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You asked me what is the meaning of home. When I woke up just now after sleeping for a bit on the train, I was surrounded by strangers. I’m happy with nothing much. Looking at my house in the sun, looking at the clouds, looking at my nephews, looking at my paternal grandmother, looking at my maternal grandmother, looking at my father working with his hands. Fish bones and red-crowned cranes. That is happiness. This can make a person feel more satisfied than materials and money. It is this kind of longing thought that can support me on my long journey. I leave in order to better return back. This is the most honest answer I can give to your question.

– Feng Hong. 24. Pingpu native and Shanghai migrant worker. December 11, 2017.

Feng Hong_baby picture

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Snowpeople of Pingpu Township

The largest snowfall in Pingpu in 10 years – about a foot – occurred this past weekend. Kids, shopkeepers, hairdressers, and hospital staff responded by making snowpeople (and at least one snowcar). Which raises the clearly urgent but under-researched question: what do the forms chosen by people for their snowmen reveal about their worldviews?

 

Offhand I would say:

People seem to have a general agreement about the shape of snowpeople and the work involved in producing it. That generally is: push some snow together in a pile and put a head on it. Maybe add arms, maybe not. Preliminary evidence suggests folks are aware of the classic three-part Western shape of snowpeople, but are understandably dismissive. First, who cares how people in the West make snowmen? Second, Frosty takes a good amount of time and effort to construct, and most folks who might make a snowperson either have jobs or are small children.

Also, that snowcar guy really loves his son.

 

 

Letter from Pingpu: Day 1

My first day back in Old Pingpu Town was predictably unpredictable. After two days of traveling from Wuhan I arrived on Wednesday afternoon. I knew I had to take care of three things immediately: check in to my hotel, register with the local police, and call the head of the township government to introduce myself. The first task worried me not at all. From my previous stint in Pingpu I’m quite familiar with the hotel and its idiosyncratic owner, Wang. The police worried me a bit, just because they’re the police so who knows. The government official caused me more worry. From various sources I have come to understand that the government as a whole has become more restrictive over the past few years. This includes refusing to grant foreign researchers access to many rural sites, even those researchers with longstanding relationships with those places and their governments. While I had a couple dinners and participated in some interviews with local officials in 2014, I can’t say that I felt we had forged a truly comfortable and friendly relationship. (Though I wouldn’t have described them as unfriendly either. Guarded might be the best word.) My biggest worry all along has been that I would come all this way only to find out that I wasn’t welcome here, and I would have to scramble to find another research site.

Wang was his usual interesting self. For some reason after seeing me again he immediately wanted to talk to me about hanging laundry. Even before he checked me in he took me behind the hotel and showed me all the places where laundry could be hanged, as though I hadn’t spent a month in his hotel three years ago, or more to the point that I had just asked him if he happened to know of any convenient places to hang laundry. Then he made a point of doing the same thing in my room, opening the window to show me some places where wet laundry could be conveniently placed. I nodded while I tried to think of something supportive to say in response. “Oh good!” was the best I could do.

A local policemen then came into my room to register me. Far from the glowering, thousand-yard stare tough guy cop type, this officer looked all of 25 and was all sweetness and awkwardness. “I’ve never done this before!” he said, leafing through the pages of my passport to find my residence permit. “I’m not quite sure what to do.” He seemed to want to outdo me in the category of saying “I’m so sorry for bothering you”, which takes some effort. During this time Wang made himself comfortable in a chair and told me how lucky I was to have such a nice room.

I nervously called Cheng, the township head. He asked me a bit about my trip and plans, and I told him about my hopes to rent a space in town while I did my research. He said he knew of a place and would be happy to show me. He would come back after a meeting that afternoon and take me there. I was amazed and incredibly grateful. Not only was he not complicating my project, he was trying to help.

Cheng came to pick me up in his black VW Passat. We started driving through town. I assumed an immanent stop, but instead we kept driving. We started up the highway heading north of town, and Cheng showed no signs of slowing down. That Cheng felt no need to tell me where we were going was both amazing and totally commonplace. Many, many folks I have met who have grown up in this country have done similar things. I have no idea why, but this kind of foregrounding somehow seems unnecessary. Where it would seem totally bizarre to me to pick up a newly-arrived person in Seattle and drive them into the mountains with no explanation, that is a perfectly reasonable thing to do from other people’s viewpoints.

