Monday, November 23, 2009

Images of Rural China

A few photos I managed to snap while doing fieldwork last week:

An elderly couple relaying the story of their family’s living situation

Images of Chairman Mao still preside over many rural homes

A young girl in the village

Rural Poverty Issues

As I've described in previous posts, one of the main fieldwork projects I've been involved in at the NGO where I work has been one in which we're giving out cash grants to a number of particularly impoverished rural farmers, with funding we received from the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation.  We've distributed money to 120 out of the total 300 households that will receive the grants, and met with local village leaders a couple weeks ago to receive nominations for the remaining 180 recipients. 

This past week, we returned to the countryside once again to conduct home inspections of the remaining 180 nominated recipients.  Because money tends to be scarce for almost everyone in the countryside, my colleagues want to ensure that we are giving the funds to those who need it most and that the nominees weren't recommended because they happen to be a friend or family member of the leader who nominated them, or because the parameters of the project weren't clear to those making the nominations.  We visit every home, look around the inside and take photos for later reference, talk to the resident to get a better understanding of his or her circumstances, and generally evaluate whether or not we agree that the person's situation is particularly difficult or impoverished. 

The home visits, while exhausting (I actually contemplating crying and refusing to work one damp, snowy day because I thought I might actually freeze to death), have been insightful and have shed tremendous light on some common situations in rural China.  The most prevalent phenomenon, by far, has been that of family members leaving their home to seek work in some of China's larger cities, as there is no way to earn an income from rural subsistence farming.  While I was familiar with the sight of migrant construction workers toiling away on Beijing's highrise buildings, or the inflection of restaurant staff whose spoken Mandarin hinted at simple origins in a distant province, I was never fully aware of the extent to which this phenomenon occurs.  In every single household we visited, the majority of the working-age family members (those over 18 years of age up to those who were not yet grandparents--roughly in their 50s) had left the countryside to seek work in other cities and provinces.  Guangdong and Xinjiang provinces were particularly popular markets for their manufacturing and coal mining industries, respectively.  Still others had headed for Beijing, Zhejiang Province, and Shenzhen, to seek construction work, restaurant work, or a host of other odd-jobs.  The workers send monthly remittances back to their family members in the countryside, allowing for a cash flow into rural households.  However, it also leads to a situation in which many children are raised by their grandparents and only see their parents once annually, at the Chinese New Year holiday.  Spouses who work in different cities will also often rarely see each other; in extreme cases, some may even leave their families and never return home--a few households shared stories of parents who had left behind a sick or disabled child, who had met another partner while working in the city and divorced their spouse, or who had simply left to work in the city, never to be heard from again.

Photo of The Day: Futher Proof That Chinese People Might Actually Be Insane

The NGO director's wife, cooking our daily family-style lunch at the office.  God forbid we close that large window behind her in the kitchen when it's cold enough to snow outside.  Wearing 18 layers of clothing and a winter jacket makes so much more sense.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Why Feng Shui is ruining my life

Yes, I know, we all like to think of Feng Shui as a trendy interior design concept, but its literal meaning--wind and water--generally refers to the balance of elements in nature, the laws of Heaven and Earth, and the flow of "Qi," or energy, in Ancient Chinese astronomy and philosophy.  What this apparently translates into in contemporary China is a need to constantly have a flow of air & "qi" running through your home, so as not to feel stuffy.  So, despite the fact that it is drizzling rain and 42 degrees outside today, half the windows and both of the doors to the office are wide open.  As my colleague informed me "it's not healthy to have all the windows closed because then it will be stuffy and you can get sick."  Because I'm certainly not going to get sick from sitting at my desk in a damp, frigid room all day.

