Asia | China | Yunnan Province | Honghe | Jiasha – We are all chinese
most poeple thought we were crazy when they heard that we were going to jiasha. the poorest rural town around gejiu, jiasha was THE place that the city youths feared to be sent to during the cultural revolution for peasant education. we met up with uncle li and his two colleagues, both of whom work for the jiasha branch of gejiu’s legal office. they were rushing back so that the local farms could see them for legal advice when they come to town for market day tomorrow.
the jeep bumped and shook on the unpaved mountain road for over an hour and travelled for about 25km before it reached jiasha. parts of the mountains have been flattened into fields, a way of farming practiced by locals to adapt to the natural terrain. from afar, they looked like magnificent staircases ascending the mountains, green on top with freshly planted rice sprouts, and red on the sides with the iron-rich soil. clouds formed a belt around the mountains, and some of the peaks seem to be floating mysteriously in midair. a few villages sprinkled sporadically in the valleys. uncle li told me that some of the farmers have to walk 2-3 hours per day just to get to the field from their houses.
the town government is housed in a simple courtyard with offices and staff dorms all in 2 buildings. the center of the courtyard is occupied by a pile of gravel and a cement mixer. apparently the government is ready to expand. pan, the young driver put us up in one of the dorm rooms with 2 beds and a table, and continued to apologize for the accommodation,’we live in a poor mountainous area and we can’t compare with the states. i’m so sorry this is the best we could offer.’ i told him that i had stayed in much worse hostels in the states and he thought i was just trying to make him feel better.
pan is the sole staff in the civil affairs department, and is in charge of delivering relief items to the villages struck by natural disasters, granting marriage license to the villagers, resolving the differences between the couples who are applying for a divorce, and fining those who violated the 2-children birth control policy (yunnan has been allowed some levy in the one-child policy due to its large minority population). i told him that he’s very courageous to plan on getting married to his girlfirend and starting a family next year having had this job for four years.
uncle li introduced to to yuan li, a chinese teacher in the only middle school in town. still single at 32, she’s seen as somewhat of an oddity in jiasha, but her warm personality appealed to me right away.
‘being a teacher here is really hard. it brings out however little sympathy and love you have. some of the kids are so poor that they’ve decided to leave school repeatedly. but they are so studious that we couldn’t see them giving up their education so early. the only way they’ve managed to get so far is because we kept asking the head of school to pass down all financial aid to them. we are also sent to families to try to convince the parents not to let their kids withdraw. when i first came, i always fell walking on the muddy roads. but they are so resepctful and even though they are poor, they always bring me a portion whenever they have good food at home.’
‘most of the time nothing could keep them here any longer because they knew they’d end going home and farm after 9th grade anyway. the minority nationalities usually marry at an earlier age, so all these 13 and 14 year olds are passing love notes to each other in class, the boy saying he’d protect her until his death. so they leave and get married, and i now see my students walking around town on market days with a baby on their back and a toddler in their hand. they are all worried for me because they think i’m so old now that i’ll never find a husband.’
‘how long have you been in jiasha’
‘do you ever plan on leaving?’
‘of course i still would like to if i could. but it’s not so easily done. the social life here is really limited. my life is a routine between 3 points, the classroom, the cafeteria, and my dorm.’
she took us to the school at the edge of the town. the campus was a lot more impressive than i thought, in fact it was the best building i saw in town. her classroom queited down immediately when the kids saw her walking toward the room and looked at us with curiosity. we asked her about the school’s library and she said that they only had some books from the 70s and earlier. the students don’t know much about what’s going on in the world outside. she once asked them to write a composition about gejiu, and one student couldn’t turn in anything because she had never been to gejiu. another time a student was reading to the class from a book during a reading exercise, and called a revered national hero a counter-revolutionary because the book was written during the cultural revolution, and he had no idea who the hero is.
our visit was apparently turned into an official event. the head ofthe communist party in town joined us for dinner along with the entourage of town government officials we had met during the day. they started off by welcoming us: even though we have a more comforable living in the states, the fact that we are back, especially to a place like jiasha means we are still thinking about the homeland and its people. we are all chinese and nothing is better than home. i kept shoving food into my mouth to prevent myself from interrupting their speech on our patriotism. i couldn’t even imagine what their reactions would be if they had known that i’m no longer a chinese citizen.
mr. Li, the head of the party, belongs to the Yi minority, and has been studying the language for years. he has been helping a german anthropologist with translation of some traditional Yi literature. our curiosity about his research got him excited and we appealed to him right away. to show his friendliness, he filled up our glasses with a local corn liquor that’s about 50% alcohol. their faces finally turned red and they became louderafter downing 2 pounds of the liquor. when we invited them to come and visit us in the states, mr. li said,’i don’t like america. i’d never go there unless i have to.’
‘would you go if you were invited to see how they run their economy?’
a pause. ‘yes.’
‘if an american company wants to buy some timber from jiasha and you can built a factory or a school with that money, would you do business with them?’
‘yes. business is business. we are taking advantage of them too in that case.’
pan interceded,’we don’t hate the american people. we only hate those who are in power. we believe that the american people believe in peace just like us, but they are oppressed.’ that’s exactly what the books published in the 70s in the high school’s library collection said.
at the end of dinner, mr. li and dad were acting as if they had been best friends for their entire life. i was still a bit uneasy from the dinner cnoversation. i loved these people for their wholesomeness, and it bothered me that there is an unbridgable cultural gap between us even though ‘we are all chinese’.