the attitudes of young shenzhers, especially the children of the city’s upper classes, confound their elders, who really don’t know what to do about a generation that hasn’t experienced material poverty. almost thirty years into the shenzhen experiment, a certain material standard of living has become the norm among these children. they expect to have new clothes, pocket money for snacks, and the latest technological gadgets. indeed, if newspaper reports are to be believed, they are a wasteful and lazy group, who take long showers, play online games, and shirk homework responsibilities; in the language of american pop sociology, shenzhen’s young people think they’re entitled not only to what they have, but also to whatever they want.
to counteract their children’s sense of entitlement, wealthy shenzheners tell stories about impoverished childhoods and hungry farmers. these stories are as unsuccessful as those my parents told me: when i was a child, we walked four miles to school; eat all your food because there are starving children in africa. on the one hand, i think these stories fail because children don’t have the experience to imagine beyond their immediate lives. on the other hand, i think these stories fail because children know (even as i knew) that our parents aren’t going to radically restructure their lives to help either starving africans or farmers. instead, these stories aim to change the behavior of children, not to ameliorate social inequality.
nevertheless, adults still try and children still play along. on the 26th and 27th of october, our middle school went on a field trip to greater tang village, yangming township in heping county, in heyuan city (河源市和平县阳明镇大塘村) which is considered an impoverished area (贫困区). according to the heping township officials who hosted us, the official definition of “impoverished” earns less than the national average income but still has enough to eat. usually, families can afford school fees up through middle school, but often have difficulty meeting high school costs, let alone university expenses. according to a people’s daily report the 1,000 odd villagers that make up greater tang village (an administrative territory which is composed of 15 “natural” villages) demonstrate the fact that even if the richest villages are in guangdong province, their are villages that haven’t started getting rich, let alone keep up with the coastal villages. in chinese the expression for these poor cousins is “后无追兵” or “no following soldiers”.
the purpose of the trip was two-fold. our school wanted to give our students a new perspective on the privileges they enjoy as wealthy shenzheners as compared to impoverished students. our yangming middle school hosts wanted their students to be inspired to study even harder to break out of the cycle of poverty. as we discovered during the two-day fieldtrip, many of the yangming students had older brothers and sisters who had dropped out of middle school or not gone to high school in order to begin laboring in places like shenzhen. indeed, a fifteen year-old ninth grader told me she wouldn’t bother taking the high school entrance exam and go right to work after graduation from middle school next june.
the yangming high schools arranged host families for our students and teachers. two of us were assigned to a home, where we ate, slept and were shown the village. yang ming eigth grader, huang shanshan hosted me and my student nicole. shanshan and her family live in new tang village (新塘村), one of the 15 natural villages in the greater tang administrative village nestled between rocky slopes, rice paddies, chicken coops, and family gardens. xin tang village is a hakka (客家) settlement, where paths and shared walls connect the homes to each other, creating a densely populated space. there is a clear spacial division between the village and cultivated areas. indeed, the relative care given to the rice paddies and gardens was striking in comparison to the village proper, where it seemed people took care of inside their homes, but did not care for common areas, which were given over to garbage and scavanging chickens. people seemed to spend a great deal of time outside on paths, working and chatting.
nicole and i shared the only bed in the house; shanshan and her parents slept upstairs on mats. the house was made from local bricks covered by cement, wooden beams supported the ceiling. the first floor consisted of a main room and a kitchen. the main room was divided into two sections, a sleeping section, where the bed was and a social section, with a table, television, and several chairs, some plastic, two made of bamboo. the wash room was a concrete room built next to their pump. for our evening wash, shanshan heated water in the kitchen and then added pump water to adjust the temperature. the outhouse was a separate brick building with a trench dug into the earth. above the trench was a bamboo plank, where i squatted several times a day to relieve myself.
shanshan and her parents moved me with their generousity. they killed a chicken for us and prepared fresh vegetables, eggs, and homegrown rice. when we left, they gave us fresh eggs, homegrown peanuts, and special deep-fried potato cakes for the trip. yangming township gave us a box of kiwi fruits that were locally grown. indeed, their generousity eased the relationship, enabled it to move beyond a tour of poverty. i had feared that the trip would turn the villagers, especially our hosts, into exhibits in living museum and would turn us into tourists. the school had instructed students to give money to their host families as a token of their appreciation, and much thought had been given to what would be the correct amount: not too much so that the families were embarrassed but not so little that they lost materially by hosting us. although the act of hosting didn’t unmake our material inequality, it nevertheless did ameliorate some of the awkwardness of the visit. it certainly reminded me that each of us has something to give and that all of us have a responsibility to accept what is given graciously.
a native of longgang, shenzhen, nicole is also hakka. she enjoyed the trip because it brought back memories of her childhood before her family moved to downtown shenzhen. she grew up in a village like shanshan’s and used to sleep on the same kind of bed. more importangly, she remembered the beauty of the countryside and wondered about why modernization meant the destruction of beautiful places. specifically, as part of shenzhen’s ongoing expansion, her natal village will soon be razed and an upscale housing development built in its place. also, nicole said that she only understood about 70% of what shanshan and her parents said and preferred to speak with them in mandarin, reminding me again of how many variants of local languages (方言) there actually are. after all, heyuan is only a 3 hour drive away from shenzhen.
the belief that youth can be motivated by direct experience inspires this project. more specifically, adults in both places expressed that more communication (交流) between students from both areas would be beneficial. on the one hand, shenzhen youth might learn humility and social responsibility, while yangming youth might learn their are higher goals than working in a factory or restaurant. consequently, our schools hope to establish a hand-in-hand (手拉手) relationship with the yangming first and second middle schools, enabling students and teachers to visit each other.
i hope that this kind of experience might accomplish what exhortations rarely do–inspire us adults to help our children change the world. i know that this experience manifests one, more traditional (in the socialist sense of the word) meaning of the shenzhen experiment, which not only aimed to open china to the world, but also to improve the material wellbeing of all chinese people. in fact, at 63 our school principal is a child of the revolution and she still approaches education with an eye to socialist goals. as a friend of mine said, if china can improve the living standard of all chinese people, bringing stability to its internal affairs, it will have contributed to world peace. one could say the same for the united states and that we start one friendship at a time. i have posted some fieldtrip memories in my galleries.