Thanks to the cold front we've experienced recently, my colleagues finally decided that it was time to break out the space heater.  Again, however, the windows and doors are wide open.  As a result, just about everyone has relocated their work space to ascloseaspossible to the space heater.  It took just about all of my willpower not to say "FOOLS.  If you close the windows and doors we can heat the WHOLE ROOM!  Doesn't that sound like a GREAT IDEA?!?"  Instead, I politely pointed out that perhaps if we closed the window right next to the space heater, maybe it wouldn't be so cold.  No dice:
"Then the air will be bad."
"Really?  In the US, I always find that the heater makes the room a bit warmer if we close the windows."
"Chinese space heaters are different.  You need to have the windows open." 
"It seems pretty similar.  Do you want to try?"
"No.  These are different.  It will be too stuffy."

Apparently they know all about the differences between American and Chinese space heaters.   Not only can you marginally warm up if you sit right next to a Chinese space heater, but you can also put legs on it, and use it to cook & eat your lunch.  Don't believe me?
Exhibit A - family-style lunch at the office:

Note the open window immediately behind us, as everyone is bundled up in winter jackets.  genius.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Local Dialect

Last week entailed another long trip to the countryside and many hours of meetings conducted entirely in the local Sichuan dialect--the meetings are particularly brutal for me because I understand about 15-30% of spoken Sichuan dialect, depending on how familiar I am with the subject matter at hand.  However, because DaBa (and, admittedly, just about any Chinese NGO) love the "face" and credibility they gain by having a foreigner working with them, I am unfortunately dragged along to attend every meeting.  I generally sit there absentmindedly thumbing through my pocket Chinese-English dictionary and trying to avoid lung cancer & TB while the locals furiously chain smoke and spit all over the floor as they discuss who in their village should be nominated for the aid grants we are allocating.  When the appropriate time arrives--my boss's mention of the fact that the "foreign friend" will be personally inspecting all the nominated households as an unbiased 3rd-party reviewer--I pull myself together and say that if we find that some households are above average and possess such items as a refrigerator, they will most certainly be eliminated from our list and will not receive the money that is intended for "especially impoverished" farmers.  This statement is usually followed by them telling me my Mandarin is better than theirs, inquiring how much a plane ticket to the US costs, and asking me if I've gotten used to eating Chinese food.  After the meeting finally concludes, we all sit down to a meal together in which copious amounts of warm beer and Chinese rice liquor are consumed, and I am forced to "gan bei" (the Chinese way of saying "cheers," though it literally means "dry your glass," and they really do make you finish all the beer in your mouthwash-cup-sized glass each time) with every Tom, Dick, & Harry Zhang, Li, & Wang in the village.  Fortunately 4 years of college in the US trained my liver to be able to handle about twice what the average Chinese male can, so everyone is always super impressed with the "foreign friend."

Here is a fun countryside game for you: Which person in the below picture doesn't belong?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"Nate! Kasya needs another laxative!"

This post is a special shout out to my Putney Student Travel group this past summer.  My bathroom for the duration of my stay in Tonjiang (note that this space is also my shower and my laundry room):

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Other White Meat

I neglected to mention that, as part of the countryside celebrations of the Chinese National Day holiday, I also had the distinct pleasure of witnessing the slaughter of a live pig. By hand. No big deal. Tastes like chicken?

Step 1: pig is weighed

Step 2: Preparing for slaughter.  Takes four dudes to mount the squealing animal on the bench.

Step 3: I just couldn't bring myself to witness the slitting of the throat, but here's the aftermath. Compare the metal bowl in this photo vs. in the previous one...  Also, note the cigs hanging from everyone's mouth as they wrestle the animal to the ground with blood-covered hands.  Ballers.

Step 4: Soaking the dead pig in a vat of hot water before skinning it

Step 5: Gutting the pig

Step 6: dinner.

Excedrin, anyone?

The director of the NGO where I work had a headache the other day, and was taking what seemed to be a rather large dose (12 pills, 3xday!) of small black gel-caps to alleviate the pain. Fortunately, the indications were written on the package in English, so I don't even have to translate for you:

"Action & Indications:
To dispel wind-evil and releasing stagnated lung energy, clear away heat and toxicity, relieve nasal obstruction to stop pain. Treated for nasal obstruction, sinusitis with purulent discharge, unfree orifices, smell badly, headache and eyebrow bone pain."

