What’s the opposite of being a reactionary? Or, cultural dilemmas in a foreign land.
When you read about China, the first word that pops from the page is development. From a classic economic standpoint, development has one single measure – GDP growth, and one simple question comes with it– how to grow the output of the economy at the fastest pace possible? It seems that at an average growth rate of close to ten percent in the last thirty years – China knows what it’s doing. But as an observer of society, using economics as a tool and not an end as of itself my question is different – how can people use the tools at their disposal to make their lives better? Money is definitely one of those tools, but it’s not the only one. This question is a little harder because the measurement for a better life is diverse and often changing. GDP simplifies things, but then again, I was never one to go for simplicity.
While walking around the streets of Xiahe, which includes an ancient but still active Tibetan monastery by the name of Labrang, the question of how people want to make their lives better comes into the direct view. People are building, and building and building. Every other street is unpaved because of the construction work, and they work from dusk til dawn, which happens to be at 9pm here. The rambunctious pace of the city is subdued by the calmness of Tibetan monks sharing the same unfinished lack of sidewalk. The city combines three separate cultures of Han (Majority ethnicity of China), Hui (General term for Chinese Muslims) and Tibetan (religious and cultural minority in China). As the English speaking Tibetan monk told me yesterday during our tour of the monastery – “we like to live in peace and for happiness, no point in fighting”. This was of course a direct response to me sharing with him my country of origin.
So I asked myself, what would make these people’s lives better, in the most inclusive yet general sense of a small town in western, rural china? Is it access to electricity and clean running water, or is it a prosperous economy based on tourism? Is it a lack of outside western imperialist intervention, or maybe our presence here was contributing to their well being? Was it lack of tension, or was the tension itself the thriving engine of growth? When asking these questions, to the students and my co-staff, I often encounter their desire to apologize for western imperialism. Their lackluster attempt to be overly apologetic and genuine is often hidden under the guise of appreciation for the antiquity of the locals’ culture, for the traditionalism of their society and the continuity of their values. Encouraged by privileged liberal values of acceptance and post-colonialism they tend to romanticize the rural culture without appreciating the locals desire to develop in the same industrial way that we did a century and a half ago. We focus on agriculture and food, the epicenters of traditionalism, without stopping to recognize the mega complexes and shopping malls being built right next to the monastery. Is that a western imposition or a Chinese version of modernism? Is that what people want, or is that the imposition of a reality in which more and more tourism comes this way? Are the rules of supply and demand are more universal than the values we believe they so dearly cherish? And is that an imposition itself of western values or are they truly universal? Is there even such a thing?
My friend and co-instructor Shiqi told me that her grandparents are farmers. Their only dream for their children and grandchildren is to never be a farmer. It’s too hard they told her, and they want her to have a better life. Several generations ago, before industrialism had come into play in the west, our great grandparents wanted the same for us. But now that their lives have become a distant memory, we can look back and idealize their lives – close to the land, an organic pace of being and without the alienation of mega cities and post postisms. But only because we are so removed from that generation can we be so romantic about these back to the land ideals. Here in China, it seems to me at least, to be different. The agricultural generation is still alive and kicking, 46 percent of the population is still agrarian hoping for greener grass for the ones to follow them. In this observation truly lies the clash between us westerners wanting to value traditionalism, and the locals who want their lives to be better. So what is better, and who’s imposing on who?
The truth lies somewhere in between; it’s fluid. It doesn’t necessarily lie in one or the other, but rather in the joint fabric of a small town that may or may not represent something bigger. It lies in the same human fabric that holds power plays and ideals, that holds genuine desires and intents alongside tricksterisms and manipulations. The idealist in me still seeks for a truth, but the realist in me accepts that there might not be one truth, but rather the genuine and manipulative desires merge in order to form a reality that is perceived so differently from each individual observer.
And the choices we make, and the perspective that we choose will form this truth.
Whether universal or not.