So it's been about a month since I came back from Guizhou, the second poorest province (on official records) in China.
I think the month-long delay before putting my thoughts down isn't bad at all, because time erodes the memories that weren't really worth fussing over.
For three weeks, a good 20-or-so of us stayed at the border between the inner village and the rural town area, setting off, on foot, on journeys that took us deep into the history, politics and culture of agricultural China.
I do not speak for the others on the trip, but it was personally an extremely enriching experience.
For one, it's comforting to know that some of my speculations are true. You do not need to be 'materially' rich to be happy. You do not need to be wealthy, you do not need to be popular, and you do not need to top your school with fantastic grades. If anything, the villagers I met, interacted with and lived with provided that alternate reality. Here was another paradise altogether in a far more profound way than most people can imagine.
Sure, it is always easy to skeptically say, "but seriously if they had the chance to be rich, they'd want to be." On the contrary, I met people who were self-reliant, had rich and enduring relationships with their community and had virtues that are often lost in living in a modern city setting.
For a start, one can immediately see it in the way services are provided. A meal bought from a hawker store was always prepared with lots of heart, because the cook believes he has a part to play in society by providing his food service. When I'd asked them about the desire to make more money (as part of my research), I'd always be met with bemused responses saying that it's sufficient to just earn enough to send the kids to school.
A strong sense of self-sufficiency breeds self-reliance, as these people know the value of being able to hold one's own through hard work and gaining skills. It is indeed a pity that the fast-paced economic reforms of China since 1978 has resulted in a drastic rich-poor divide that has marginalized these people such that their financial insecurities have denied them the chance to get proper educations. Less than perfect village governance has also led to poor infrastructure, such as the lack of roads. Taken together, the vast potential of the village population is undermined.
At the same time, my travels have given me the impression that, for these people, home is still where the heart is (not money). Being a good person and not being greedy and exploitative is not just a norm to obey - it is a norm to be upheld, simply because it's good. No rational calculations are needed to justify this. There are so many more virtues present that I simply cannot list them all, and many of them are sorely lacking in modern capitalist states.
Part of the comfort also comes from knowing that here was a place my inner village-boy could go to if I ever get rejected by the current society I live in with my idealism. There were countless times I was sure that, if I had no responsibilities or ties back in Singapore, I could just settle down in a place like Guizhou. A common criticism to that assertion, whenever I was ever prompted to articulate it, is that I'd either get bored out of my skin or I'd be letting myself down because I'm not fulfilling my potential. But I think that only happens when you're well-aware and constantly reminded that you have to 'fulfill those potentials'.
What are those potentials anyway? Earning more money? Buying a bigger house? Having a respectable job? Those are standards imposed by being in a place that has given far too much weight to realist glories - such as being economically rich, attaining a high social status, having a swanky position in a corporation and constantly having to seek social proof and validation.
Take a step back. Look at the world. Those achievements only serve to fulfill social and material desires in limited fashion within Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs. There are a whole range of other things we will fail to fulfill when we get trapped in a competitive lurch, and I'm strongly of the opinion that those other things are far more important and noble. (Of course, I do not mean to say that all people who strive for material wants lack self-actualization. I just believe that the tendency arises.)
Where I stayed for three weeks, none of this mattered. If I lived there, I owned my own vegetable patch, raised my own cattle and had close-knit relationships that aren't tinged with social networking. Of course, there are perhaps downsides to living a farmer's life. As the song reminds us, "planting rice is never fun, bend from morn til set of sun." But why are those things unpleasant? I think that's usually because we're city-bred wussies. I participated in farming and helped to dig roads with the farmers, and I can safely say, you don't wanna fuck around with these guys. Here's a society where people drink and smoke all day, and still live up til healthy ripe ages and, even at the age of 80, can wield digging tools and ploughing equipment better than me.
And if anything, many of the difficulties that farmers face now are precisely because China's capitalistic rush to establish itself as a global economic superpower has made it even more tough to lead a life as a farmer. Farm inputs are getting more expensive, and agricultural produce is increasingly controlled by corporate politics such that grain prices are low. Your worth is increasingly measured with wealth because it is a urban-imposed yardstick, and that's not even the farmer's typical way of measuring worth. There are so many injustices, and suffice to say I observed and felt many of them when I visited households along the mountainside. And perhaps I feel them because I'm quite aware that in a twist of fate, it could be me in their shoes any other time.
I felt comforted because I can't really say that anything I saw or experienced was shocking or surprising; in my day-to-day musings I do consider quite a number of things and many of which that would usually be met with skepticism in Singapore were confirmed by the life I experienced in the village.
So don't stop questioning, and always leave room for surprises or change. Maintain a healthy wonder of the world. Think beyond your immediate circumstances and reality. There is more than meets the eye.
This post has turned out to be somewhat more edgy and emotional than I thought, but I think I wouldn't have it any other way. Ultimately, I really enjoyed myself there and would yearn to return in future. The great people I met there have convinced me that I'm very welcome to visit again - such was their amazing hospitality and the sensation that they would give everything of themselves when developing friendships.
Here's a pictorial rerun of my trip, somewhat biased towards myself. :]