Monday, November 09, 2009

A break from Mainland China...followed by a rapid re-indoctrination

Because the number of Chinese tourist visas in my passport always makes me a bit nervous when applying for yet another visa, I generally take whatever the Chinese Embassy will give me; this time around, I am required to leave & re-enter the country every 60 days. I was originally annoyed at the prospect, but it has turned into a blessing in disguise as I now have the perfect excuse to head to Hong Kong every two months. Coming from the countryside and setting foot in a Hong Kong grocery store is probably on par with a freshly-minted-fake-ID-carrying minor setting foot in a liquor store. Peanut butter! Snickers bars! CHEESE!! Heaven. I also conveniently schedule my HK sojourn around an ultimate frisbee tournament, so I joined forces with some friends from Shanghai and got to play ultimate all weekend - and we won!

My return to mainland China and Tongjiang, however, was not as successful. After missing my departing flight on Sunday evening, no thanks to Air China's customer service-oriented miserably unhelpful staff, I spent the night at an airport hotel and was able to get on a flight the following morning. Obviously, this flight was delayed an hour, but my originally scheduled flight the preceding evening was right on time. Spent most of Monday recovering in Chendgu by eating and watching pirated DVDs before my favorite part of the journey on Tuesday: the 8+ hour public bus ride from Chengdu to Tongjiang.

Over the past 3.5 years in Asia, I have developed a personal theory that Asians in general--and Chinese in particular--are more prone to suffer from motion sickness than Caucasians. Countless flights in which people around me have made use of the "barf bags" was the seed that started my theory, and the trips I have made back and forth along the windy roads between Tongjiang and Chengdu have only given me further evidence. Little did I understand the ironic foreshadowing of the following day's bus ride when I hopped on my favorite online Chinese dictionary and Monday's example said "Try 'carsickness,' 'yunche,' or ‘晕车.' "

The first 3 hours of the trip were relatively puke-free. Furthermore, because I had learned my lesson the hard way on my first Tongjiang-->Chengdu trip, I had my trusty iPod in tow and could throw on the headphones and blast the music in the event that I wanted to mask the sounds of proximate booting. After our mid-day lunch stop, however, the regurgitation of instant noodles began...right next to me. The sweet middle-aged woman next me grabbed the black plastic bag that is apparently standard issue on every bus ride and started going at it. I cranked up the volume, looked out the window at the scenery, and managed to take my mind elsewhere until she was better. An hour later, however, she was at it again with barf bag #2. This time however, rather than leaning into the aisle of the bus, she decided that my leg looked like a comfortable arm rest and used it to prop herself up as she doubled over and vomited into the bag. All I could do was cringe, hold my breath, and question my decision to wear flip flops as I prayed the flimsy bag didn't break. Several hours and three more plastic bags later (total: 5 bags of puke), we were nearly to Tongjiang; the bus stopped for a bathroom break and my neighbor got off to get some fresh air.

At this point, I figured I had seen the worst of it and went back to reading while waiting for everyone to re-board for the last hour of the trip. No such luck, however. I glanced up from my book to see the grandmother across the aisle from me readying her grandson's traditional split-seam pants for him to actually urinate IN THE AISLE OF THE BUS. Right at her feet. WHILE THE BUS WAS STOPPED FOR A BATHROOM BREAK. And she was in the third row, approximately 10 feet from the door. And the trashcan was about 2 feet from her, if she really couldn't be bothered to take him outside to go on the ground. Unreal.


