong and the family's small adjoining field

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.

The Luo family, who run the steamed bun shop outside the office of the NGO where I was stationed. The photo includes the Luos, their 26 year old daughter, and her 3 year old son.

About the Author

Evan Kornbluh graduated from Harvard College in 2009 with a degree in international history. Following graduation, he spent a year in Beijing teaching history at Peking University, and recently spent three months blogging for the microfinance startup Wokai at their field partner in rural Yilong County, Sichuan, China. His main interests include education, development, and Chinese-American relations, all of which he writes about on his personal blog.

11 thoughts on “Big Fish in a Poor Pond: Confronting Chinese Rural Poverty from a Position of Privilege {Guest Post by Evan Kornbluh}”

  1. RK says:

    So I clicked on your blog on my Google Reader this morning, only to find Evan on it… He and I went to college together and he was close to some of my really good friends. I love the coincidences of this world, and I very much loved this post! Thank you both for telling this story!

    1. Akhila says:

      Roxanne, thank you for your comment! I enjoyed reading about Evan’s experiences, and actually was connected to him through another blogger named Leslie Forman who works in China now. I absolutely love the coincidences you can find through blogging and social media! Thanks for reading 🙂

    2. Evan Kornbluh says:

      That’s crazy, haha, small world! Hope you’re doing well, Roxanne!

  2. Akhila says:

    This is an interesting post, because I’ve read more often that people who work abroad with international development organizations are most often asked directly for money – money to send children to school, pay for healthcare or housing costs, etc. I haven’t heard many stories similar to yours, where foreigners have been asked to join in with locals on business and investment opportunities! I think your experience in that regard is very interesting and perhaps, sheds light on the economic success of China, manifested in the entrepreneurial nature of individuals and society. Very interesting observation.

    And of course, confronting our privilege is difficult– I have no advice for you since I haven’t had similar experiences in the past. It is difficult to balance being honest and representing yourself realistically versus trying your best to be liked within the community you are living and working in. I think a lot of people do have to refuse at some point to help – you cannot help everyone you meet. And hopefully, people understand that you are being pulled in a 100 different directions. But I know many people who have agreed to help – whether that means giving money, raising money, or connecting people to someone else who can donate/fund a project. It’s hard to know how to act in these situations, and the best thing you can do is support people when its feasible and be honest to the rest without being, of course, offensive in any way.

  3. petite hermine says:

    This is so interesting. Thanks for sharing.
    Btw, found you through 20sb ‘WeLoveComments’ Group.

    1. Akhila says:

      Thanks for reading, and for coming over to my space 🙂

  4. Anonymous says:

    Evan, as I’ve told you before, I love your rural China stories!

    Here in China I’ve also been continually struck by the contrast between the enormous number of options I’ve had in my own life, and the number of options that the people around me have.

    When I first taught English in a “small town” of a million people (nowhere near as rural as Yilong County) I was only three years older than my students but I felt much older. I think the main difference was the number of decisions I’d made for myself before the age of 21, whereas for my students, decisions were made by parents, school systems, government regulations, school rules, etc.

    I’ve never been asked to invest in a Chinese business, but I am constantly asked to teach people English, and I was once asked to produce a biracial son. Not quite the same thing, I guess 😉

    Anyways, I’m so glad to see you post here, and hope to actually meet you in Beijing some time soon!


    1. Evan Kornbluh says:

      Thanks for reading, Leslie! I can definitely sympathize with the feeling of being constantly treated as an English resource–I’ve gotten that in equal measure in both rural Sichuan and in Beijing.

      I always feel torn when this happens, between a desire to help my friends and a desire to use every opportunity to improve my Chinese. It’s hard to find a balance.

      I haven’t run into any procreation offers yet, though, haha.

      Good to hear from you!

  5. Nathalie says:

    That’s a great post of the reality of doing development work. Although I can reassure you that I have met in developing countries people who could barely afford clothes & food paying me dinner despite my overly insistence that I should be the one paying and being incredibly generous to me. It was in Ecuador (where I interned in a micro-credit NGO), so maybe the culture has something to do with it. I think for most of the people I met (not all of them) in Ecuador it was a honor to make friend with someone from a far away place and they proudly shared their culture, food and way of life. Of course, they were those who friended me so that I help them with their French lessons, but overall I have met very generous people. I have never been in China, however, it may be a culture which is much less inclusive of “foreigners”.

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