Unforgiving Progress: An Early Requiem for a Community

We’re really close to the sun here. Not in a metaphorical way or anything. You’re not about to get hit with some Icarus parallel. Like, literally—relatively—the sun is close. That’s why, especially in the winter, days are that perfect kind of weather where you don’t even notice weather and nights give you hallucinations of Leif Erickson shoving sno-cones in your face and whatnot. It also makes the morning bright AF. On cloudless mornings (and most right now are) you’ve got to mentally prepare yourself for solar beatdown. Having the complexion of a roll of unused toilet paper, it’s dangerous out there for me.

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My face, whiter than toilet paper.

Day 1 of the weekend. I told fifth-grader Yang Hua (English name Tom) that I’d meet him outside his house at 8:30 in the morning and we’d hang around his village. Stupid—that’s how I felt about that promise at 8:00 a.m. Two years ago at that time I’d have just hit stage 4 of the sleep cycle. Wouldn’t get a crack at the world until noon. I remember in college this one kid wanted to meet up for a group project at 8:30 am on Sunday. I think I must have said something like, “You’re a sick fuck, you know that?” before we kicked him out of the group. But anyways, I’m older now and I’ve created responsibilities for myself. It’s one thing to stand up an 8:30 am class, it’s another to stand up an 11-year-old kid.

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Sanzhuang Village

I got up, slunk into the brightness, and walked down the mountain to Yang Hua’s house. He lives in the first mini-cluster-village of the big-big village of WenXing (When-Shing for you foreign devils). As such, he’s attended school at SanZhuang—where I teach—since first grade because, even though he lives in WenXing, SanZhuang’s elementary school is 10 times closer to his house than the WenXing iteration. I thought that was a nice, strikingly un-bureaucratic arrangement for Yang Hua. I walked down through SanZhuang on my way. I passed a bunch of my students and this old farmer who seems to pop up everywhere in my life. Whenever I walk past, he announces to someone—or no one if someone is not there—that “It’s Mr. Loeb, the American teacher, Mr. Loeb is coming down the hill!” And laughs merrily. It’s kind of weird. I can’t tell if he likes me or he’s doing some Paul Revere type shit.

Yang Hua is waiting in front of his little village. I’m immediately washed with a pang of relief-guilt. Really happy I didn’t let myself doze. I suppose I have grown up. The way these things work: Clusters of houses, almost quite literally right on top of each other and then vast expanses of cropland before another cluster of houses quite literally on top of each other. It might make personal-space-loving Americans scratch their heads—and it took me a while to make sense of it. “But… but… where’s your backyard.” I might ask. “This is all our backyard.” Accompanied by a sweeping of the arms. Not even a single “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again,” sign. How barbaric. Gives me the creeps, it does.

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WenXing scenery

Yang Hua and I meet up with another one of my kids—Gao ZhiBin (who I creatively named Zeben, in honor of a TFC teacher I kind of knew). And then two 11-year-olds and me walked across the entirety of the big-big village of WenXing in the infinite brightness. We village-hopped, if you will. Remember, all of these clusters are separated by big plots of rice, wheat, and tobacco. Throughout the walk—which took a few hours—we ran into pretty much all of my WenXing students. About 10-12 come to SanZhuang each year. WenXing’s own school only has grades 1-4. So, its students—like students from other surrounding rural villages—come to SanZhuang for 5th and 6th grade. WenXing is small and, like most rural Chinese villages, getting smaller.

Quick modern history/rural economics lesson: WenXing is and has always been an agricultural village. There isn’t much in the way of concrete documentation, but from what I hear from locals, it was kind of what you picture when you think about rural China back in the day—and probably a little worse, given its mountain-hugging location. Up until the 70’s, poverty was the rule, the concept of “our” was law, and life was a grind. Most people will tell you that it’s been getting better since the mid-70s. A slow, upward trajectory that has been nothing, mostly, but good. Education got better, students stayed in the system longer, a new road sprung up every few years. Most people over the age of 30 probably have four, five, six brothers and sisters. But rarely, if ever, do they have more than two kids of their own. Even though the one-child policy does not apply to farmers or minorities, economics do. The advantages of having six children have been erased by incipient prosperity.

But, now it’s clear that the prosperity curve is starting to press up against the limits of reality. Alas, an hours-long agricultural community cannot sustain economic growth forever in its own little organic semi-vacuum. To be sure, this is also the case for cities, countries, and, sorry, planets. There are essentially no #millenials here. People aged 18-30 are almost invariably working in cities, living not amongst rice terraces and family, but in tiny little cupboards in cities like LiJiang or DaLi, with 10 other young people—and, mind you, making 10 times what they’d be making if they weren’t. This is demographic engineering. Whether policy or not, like the one-child law, it seems to be the logical course of economics meets life. After all, subsistence-or-close-to-it farmers do next-to-nothing for the proliferation of societal cash-money. Move those people to the city, pay them 10 times more (still very little), make them consumers, and convert the inefficient land that they used to farm and live on to Big-Agri-Central and shit like amusement parks (and way down the line perhaps 1,000 times pricier second homes for the grandkids of the people who left the village). Show me a “developed” nation where that story hasn’t played out. I dare you.

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Students messing around in the stream

But, not today. Each village-cluster (nine in total) is still sufficiently full of life. Every time we cross a field and enter a new village it’s kind of like entering a new country. People—especially old people—speak of the villages like that. I remember one guy warning me in my first days to “never trust a person from (the village right across the street)” as though the cobblestones represented some sort of irreconcilable moralistic divide. There is a dominant last name in each village, too. This makes sense. These are generally places people move out of. Outsiders with weird names like Loeb, rarely settle down here.