The field project I've been most involved with since I've been here is one in which we're giving aid grants to "especially impoverished" farmers who are struggling to make ends meet at home while their family members have left to seek work in China's major cities. Those living in China's rural areas are nearly all subsistence farmers, so there are extremely few opportunities to earn actual cash in the countryside, and many farmers head to China's industrial zones to seek work in manufacturing plants, construction projects, or coal mining. This project is essentially an aid project, in which 300 households that meet the parameters Daba and the CFPA have set out for the project will each receive RMB3,000 (about USD 280).

While I personally don't find the project to be very sustainable because of its one-off nature, there is still a desperate need in many cases for a lump sum of cash, and the hope is that this aid grant will be used towards pressing medical fees, home improvements (especially those that suffered earthquake damage last year but did not qualify for government aid) or other critical expenses. The process by which we decide who is to receive the grants has been particularly interesting to me. We are doling out the cash to households in 8 different village communities, and we start by meeting with the local, government-appointed communist party officials in the villages. After we explain the parameters of the project, these officials then nominate households within their jurisdiction whom they think qualify for the funds. Obviously, this brings up some concerns--most notably the fact the the party officials would be inclined to nominate friends of family members while neglecting to nominate anyone who had done something in the past to upset the village government. We do, however, follow up and inspect every house and interview every villager nominated to ensure that the funds go to those most in need. While I still think there is a chance that some villagers who deserved the money could have been neglected, we managed to eliminate some gratuitous nominations on our first inspection trip--a few nominees with sturdy, 2-story houses, new bathrooms with running water, and refrigerators & large new TVs (something I don't even have in the city!) were quickly knocked off our list. Not surprisingly, these were often the homes of either family members of local officials or, in some cases, the officials themselves!

We will return next week to give out the cash to the first 120 households (in 3 out of the 8 village communities) that have been nominated, gone through our inspection, and qualify for the grant. We have another 180 households in the remaining 5 village communities with whom we have yet to go through the whole process with.

60th Anniversary? Or 20th?

Several important anniversaries took place in China this year, depending on who you talk to.  The second of these, on October 1st, was the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.  While the fanfare in Beijing nearly rivaled that of last year's Olympics (my favorite part is this clip is the smiling ethnic minority children enthusiastically waving), I had the distinct pleasure of spending the days leading up to the holiday in the countryside.  Since a picture (or, in this case, a video) is worth a thousand words, I'll give you a little taste of my experience.  I honestly felt like I had stepped in a time machine and traveled back to 1969 to celebrate the 20th anniversary, complete with several renditions of the most popular of Chinese Communist anthems, 东方红


A bit of background on why I am out here in the middle nowheresville, Sichuan province.  I came through PlaNet Finance China's internship program to work as a volunteer at an organization called DaBa Mountain Ecology and Poverty Research Center, a grassroots Chinese NGO that does poverty alleviation and community development projects ranging from clean water projects to public health education to earthquake rebuilding to microfinance.  I live and work at the organization's office in the small city of Tongjiang, and spend about 1/3 of the time out in the surrounding countryside doing field work and implementing projects.  While in the countryside, we stay at the family home of the NGO director, where his parents, brother, and sister-in-law still live.  From the nearest (very) small town to the house, it's about a 30 minute walk over a dirt road impassable to all vehicles other than motorcycles, through various terraced vegetable gardens, and along footpaths carved out from generations of local farmers' daily treks to and from the fields.   From three to six days at a time, the house serves as our base while we work to implement projects in the surrounding villages.

The majority of our projects are funded by larger domestic and international NGOs such as Heifer International, Partnerships for Community Development, and China's largest domestic poverty alleviation non-profit non-governmental organization, the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA).  Sometimes we act to run and oversee the local implementation of projects, as is the case with Heifer International's animal husbandry projects; other times we design and run our own projects with funding that we have applied for through CFPA or private foundations.

Jenn: 1, CCP: 0

The Chinese government's "Great Firewall" foiled my amitious blogging plans, however I am finally back to free internet access thanks to Witopia.  $60: a small price to pay for access to Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, and just about every other pro-procrastination website out there.  I will try to recount the past month+ in a flurry of blog posts!