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As a Chinese farmer today, I live a life quite similar to what one might have read about in a Pearl S. Buck novel. I live in the same village in which I was born, in the small house in which I was raised, on a small property adjacent to that of my uncle. I work this land as they do, and as my grandparents did, and their grandparents before me. This is not to say that the life I live is entirely identical to that of my ancestors. My parents now have a television and I own a motorcycle to go into the nearest town.
Life here is hard. I am an only son, and in this village there are very few girls my age, so I am lonely (Duflo, 2008). There are no opportunities for people like me. Some of my friends have moved south to Guangzhou. I see them when they return for Chinese National Day, and they have a lot of money, but many of them are not happy either. They live in dormitories and work long hours, and they do not receive help from the government, but they are hopeful. I dream about joining them. I live just above subsistence level, and I try not to think of it as poverty, even when the images on the television tell me otherwise (Tobin, 2011). I always read about how China is prospering, which excellent economic growth, but here in the country we do not see this wealth because there is a significant income gap (Roberts, 2011).
I live in Sichuan province. Chengdu city is three hours away by bus, which is not that far. I have thought about moving there, but I love the mountains here. The air is fresh. In the city, there is no fresh air. I visited there once, and it was the only time I left here. My father used to work there, and left my mother alone with me. When he got sick, he had to come back. He bought the motorcycle so he could get our extra produce, when we have any, to the town to sell. Now he is too sick to ride it. We cannot afford to see a doctor, and the nearest government doctor is over one hour away.
The only thing that sustains me is that the land here is rich. We are near the mountains, and this area is very fertile. There are also a lot of villages here, and a lot of people. I hope that before I am too old I can meet a girl here, but I am not hopeful because there are not very many. But with the good land I will always be able to feed myself. The village also has a strong culture still, among those who have not left. We feel a lot of pride in being able to survive on our own. We eat feasts during harvest times, and we seldom have the famines that my parents said used to occur, especially in other parts of China.
I am not sure how outsiders would view us. We had a man from Shanghai pass through here once with the local Party leaders. I could hardly understand what he was saying, his Putonghua was so bad. It was almost as bad as mine. For now, I will stay here. My family needs me, and I have a strong loyalty to them. The family farm will one day be mine, and that might be the greatest wealth that I ever achieve. I fear, though, that I will be forced to work this land alone, with no wife, and no children. This is my greatest worry. My family name will die with me, and I will be forced to face this hard life without companionship or the happiness that comes from being a husband or father. If I were to get sick like my father, I would have no help at all, and I would just die in great suffering. That is not the progress that was promised to us, is it?
Fifty years ago, I wrote about my life in my village. I feared for a lot of things, but life has changed significantly since then. At the time I wrote, my father was sick and it was not long before he passed away. We think it was cancer, but to tell you the truth we never really knew. That was an important life change for me. I would go on long walks, even when I was supposed to be helping in the fields. I passed through villages just like my own, but ones I had never been to before. You walk a few miles in Sichuan, you see a lot of people. I remember late on afternoon in particular. I was freezing cold because it was November and I was wearing my father's thin jacket. I saw an old man sitting in his doorway. His house was made of mud like mine. He smoked a pipe like my father (BBC, 2012). I sat down with him. We talked until it was well past dark. He told me of his children, how they were in the cities working and he did not know where they were. He was a widower and he was lonely. The people in the village tried to care for him, because he had trouble caring for himself. His pension did not even pay for the charcoal to give him heat, it was all he could do to afford rice and a few vegetables. I saw in him my future, and it changed my life.
I went home and I told my mother I was moving to the city, and she could choose to come with me or choose the farm. She stayed at the farm. I promised her I would return every Chinese National Day. I packed a lunch and my other shirt and first thing the next morning I took the motorcycle to Chengdu. I sold it, rented a bed and began looking for work. I found work in construction, which was even more back-breaking than farming. Life was just as hard in the city as it was in the country and I thought about going back. I missed the fresh air and I didn't want to get sick like my father.
I am glad I stuck with it, though. I had a lot of different jobs, and eventually I started working as a cook. I was 27 years old. All the time growing up watching my mother cook, I guess I learned something. For all the changes in China in the past fifty years, that is one thing you can always count on -- we love to eat and we know good food when we taste it. At first I didn't realize it, but I figured out that the restaurant did not used to be popular, but it became popular when I started working there. One day, around the time when they were tearing down the Mao portrait in Tiananmen Square, a young man approached me. He wanted to buy me dinner. This was a strange offer, I thought, but he spoke with his funny Taiwanese accent so I thought maybe this was a custom of that place. He took out his phone and showed me a blog post about my restaurant. Somebody important had written that I made the best dandan noodles in all of Chengdu. At the time, I had no idea that blogs existed. I had a phone, but I never went on the Internet in those days. I sent all my money back home to my mother. The young man offered for me to have my own dandan noodle restaurant that he would own and I would receive an outrageous wage to work in.
I think the world expected China to change a lot when Communism ended. But we had capitalism already, and nothing could change our culture. You cannot change a 3000-year-old culture so quickly, so for people like me nothing really changed. I eventually bought out the young man, and by the time I retired I had six restaurants. I went on Iron Chef China and won. I learned another thing, too. When you have money, there are more women than you thought there were. So I was married. I had three children -- I guess that was different after Communism. The first two went to college. One works in America running one of her company's subsidiaries over there. She gets homesick but it is an important stepping stone for her career so that when she comes home she can have an executive position. She makes enough money to fly home. Even I cannot afford to fly. I only did that once, before the prices got too high.
The funny thing is that now that I am old, I am back in the same part of Sichuan where I grew up. People started retiring here.…[continue]
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