March 2009

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Ben phones home

Once a week, generally after 10pm as he’s so busy working before, Ben phones home. It’s been well over half a year a year and a half now since he left his hometown in Shaanxi province to try his luck in the capital. Like most Chinese (or those who can get train tickets), he spent a week home over spring festival, but otherwise he keeps in touch with his parents through these thirty to forty minute long calls.

Ben’s Mum is a farmer, and Ben is quick to remind me that Chinese farmers are a world apart from their English counterparts. “In England, a farmer has a lot of land which they own. In China, they only have very small land to farm.”* (And, of course, Chinese farmers don’t own their land.) His phone conversations with his mum consist mostly of her asking if he’s wearing enough warm clothes. This, needless to say, is unlike farming in that it’s something England and China have in common (yes Mama, if you’re reading this, I’m wearing lots of sweaters).

His Dad works as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company in a town 300 kilometres away from his hometown. This means he can only afford the time and money to visit his wife at home once a month. It’s a common story across China, where fathers from the countryside seek better paid work in bigger cities, by necessity leaving their families behind. When he started this job 20 to 30 years ago, he earnt 70 or 80 kuai (£7) a month. Now he earns 3000 kuai (£300). On the phone with Ben, he is eager to ask about the little details of how his son’s business is going.

Near the end of our chat, Ben made a point of mentioning that his father, 53, can’t work forever and that he himself is keen to start supporting his parents as soon as he can. This is also unlike farming in that isn’t, I’m afraid, the first thing on the mind of a young English graduate (I know this because I am one) when he’s considering the reasons he wants to start earning money.

West of Shangri-la in southwesterly Yunnan province, a remote corner of the Tibetan plateau borders Burma. It’s comprised mostly of the Lisu and Nu minorities: who together number just thousands in China’s billion plus population. This is China at its most different to the smoggy, swotty university district of Beijing. And it’s where Mary spent her spring festival break.

She and friends spent a week moving from village to village – with such colourful names as Wawa – bringing the children medical supplies, basic hygiene lessons, and musical evenings. This was a combined effort of two non-profit organisations, MCC and HAND, but the initiative behind the trip was all Mary’s. Coming back to Beijing, though, she couldn’t help feeling sad:

I wanted to help, but felt helpless. You can bring one happy day [to the children] but then you go … It makes me appreciate my life more.

It’s needless to say this is a very poor region of China. And Mary rubbed up against it’s more pitiful side: helping children with disabilities in particular. She also described seeing three very sick elderly women, one of whom they suspected had breat cancer. But they couldn’t take her to hospital, as their medically trained consultant was already on his way to Kunming.

Coming face to face with suffering like this is something I would have imagined would test a Christian’s faith. Not Mary’s. Or those she was helping. Roughly 70% of the region’s population is Christian, thanks to the missionaries set up in the early twentieth century by the Brit James Fraser. Is this one of the reasons the area appealed to Mary? Did she find it especially rewarding to help those of the same faith as her? I’ll ask next time I can … or if you’re reading this, Mary, reply in the comments!

A final footnote is one of Mary’s comments on living with the Lisu and Nu minorities. She noticed at several points babies playing near fires while their parents didn’t intervene. This, she felt, was a result partly of poverty (wholly, in my less informed opinion) but partly a genuine difference between theirs and the Han Chinese ethnicity. “Han take care of their children.”

Cheng Liang is a friend and classmate of Matilda‘s in Beida – in his first postgraduate year studying Chinese language (which incorporates teaching Chinese as a foreign language and linguistics, among other things). He hails from the island of Chong Ming, near Shanghai (‘my island’, as he calls it).

Liang has also been studying ancient Greek since 2003. Why did he choose to take up this particular dead language? Because (why else?) “there was a beauty in the class”. He even has a Greek name, given to him by his teacher: Leonidas. On which note, here is a picture of Liang from another angle.

King Leonidas studied philosophy at Beida as an undergraduate, focusing on logic. As a result, he’s full of interesting riddles and problems. Over dinner the other day, he told me of Betrand Russell’s famous paradox, and this Greek one which is still troubling me:

A hairdresser says he will cut the hair of everyone who does not cut his own hair. Can the hairdresser cut his own hair?

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