But I was hoping for a bit more information about, you know, what was happening. “So, that’s great that you know of a place I can stay,” I said. “Yeah,” Cheng said. Cheng apparently saw no need to offer details. Instead, he politely asked me about my previous research and experiences in Pingpu. After driving for about 10 minutes, he turned left off of the highway and into a dirt road. Once more, I kept waiting for him to tell me about where we were going. Instead, he told me about his experiences working for the township government. We kept driving up a steep incline to increasingly remote parts of the township, heading towards the western mountains. I would be lying if I were to say I did not start to think about shallow graves. Mostly, I considered how, assuming we were ultimately going to a house, wherever it was would be totally impractical for doing research, especially without a car.

We eventually took a left and came upon a lake surrounded by mountains with fall foliage. “Here’s the house!” Cheng said.

 

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It was a lovely and totally unexpected spot, which perhaps was the effect for which Cheng was going. Despite my worries about commuting, this initially seemed like an very interesting possibility. But then Cheng informed me that it was a guest house, run by a couple that lived onsite.

Cheng gave me a tour, showing me the guest room and the shared living room, kitchen and bathroom. He then took me to a room where four men in their 30s and 40s were playing mahjong. If they were in any way happy to have a guest they did not indicate it. It was a nice house, and Cheng insisted that I could stay there for free. It was an amazing and kind offer. But I was disinterested in sharing a space for the next 7-8 months. I know I could do it, but I also know how much happier I am when I have a place to return to where I can have some privacy. I also couldn’t imagine how I would manage the daily to the villages below that are the subject of my research project.

Almost immediately my thoughts turned to the question of how I would get out of this situation while not seeming ungrateful. After all, it was incredibly kind of Cheng to drive me all the way out here to see this place, and to offer it to me for free. I tried to politely push in that direction. “How would I solve the transportation problem?” I asked Cheng. “Oh that’s no problem!” he said. “You can buy a bike. And when it rains, you can call me.” That seemed like an incredibly impractical thing to say. One does not cheaply or easily buy a mountain bike in rural China. And every time the weather’s bad I’m supposed to call the head of a 30,000-person township to give me a ride? I stared at him, waiting for smile or some indication that he was kidding. It never came. After a bit of thinking, I tried another, more direct track. “I’m here to learn more about how people’s livelihoods are influenced by agricultural modernization policies,” I said. “Do you think this is best place for me to do that?” “Oh definitely,” he said. I was out of ideas. I nodded and smiled. “Take a look around,” he said. I wasn’t sure what more there was to look at – it wasn’t a very big house. But I wandered around and considered my options. I could certainly think of worse places to be. But it really wasn’t practical. I had to find a way out of this. I walked out again to find Cheng. I looked out over the lake and saw a head floating in the water, towing a balloon.

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Cheng had decided to go for a swim. I approached Old Long, the man of the house. “Cheng has gone for a swim,” I said. “Yes,” Old Long said. “He does that every day.” After a trip to the end of the lake and back, Cheng emerged from the lake in a black Speedo. He told me this is indeed his everyday routine, one he started a couple years ago. It was something of a relief to know that I was really just a conveniently-located passenger on a trip he would have taken regardless. Looking around at the karaoke speakers and mahjong table, it was clear to me now that this house was a frequent destination for area high rollers. That possible added layer of intrusion made the place even less appealing.

Not long thereafter, Long’s wife Zhang came in with armfuls of groceries. Unlike Long and the mahjong players, who by this point had left, Zhang was full of smiles and quick to laugh. But she did not know how to speak to foreigners like a normal person. Instead, she would get within a foot of my face and yell at me slowly in Chinese. Yes I would like some raisins, I said, and no I don’t know where the top of the raisin canister is. Maybe you threw it away?

Cheng sat on the couch with me. We watched a terrible Chinese soap about anti-terrorist special agents with no work-life boundaries and serious emotional dependency issues. Long and Cheng started chain smoking. Cheng’s friend Tang and his wife (who’s name I can’t recall) joined us. Cheng asked Long to take a photo of us. I got in on that too.

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Eventually dinner started. Dinner+officials+a guest means a fancy-ish dinner with baijiu (rice wine). I am no fan of any of this. Baijiu in particular is the worst. Perhaps I’m just far too polite, but I also have a hard time describing the powerful sense of obligation one feels in these situations to participate in all of this. So you go along and try to make the best of it. Here is one of far too many toasts between Tang (on the left), Cheng and me. (For a supposedly health-conscious person, Cheng really doubles down on the smoking and drinking.)20171115_190511

Towards the end of the night, Zhang asked the table, “Is Ross going to stay here?” Cheng said, “It’s up to him.” I think he was being honest, so that was a huge relief to hear. We have since not discussed it. All else aside, I’m very grateful to Cheng for what I am assuming was a sincere effort to try to help me solve a problem, inviting me a lovely spot, and treating me to dinner. That was not necessary, and it was very kind.

