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Sights from Another World MAG
Two years ago I lied. I walked out on my mother's dinner with her influential former coworkers under the pretense that I desperately needed to use the restroom. I instead took a tour of the fancy, five-story restaurant, trying not to inhale the cigarette smoke drifting from the other private dining rooms filled with intoxicated businessmen.
I knew better than to leave the building, but I wished I could. Twenty-four hours ago I had been sitting on a train and seen countless villages with peeling, bicentennial brick houses beside yellow, eroded mud hills. Most vividly etched in my mind was a shack the size of my living room that brought new meaning to the word “dilapidated,” with more patches than my favorite childhood sock. It sat on the banks of a stream that bore striking resemblance to a burial ground for both dogs and batteries, and smelled like it too.
What was the most striking were the man and the old woman I saw strolling beside the stream, carrying fishing nets. There was a good chance that the shack was what they called home; there was an even better chance that anything they found in their nets would sustain them for the night; in all likelihood, they weren't the only inhabitants of the shack; and almost certainly their situation wasn't unique. There were other young men and old women upstream, sleeping in shacks on the verge of collapse, feasting on meals yielded from the corpses of batteries.
My friends in China, and many Chinese friends in the United States, consider me the most unpatriotic person they know. Perhaps they're right. Or perhaps I am deficient in some special skill that would allow me to sit in a walnut-paneled room, feasting on dishes from exotic provinces and enjoying the service of uniformed waitresses, giggling with my prep-school friends without thinking about that shack by the stream. I lack, evidently, the ability to react with apathy when I hear laughter drifting from socializing politicians in the next room. Instead I think of herders searching for green pastures in the dry, cracked earth, or the hiccuping peasant I saw wandering the Beijing train station, burlap bag in one hand and liquor bottle in the other, staring wildly through red-rimmed, empty eyes.
Does that not, at least somewhat, excuse my lie? Or if not, at least explain why I felt the need to get away?
To the leading economists of today, China is our newest New Jerusalem. With its recent expansion in economic accessibility and feverish race to match the developed world in churning out educated individuals, it has risen to international prominence with almost alarming swiftness and, according to some, is poised to become the world's next economic superpower. The abundance in manpower and resources, so aptly exploited, has fed an almost insane drive to gain a position of influence on a global scale. The current proverb is that Chinese children are no longer starving for our food, but for our jobs.
This chestnut, to put it simply, is tragically misplaced. It is also about as accurate as saying that all Americans enjoy eating red meat. The exhausted, exultant young lady who has just confidently emerged from her college entrance examination may fully agree that she is as capable as the next candidate for the world's highest-paying jobs. But for her small-village counterpart, today is just another day of work in the terraced rice fields farmed by her family for over a century. The days when she would make the three-kilometer trek to school are behind her. That sadly underfunded school is also as far as she has ever been from her village. She has not been given a chance to even think about landing the highest-paying jobs in the world; she probably does not even know what those jobs are.
The developed world, watching China's rags-to-riches adventure with a mixture of awe and fear, seems to have forgotten that this country has one of the greatest disparities between urban and rural incomes in the world. Perhaps they are only momentarily blinded by its remarkable achievements. Perhaps they refuse to acknowledge this less-than-glamorous aspect of their up-and-coming neighbor, in order to reap the benefits of its development for themselves. Or perhaps it is both – that they haven't yet untangled their priorities, don't know whether to take advantage of China's urban development and hope that the rural areas will follow, or whether to fix the income gap immediately. This seems the cause of many problems this nation faces, including environmental degradation, civil unrest, and brain drain into cities that leave the countryside spiraling further into economic and social deterioration.
While the rest of the nation has benefited from the growth, the rural people's lives remain almost unaltered – not in an idyllic, pristine-landscaped manner but in one of shameful neglect and hopelessness rampant in underdeveloped hamlets everywhere. My parents and their influential friends grew up scavenging food in the winter months less than 40 years ago. Forty years is not nearly long enough to eliminate poverty from all corners of the nation.
Trains bring me from flourishing city to flourishing city, and between them lies the dominion of a forgotten class of people. The rest of the world stares, astonished, at the triumphant rise of a new global power, at its glittering billboards and titanic buildings that dominate the skyline over ports that bask in the prosperity brought by giant ships. The skyscrapers become golden pinnacles as their glass facades reflect the rising sun over the water.
But they cannot reflect simultaneously the faces of the peasants, toiling in the fields, praying that their children will not fall ill, that their crops will yield. These people are real; their dreams, their troubles, their hopes are alive and well, their existence ground into dust and hidden by the ivory towers that rise between them and whatever lies beyond. Ivory towers are built on the dust. The peasants plunge their hoes into the dust. No one cares about the dust.