Sunday, May 1, 2011

田头村 Life in the village

To get to 田头村 (Tian Tou Cun, or Field Head Village) it takes a full day of driving from Shanghai, a night in Yuexi, the biggest town in the county, and then a few more hours up a windy mountain road.
It's a farming town, like all the rest of the villages way up in the Dabie Mountains in Anhui Province's far west border. People don't have a lot. People in Shanghai who speak English often refer to the kind of people that live in Tian Tou Cun as 'peasants.' It sounds funny to me when I hear them say it, but it's not inaccurate.

The elementary school had 89 students. About half of the children had one or both parents living far away, typically doing hard labor in big industrial cities. When both parents are away, kids usually live with their grandparents, who might not even know how to read and write or speak standard Mandarin. Their education usually suffers for this.

I was in the village accompanying a group of Shanghai private high school students. It's a fancy prep school for students who will go abroad for university. Yearly tuition is around RMB80,000 per head. The entire yearly budget for the village elementary school, including teacher salaries, is RMB24,000 - one of those boggling facts that typifies how disparate life still is in China.

The school was a two-story concrete thing. There weren't any bookshelves. Classrooms were pretty sparse. Kids basically just had pencils and school books, plus a chalkboard.

Still, local teachers said things are much better than a decade ago. The village roads are paved now. The children are more worldly (one wanted to be called Kobe, after the basketball player, another liked Michael Jackson and asked if I could do the moon walk). And they're increasingly being accepted into college.

The local teachers would take me out strolling after dinner. They had loads of questions about me and America. Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you have a kid? In your country can you have as many kids as you want? Do you have to give your doctor hong bao so he will take good care of you? Do you think communism or capitalism is better?

In Tian Tou Cun if your first child is a girl you can try one more time for a boy. If you have a boy the first time, then you are limited to one child (the one-child policy is generally more lenient in the countryside)

I went on the trip because I am going to write a story about Anhui for my magazine. The local teachers kept saying things like "oh this place is too poor." When we'd go on our nightly walks one would announce to all the people we passed that I was a "foreign journalist." I felt really strange, because no matter how many times I comment on the lovely scenery, everyone knows I'm there to observe their remarkable poverty.

The most difficult moment was visiting the home of a 10-year-old boy who lives with his grandparents. His parents work in Shanghai. His grandparents farm. They have essentially no income but for a small government subsidy (about $100 per year) and the money the parents send home. They can't read. They understand but hardly speak Mandarin.

The parents have been in Shanghai three years. They go back to the village once a year. They have no plans to move home in the near future because the boy is a good student, and the entire family has pinned its hopes on him going to university so they need to save money for that. He wants to study computers, though he rarely gets to use one now. The ones at school are very old.

He was a shy kid. Everything I asked he responded to with one-word answers. Do you miss your parents? Yes. Sometimes do you get really sad? I asked next. He nodded and started crying.

I felt awful and I couldn't think of much else to say or ask. Here we were sitting on a bench in this barren room with just a bed, a table and the kid's school certificates pasted to the wall. What else is there to say? Life is hard in Tian Tou Cun.

Walking back down the mountain the local school teacher asked if I could find a rich person in Shanghai to pay for the boy's college.

Before the trip I was so excited to get out of Shanghai and by the end of the week I was more than ready to come back. Driving back into the city Friday afternoon, I was struck by how sophisticated Shanghai people look in contrast to the village. Their clothes are nicer, their faces are younger.

I'm glad I went. I saw a part of China few foreigners get to observe firsthand. People keep asking how the trip was and I keep saying, "good but uncomfortable."

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