“Want something to drink?”
Ah. Here we go.
I roll to the left. I’m on a bus, about to pull away from the station. I’m headed five hours west, straight for the heart of 临沧 (Lincang) prefecture. Lincang means water-facing, an allusion to the 澜沧江 (Lancangjiang) river, also know as the Mekong—a beautiful waterway that might evoke eerie green and black images of bloody jungle war. Lincang is home to the 佤族 (Wazu), an ethnic group that the British and French—when colonizing the region around Burma and Vietnam—characterized as too “remote,” too “savage,” too “fierce” to attempt to administer—a designation essentially unheard of in the historical record of the two most ruthless and obstinate colonizers.
The area, and its corresponding region just across the Burmese border, would later become home to sweeping narco-armies that played one of the most pivotal roles in the worldwide opium trade. But, of course, very few people know this outside of the region itself. Certainly few people in China. Certainly fewer people in the West.
I won’t see any of it.
The guy sitting next to me offers me a can of Red Bull. He’s not offering me Red Bull, though. He’s offering me a conversation and I tell him “I’m good.” Not right now. Almost every bus/plane/train ride begins this way. Understandable. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner is infinitesimal. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner who can carry a conversation with you is pretty much zero percent. Perhaps there are 50 such people in the entire region. Should a rarity of such magnitude pop up in anyone’s daily routine, it would be difficult to resist conversational temptation. It’s important sometimes, as the object of endless small-talk, clandestine photo attempts, and countless barrages of “hello!’s” to remember and even embrace your inherent rarity—your uncommon opportunity to represent (or be perceived to represent) an entire country. Otherwise, you’ll go insane.
“Where are you from,” A few minutes later the guy has abandoned the Red Bull angle—probably because he’s now drinking it. He’s going straight for the conversation. This question, the most potent weapon in any small-talker’s arsenal, is never not the first one I’m asked. Sometimes I wish I had a different answer—Moldova or Andorra—or something. Something that would immediately quash the conversation for lack of questions. But, alas…
“The United States. Where are you from?”
“凤庆 (Fengqing county). I’m going home. I need to attend to some stuff at home. What are you doing here?”
“I’m going to meet some friends. I live in Dali. I teach English in a small town.”
“How old are you?” He asks.
“Oh! Me too.”
He tells me a story that is ostensibly synonymous with nearly every other young person I meet. He is from a small town in Fengqing. He now lives near Shangri-La, the deceptively renamed tourist town that sits at the Yunnanese base of the Tibetan Plateau. He works “up the mountain,” crushing salt for a big company. He’s on a six-year contract that ends in 2017. I do not ask him why he is coming home, as it’s almost certainly not for leisure. But, he says the return trip is extremely rare. He usually can come home once a year during Spring Festival. The journey takes about two days and is expensive. And, besides, the month-long Spring Festival holiday is the only vacation he has all year, except for Sundays.
He shows me a smiling picture of his girlfriend. He says he wants to marry her, but thinks he needs a more stable job first.
He talks about his perceptions of my home country. It’s so big, so developed, so full of opportunities. I, as always, point out that this isn’t entirely true. There are many parts of China—say Shanghai—that are more developed and more full of opportunity than many or most parts of the United States. But, he points out that those parts of China have very little to do with him. They might as well be on another planet. And I, acknowledging that the same can be said for the places in the US that I’ve just referenced, agree.
Because I’ve told him I’m a teacher, we begin to talk about education.
“I envy your American system.”
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s much more relaxed and much more stimulating. I think it would have suited me well. School was very difficult, very tiring. I think I would have done well in America.”
“How did you do here?”
He laughs. “Average. I, you know, cheated a lot.”
“Sure. Me too,” I say.
“We would go to school at 7 and leave at night. You know how it is. Writing, cleaning, busy all day. No extra-curricular activities. No tutoring at home. These are important things.”
“How do you know about those things? You know, if you didn’t have that?”
“Well, I am 24 years old now. I will get married soon and have a child, of course. I think about my child. I want to learn about what I can do for my child.”
“That’s big stuff to be thinking about.”
“It’s really all I think about, you know.”
The bus twists through the green and black mountains. Twilight falls. We meander along the path of the Mekong’s upper reaches. Strikingly blue, turquoise even. Much different than the sepia-toned rivers cutting through Shanghai. We flow through mountain village after mountain village, clusters of mud brick homes dug deep into whatever passes for flat ground.
I rarely meet people my age. Mostly, the folks I come into contact with are decades my senior or pre-pubescent types. Why? For the reasons described in the conversation above. Young adults are simply not here. They are in the mountains, in the cities, already getting started on the next generation. I wish I did meet more of them. Not only because it would be nice to have more friends, but because it’s impossible to understand a place without seeing it through the eyes of people born when you were born. Older people are part of something else. They came up as players in a game almost entirely devoid of the “opportunity” or “choice” we like to think of. They speak a different language, they have an entirely different outlook on things, they will change little. Children are living in the now for the future. That future is hard to forecast, because it will almost surely be “brighter” than it would have been twenty years before. They are young, unformed, mostly unaware of the relative world they live in. In some ways they are like the grandparents that so often raise them. Both groups are abstract to me.
But, people my age are not so abstract. I can understand, that if I happened to be born in Fengqing County in 1990 the likelihood that I would be teaching in the capacity I do is, for all intents and purposes, zero percent. The likelihood that I would have already been crushing salt for four and a half years on a mountain above Shangri-La, entirely wiping out my four years of college, is much higher. The likelihood that I would be thinking critically about my next career move—where, how, how much, why?—is zero percent. The likelihood that at 24, I would be thinking instead of my as yet unborn child is much, much higher.
The word unfair did not once cross his lips. He has probably said it many fewer times in his 24-year-old life than I have in mine. And I think, though I often refuse these conversations, I should not. I will never have enough of them.