I returned from China two weeks ago, after a three-week trip to three cities, two of which I spent over a week visiting. I have little recollection of the first couple of days home, swathed in a jet-lagged fog as I must have been. I had, as a friend’s daughter describes it, “jet legs.”
The next few days involved what has become my standard decompression after these trips. I’m still not sure how I work my way out of it – whether I recover, or whether I simply desensitize further each time. Let me explain.
I’ve made five of these trips to China now, during which I’ve worked with an incredible foundation (halfthesky.org) in orphanages in eleven different cities. The cities vary with the extent of western influence they’ve suffered – some are still blessedly devoid of McDonald’s and KFC and Wal-Mart; their bloated corporate shadows have already darkened others. Those without such western “flavor” are endlessly more intriguing to explore.
What all the locations have in common, though, is the visual evidence, everywhere, of both a poverty we in the West can’t imagine, and a work ethic we’ve all but lost. I watch farmers trudge into town carrying baskets of brilliant green produce fresh from their small patches of ground – a trek they repeat daily. Some have land tucked into the nearby hills, some scratch out just enough space in the local hutong or next to a dusty construction site to get by.
They set up shop at a local market, carefully arranging their goods on the ground in front of them. They sit on their small stools all day long, or perhaps stand behind carts they pulled in behind their bicycles, and sell their crops or their wares. In the early evening, they gather everything together and make the trek home, back to what we’d label a hovel, one they share with three generations of family. Its dirt floor is swept clean and the sparse furnishings are tidy. Grandma knits next to the front door, keeping watch over the neighbors and the chickens, while the toddler plays nearby and Mother cooks a full dinner on her two-burner stove.
I watch this transpire around me from a bus window every day; I see it more clearly when I take off walking – and I wonder how they stand it. Their faces are stony and serious as they walk and work, but just when I think no life could be harder, one of them begins to laugh. Animated conversations ensue, followed by more laughter. An argument might break out, more animated than the laughter even, but eventually more chortles, more knowing nods, and peace returns. They aren’t miserable after all. They seem wise rather than sad, and too busy tending to their lives to harbor anger.
As our bus travels from one city to another, we crisscross a series of toll booths. In each one sits a striking figure in full, clean, crisp uniform. Usually these attendants are lovely young women, taking their work seriously. Down to the white gloves waving us through when we pay, they radiate professionalism. They appear, at least, to take pride in what they do. They flash bright smiles as we pass then immediately return to the serious business of collecting money for the state.
I see street sweepers who never stop swinging their stick brooms as they rid the urban pathways of dust and small bits of trash, shopkeepers busily organizing their wares, entire families on one bicycle riding to school and work – dad pedaling, mom sidesaddle behind him with a five-year-old on her lap. Off goes daughter to kindergarten, dad drops mom at the department store where she works her counter all day, and he proceeds to his small office in a local firm. No one seems to mind their primitive modes of transportation, they say good-bye with affection and set to work.
I gaze up at the high-rises surrounding me, scores of them, each with dozens of apartments stacked upon dozens more, each unit filled with a family. Laundry routinely waves outside windows to dry, fanning full flower pots along the sills. Not much is pretty in the cities, really, but everywhere is evidence of work, of lives being lived and managed and people taking care of themselves and their own.
These people look out for themselves because no one else will. There is no sitting back to let someone else take care of them. No one would. If they don’t take care of their own, well, they will cease to exist. Period. The few beggars I see are crippled almost beyond recognition as human beings, or very, very old. They have no choice but to rely on the potential kindness of strangers. I know my soul is too saturated with Western sensibilities – even as I admire the strength and the depth of the history of these people, I know I wouldn’t want to live in this place where the government’s credo remains that the good of the masses must come before the individual. And yet . . .
I come home to my old house in a core old neighborhood in the city. The spring air is crisp and so much cleaner than in China’s cities. I am back in the arms of my daughters, back where my friends keep an eye on me and my life spins on. Even though I share ownership of my own home with the bank, it is my home – a home with new plumbing and central air and heat, insulated windows, new appliances and several more rooms than people, and more stuff than any three females could possibly need. I get in my car – it’s big enough for my daughters and most of their friends – and drive wherever I need to go.