Letter from Chengdu: Wet Rags and Remembering How to Walk

I’ve spent most of my time since arriving here at the beginning of the month doing what’s required to secure a one-year visa extension, as well as initiate my first stipend payment. That has necessitated lots of running around to different university, bank and government offices, where I am asked to fill out essentially the same form and coordinate with a different set of overworked, exasperated employees. The last step of the visa process is handing over one’s passport to the immigration bureau, which I did last week. My new visa should be ready on October 31. But, given that I presently have no other form of official identification to use for travel or accomodations, until then I’m essentially stuck in Chengdu.

That’s not necessarily bad. This forced time here gives me a chance to interact with faculty and students at Sichuan University, as well as to work on a couple of projects. It also gives me an opportunity to reflect on previous long stints here in China, and how and to what extent things have changed. On so many levels this experience feels fundamentally different than when I was last here three years ago, to say nothing of my first arrival in 2005. So much of that has to do with more recent exposure to ideas that have in many ways reinforced longstanding beliefs that, for various reasons, I found reason to doubt.

But then there are what a friend calls wet rags. These are the experiences that resurrect that familiar feeling of doubt, which may be best described as a creeping sense of futility. And living in China can often feel like one is constantly being smacked in the face with a series of wet rags. For example, last week I chatted with a graduate student here, Huang, about his personal experiences growing up in the countryside. He noted the foundational changes in his home village in the past 10 years ago since the onset of policy reform: community spaces and neighborhoods demolished and replaced by apartment buildings; the young and middle-aged vanished, leaving only children, the elderly and the infirm; along with this a lost sense of place, home and liveliness. But like many of us would when faced with the onset of something terrible and seemingly implacable, Huang tried to find the positive. “These changes are not all bad,” he said. “For example, I can now pay for things electronically with my phone. I don’t have to carry a wallet.”

One does not have to look hard or wait long for more wet rags. Last Thursday night on my walk back from the visa processing office I was propositioned by three middle-aged prostitutes who were working along the riverbank. That had me thinking about my chat with Huang, and about wider changes that push people into cities in search of work. And when that search fails, there’s no choice other than to do what’s needed to make ends meet.

This place, like pretty all places but maybe more than most, has a way of getting you down. Of wearing away at your spirit. Of forcing you inward towards those things that you feel you can control. Commutes spent in constant fear of the cars and bikes bearing down on you from all sides. The seemingly endless string of oppressively smoggy days. Roaches, rats and mosquitoes. Anecdotes and news stories about – and personal experiences with – scams that seem unconscionably callous. In conversation with a local I met last week, I asked why it is he thinks people in this country focus so much attention on their kids. “Because it feels safe,” he said. It is understandable why it can feel like so little else does.

And I can relate. When I think back on previous times here, I remember long stretches where the accumulation of wet rags sent me into a kind of pain avoidance mode. Declining invitations. Talking myself out of initiating conversations. Avoiding eye contact. Hurrying through interactions. Being back now and seeing things with relatively fresh eyes, I feel as though I can now spot that familiar feeling in others: a look of shell shock, a feeling of exhaustion and reflexive cynicism.

But of course there are different ways of seeing. Ways that invite everything experienced in a day – wet rags and all – into the frame of what is observed. Ways that try to meet life on its own terms, rather than dictating those terms. Ways that stave off the desire to create coherent, easily summarizable and thus easily dismissable grand narratives by looking for challenges, contradictions and messiness. One of those options allows for survival, while the other is actually living.

Yesterday the weather was mild and I decided to take the 45-minute walk to my favorite cafe. During that time I tried  to look at every person I passed by. Many of them chatted with their friends. Many of them were caught up on their own thoughts, or were looking at their phones. Some of them scowled at me. But every so often as they passed by someone would make eye contact and give me the sweetest smile, and for that fraction of a second my heart felt like it would burst, overwhelmed by charge it created. I don’t know what they were thinking, but I’d like to think that they were out trying to look, learn and engage, not in spite of but because of how difficult each day can be.