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We cross into the central village—the wealthiest of the nine. The village committee building is here. There are also three small convenience stores, shelves stocked haphazardly, cash stored in a creaky drawer—all bills tossed in with each other, ancient-looking men sitting outside on stools sucking the life out of cigarette bongs (and, sadly, themselves), and a brand of friendliness that doesn’t exist in places with garbage and traffic lights.

I buy the kids some lukewarm “iced” tea and they lead me up a side-alley to Zhang LiPin’s house. They pound on his door and scream his name. This is actually how people coordinate rendezvouses! I always thought Charles Schulz was full of shit when he wrote about this kind of stuff. Moments later an irritated old-woman-voice echoes from the other side of the door. “He’s not here. He’s ‘being an honored guest.’” The kids shrug and we keep walking. “Being an honored guest,” a phrase that carries with it that unnecessarily inherent formality that a lot of Chinese phrases do, is always hilarious in this context. First of all, because everyone is friends around here, people are always going over to other people’s houses for events—from funerals to weddings to liver-destructions. So, this is a super common reason for someone being unavailable. But, the word/phrase is used interchangeably for kids and adults. The idea of an 11-year-old, let alone a four-year-old “being an honored guest” cracks me up.

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Alleyway in WenXing

Zhang LiPin wasn’t home, so we walked to the next cluster. We called on another kid, Yang JianWei, who was home. His dad, shirtless and roundbellied, scrambled to receive us. He frantically looked for a teacup, and when he couldn’t find one, emptied, washed, and refilled his own tea-bottle and offered it to me. He ran into the courtyard and grabbed a few sticks of milky-ice (cream) from the freezer and handed them to the boys. The spontaneous acts of hospitality, incredible. We stayed for a moment—not long enough for my tea to cool—and walked back toward Yang Hua’s house. We would eat lunch there.

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Gao ZhiBin, Yang Hua, me

On the way back we stopped at the school to play basketball with a couple more of my students. The hoops were droopy and the ball flat. The school is only a few rooms—a real community operation. There are 43 students in total, grades K-4. My school’s own Principal, Mr. Yang, who happens to be from this very village-cluster of WenXing, said there were well over a hundred kids here 20 years ago, when his son—who know lives in the city of NuJiang—was a student here. One of the kids laments his fate as a fellow-townsman of Principal Yang. “He’s my principal seven days a week instead of five!”

We retrace past the little haphazard shops and the same ancient dudes loving on the steel cigarette bongs and the fields, fields, fields. Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin playfully attack each other with fallen branches. I notice Yang Hua’s shirt is too small for him. Gao ZhiBin’s, too. They don’t notice, though.

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We get back to their village around two. The way back always feels shorter. On the way there, you never know where the end is. There’s an “uncle” sitting on a stool by the table. Always stools here, of course. I guess there’s a thrill in eating whilst trying not to injure yourself, or something. The uncle smokes a cigarette and nod-smiles at us. Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin mess around with my camera for a few minutes, before a pack of tired looking middle-aged women enters the gate and sits down at the table. I look up, confused.

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Food, literally, on food

“It’s the busy season,” Yang Hua informs. “They’re helping us with our crops, so we’re having them over for lunch.” The honored guests smile and nod and continue jabbering in deep, deep dialect, far beyond my comprehension. Yang Hua’s dad comes out with a few trays of freshly picked, freshly cooked, freshly fresh dishes—the only kind there are here. Pig’s stomach, milky potatoes, corn and green beans, leek soup, whole little fishes, and that thing that starts with an r and ends with an e. He greets me and offers a Dali beer and a Yunnan cigarette. I take the beer. He tacitly impugns my nicotine-free “masculinity.”

I eat gleefully, say thank you, and walk back up the mountain in the brightness. “Come visit us anytime, anytime.” The boys say. “See you on Monday,” I tell the students—more sullenly reminding myself than them.

It’s funny whenever I do this. I feel deeply nostalgic for something I never had. I feel like I’m vicariously experiencing a lost life—one spent on private property, one spent in cars, one spent with phones and distance—a decade on. Life has been good for me, to be sure. But, it was never like this. For some reason this is how I’ve always pictured “society”—close-knit, name-knowing, honored-guest-being, continuously, endlessly hospitable… neighborly. With a fuck-ton of corner shops. As many corner shops as corners.

And this place will probably be “running its course” by the next time Halley’s comet comes through. And I wonder why that has to be. Are the concepts of prosperity (the money kind) and simplicity, neighborliness, tradition, and community really so diametrically opposed?

It’s hard to argue that they aren’t.

Why does it always seem like we can only choose one or the other? Truthfully, this sense of community is something we’re always hungering for in theory—country, religion etc.. And I suppose when you think about it in that sense, the concept of community is OK until you consider its insidious exclusivity—an apparently fundamental characteristic to its existence. But, practically speaking, real, physical communities seem to be perhaps the greatest victim, among many, many positives, of prosperity. I would never argue that Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin are better off staying put—my alleged purpose here pretty much represents the inverse of that notion. Surely, in most ways, they aren’t better off. But, remember from time to time, that progress and wealth are not no-strings-attached plusses. There are some things you’re gonna have to lose first.

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I Don’t Know

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“Want something to drink?”

Ah. Here we go.

“I’m good.”

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.

“24.”

“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.”

I don’t.

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.