When I walk the dog, I see the socio-economic diversity that comes from living in the city. I’ve lived in the same urban neighborhood for 15 years. I’ve watched the housing stock improve, the neighborhood come back to life. But it remains mixed, the single family homes and reborn condos and townhouses interspersed with four- and six-family flats. Some of them are lovely, some not so much. Some of them house college students, some families on public assistance. Some of those families are hard-working people, doing their best to make life better for their children. They are kind to their neighbors, never failing to smile and say hello when the dog and I wander by. They are the kind of neighbors everyone should have and everyone should be – the kind who, regardless of race or religion or orientation, look out for each other.
But some of the families . . . Well, no, ‘family’ is not the right word. Just people living in the same house but with little regard for each other or anything else, people who expect to be taken care of for no real reason other than it is the only way of life they’ve known. People who don’t work, who break car windows to take stuff other people worked for, so that they can sell it for more weed, smoke it and throw the plastic bag in my yard. People who don’t go to school, but sit on their stoops through the afternoon listening to music extolling the virtues of drugs and guns and smacking women around. People who yell obscenities at their children while yanking little arms nearly out of little sockets, people who drive down our streets too fast eating junk food and tossing the garbage out the windows onto our sidewalks and greenways. I want to scream. I want to drag them to the other sides of the world, show them what real poverty is like. Ask what they’d do if the welfare checks stopped, if their access to food stamps was suddenly blocked, what would happen if there were no Medicare. Ask them when they might consider taking care of themselves. If they ever will. Ask them, as they scream at their kids, what they have to be so damned angry about.
I’m not perfect, don’t get me wrong. I forget to be grateful when I should. I yell at my kids when I’m stressed out from having too much stuff and therefore too many bills. But we work for what we have, and my children understand that without a job, a person doesn’t have money.
With my teeth gritted, I leave my neighborhood, heading for the hair salon and an overdue trim. I’m early – unusual for me – so I sit down to wait. Two other women also wait; they know each other and are chatting about the new house one has recently purchased. The house, it seems, is lovely, save one horrifying element. It has been cursed with a dastardly neighbor, a blatantly evil man who has scoffed at the entire subdivision by building a fence around his backyard. Oh, a good fence would have been acceptable, if he had bothered to follow the subdivision’s covenants. But NO. His fence has been constructed a full two inches above the maximum allowable height. My God. How can the man live with himself?
At first I’m chuckling inside, mostly at the concept of strict subdivision covenants, one of many reasons I live in the city. How obnoxious are such rules of sameness? I shudder. Soon, though, I find myself fuming at these women. How dare they waste so much of their energy on such trivia? How dare they raise this minor construction faux pas to the status of PROBLEM? By their appearance, one has little doubt of their socio-economic status. They are well-cushioned, perfectly manicured and lifted, their hands belying the ages their faces have been carefully sculpted to hide. How sad. They are attractive, successful women, either on their own or as partners of successful spouses. They could have such impact on the world, do so much with their resources and their connections. Instead, they’ve lost all sense of perspective. Taking down two inches of fence appears to rival ending world hunger on their priority lists. The one fortunate enough not to live next to such an offensive monolith is completely one with her sister-in-need. She understands, she empathizes, she is secretly relieved that none of her well-heeled neighbors would stoop so agonizingly low.
I seethe when I think of this conversation and I fume as I pick up more fast food wrappers from my block when I get home. I can’t seem to see anything else, anyone else, but these people, these overblown senses of entitlement on both ends of the fiscal spectrum. I can’t stand it.
I know I live near many wonderful, kind, generous and interesting people. I know my city and my country are blessed with people who give of their time and their money regularly. I know that many people who are barely scraping by are doing so through no fault of their own; they work hard to remove themselves from public assistance and are good, proud, kind people who would do anything they could for their fellow human being. I know people around me everywhere have suffered atrocities I can’t imagine, or have worked harder than I ever have to achieve what they have.
I do know they are all there. I just can’t see them those first couple of weeks home.
This week has been better. The window shade of disgust closing my mind in ugly shadows has been lifted. My ability to see goodness has returned, and my senses of empathy and sympathy have found a voice once again. I don’t feel quite so cynical about my culture this week. With a sense of relief, I find I am fitting in once again.
Maybe, though, I shouldn’t be so glad. Maybe I need that cynicism. Maybe I need to feel agitated and angry. Maybe without that, I will fail to participate in change. That, I realize, would be worse than a bushel of dirty fast food wrappers, or even a full three inches of extra fencing infringing upon my yard. Maybe I shouldn’t let go of my frustration too willingly yet.
Category: American Culture
About the Author (Author Profile)I am a writer and communication professional in St. Louis, Missouri, a crafter of jewelry, a disorganized optimist and most importantly, the adoptive mom of two China-born daughters.
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