In Search of Rural China (Nov 16)
Kamal Raj Sigdel
Since we had no special plan, we planned all our itineraries on our way as we met new friends. While we were traveling by city bus in Chhongqing, we met Nicole. We asked her to recommend one rural area between Chongqiing and Chengdu. After experiencing the hustle and bustle of grand Chongqing, we were in search of a solitude, a rural and backward area. Nicole suggested us to visit Hechuan, which she said was one and half hour's drive from Chongqing. We decided to go Hechuan to see rural China.
Surprisingly though, Hechuan turned out to be something very different than what we had expected. We came to Hechuan to see rural China, but that was a big city with wide highways and high rise buildings. We came to realize that the definition of "rural" in China is different that the one we had. And more surprisingly, this was also the "small" town we were looking for. We had to redefine "small" and "rural" in Chinese context. We had hard times finding a rural-looking area.
The first outing in Hechuan, however, revealed us a part of rural China that caters to the demand of a growing urban centers. We were with our local friend, David, whose Chinese name is Chu Ching. He is doing his Bachelor's degree at the University of Heuhan, and has been planning to migrate to Singapore for he has been offered a position at the Singapore International Airport.
Walking though the muddy roads into the rural areas, we met some farmers who earned their living by selling their produce at the nearby marketplace. Most of them grew cash crops like green vegetables, potato, sweet potato, ginger, garlic, coriander and taroe. One of the farmers, who looked over 60, was toiling hard in his potato field. He was digging out potatoes to sell in the nearby market. We talked to him for a couple of minutes. He said he sells those potatoes for 2 Yuan per kilogram. Since he was near a big market, he had new hopes about his future.
One important place we visited in Hechuan was the ancient temple of Buddha where one thousand statues of Buddha were carved on a cliff. The temple, which had to undergo some minor renovation after the April earthquake, was built on a rocky cliff. The images and statues at the temple gave an impression that it inherits something from Hindu religion as well. It looked like the ancient stupa in Kathmandu, Soyambhu Stupa, where both Hindus and Buddhists worship. The Hechuan temple featured a godlike figure riding on a tiger, which resembles Hindu Goddess Laxmi riding her pet Tiger. Derek, being a Buddhist, made some prayers and we joined him. We were asked to offer some money as donation. Each of us donated some money and left the temple.
We had planned to go to a historic place nearby Hechan after the lunch. After about one and half hours' rest we took a taxi and went to the hill station. In ancient times, the hill station was used as a fortress. The stone walls against the rocky cliff reflected the craftsmanship and war skills of the ancient war lords. The place was strategically important for rulers of ancient China because it was a safe place from where one could watch the movement of one's enemies far across the Jialing River, that flows flat down the mountain.
We though of spending a couple of hours on the internet. The cyber café were strictly monitored. We had to borrow the special internet card from our local friend, David because no one without the card was allowed to use internet. It is China, we realized. I was shocked to see none of the Chinese youngsters using internet for email and site surfing, all were really engrossed in their internet online games. I saw most of them enjoying the virtual reality game like the Second Life. They seem to be less interested in outer world. We had some troubles using internet as the operating system was in Chinese language.
When it comes to freedom, we have problems appreciating China. Whatever we saw during the day -- the booming construction, huge investment in constructing highways and train networks, housing -- would hold no meaning and appear hallow the time we would realized that the people are not as free as we are outside China. Our experience of surfing in Hechuan taught us something more. Most of the news sites where either blocked or slowed down. The heavily regulated internet and the media exposed to me another horrible fact about China -- the leadership fears the public opinion and its free flow. The moment I experienced the strict censorship in the media and the internet, I thought this is where the Chinese leadership has to rethink and be more adaptive. We tried to understand what the new generation Chinese is feeling about the media censorship. Most of them are outspoken. They are not likely to be suppressed by any power. They would act on their will. They responded that the government media reports only the positive things that had undermined their credibility. The Great FireWall, a government-run project with an annual expense of 800 million US$, will turn out to be another "monumental stupidity" [as the Great Wall is] very soon as it will be impossible to sensor the internet materials.
In the evening when we were walking down the streets at Hecuhan, we heard a Hindi song being played in a fancy store, which was a very rare case in a deep China like Heuhan. We went inside the shop out of curiosity and came to know that the shopkeeper loves Indian songs too. We bought some warm cloths and foot wares. We had a dinner at a nice restaurant at downtown Hecuhan and went to buy train ticket for Chengdu.
The days in Hechuan also help us understand the group better. The first day's evening was memorable. Derek and I started drinking while Huma and our local friend David decided not to drink though they were also at the same table. After two quarter bottles, I stopped and that disappointed Derek, because that was against the normal American drinking tradition. I always wanted to see Derek get equally drunk but he would never get drunk by the same amount of drink I take, and that disappointed me too.
Though Huma did not join, we continued dirking that night. I came to know more about the American values and conventions regarding drinking when Derek and I get drunk. We became more frank and open and that helped us understand each other more. Derek, as a "Westernized Cambodian" seemed to have troubles sometimes (especially when he gets drunk) penetrating his filters. Drinking, in his perspective, was a major part of socializing with people. I had a long discussion with him on why one cannot categorize someone as "unsocial" because s/he does not drink.
Eating habits among our GIST group was a new way of making fun. I would not eat beef, Huma would not eat pork and Derek would eat "everything". However, I interpret it not as a problem but simply diversity, something like a cow eating grass and tiger eating meat. There were several instances where each one of us could not see things from other's perspective.
While we were very friendly to each other and the GIST made us lifelong friends, we also realized that we cannot change the way we are. I had heard about American individualism but not experienced. Derek was one example and he made me clear what is American individualism. He cared much more about his and others' individual choices than Huma and I did. I, as a light drinker, find myself in between Huma, who was not so a partier and Derek, a party animal.