In October, three years since my last visit, I returned from the United States to visit my hometown in China. In a sense I did not return, at least to the hometown I used to know, even just a few years ago. The place seemed to have undergone an extreme makeover.
The economic development that has taken place is simply jaw dropping. Beautiful houses have mushroomed at the foot of hills. Modern conveniences such as refrigerators, air-conditioning, microwaves and solar-powered shower systems have entered households that used to struggle for subsistence. Roads have been built connecting one village to another. Almost all families own electric bicycles, motorcycles or even cars. Walking seems to have become a lost art. After years of driving to and from work, I made a point of walking in the country roads for exercise and relaxation. As I walked, I found myself constantly approached by sympathetic people who wondered aloud why I was walking. Out of respect for their choice for wheels, I confessed I didn’t own any means of transportation there, other than the feet that carried me around.
Farming has also become easier. For fields not yet abandoned to weeds -- many are -- a new farming method is being used to plant rice. Seeds were scattered in the fields as described in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13). We used to first sow the seeds in a seedling plot, then root out the seedlings and replant them in a bigger field where they will grow more evenly until harvested.
As a kid, I was a catcher in the rice, shooing the birds from the seedling nursery. This was my after-school program where, aside from shooing away angry birds, I also did quite a bit of reading. It would terrify a parent today if a kid did this, as single children’s main purpose in life those days is to get themselves ready for the best possible scores in the upcoming test, whatever the next one might be. Parents force or cajole their kids to apply what Malcolm Gladwell calls the rice paddy work ethics (in his bestseller Outlier) not to the rice paddies, but to the preparation for exams.
While kids were kept busy, adults are not necessarily so. With increased productivity, easier transportation, and less time spent with kids, adults have more time on their hands. In small towns, people spent hours eating and drinking in local restaurants or homes. One of our local specialties is called “soup bowls” (“shuiwan”), traditional soupy dishes served in weddings or funerals. The place best known for it is a restaurant called “Daguan Restaurant” (大关餐馆). By my standards it was rather expensive, yet I found its rooms filled and parking lot crowded. People were eating, drinking and laughing.
During my visit in my hometown I was constantly invited to such fancy dinners, after which I was often asked to join them in Karaoke clubs to sing songs, or in my case, to listen to them. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality, but soon I found this to be difficult for me as I was now used to quieter time after nine years living in the US. I tried not to go. My refusal, however, could be perceived as offensive, though that’s not what I had intended at all.
Another important way people spend their spare time is to play cards or mahjong. People can easily play deep into the night or till the next morning.
I had nothing but gratitude for my friends’ hospitality and I enjoyed the food and friendship very much. However, the customs itself became worrying for me. Some of my friends also confided to me that such dinner or game parties are unhealthy and meaningless, but they go anyway, as it is not going to be comfortable to stick out or become a social outcast in a place where you'd often bump into one another.
I wonder why people wouldn’t spend more time with their kids, and the response usually is: “doing what?” Things that I take granted for in America, such as visiting local libraries and bookstores, participating in church programs, and visiting local museums and parks, are still largely new for many average Chinese families. The cultural landscape in China, especially in emerging economic areas, is like a wasteland that cannot be concealed even by the glare of red-hot economic development.
For instance, when I went to a few local bookstores, I found mostly textbooks and textbook peripherals, such as sample tests from various provinces, college entrance exam article preparation guides, or various electronic handheld devices literally called “study machines”. I tried to find books that I translated or wrote in Chinese. Boy was I disappointed! There was none. I consoled myself with the fact that I cannot find works by more famous authors either. While kids and adults in America or in larger cities in China can go to libraries to borrow books on a wide range of subjects, there are no public libraries here. I think it is imperative to build them. My rich readers, I hope you've paid attention. You might find yourself becoming the Andrew Carnegie in China.
I found great irony in the use of spare time between the two countries. You’d think that life would be more monotonous in the US, where people live further apart from each other. Actually there are all sorts of activities going on. In the evenings, people mow the lawn, read books, or develop various personal hobbies such as woodcutting or duck hunting. On the weekends they go to church services, take Bible classes and participate in small group meetings.
I couldn’t escape the feeling as I left my hometown that its newfound economic prosperity seems to be defeating the purpose of improving standards of living. If people’s hard-earned money is spent on wasteful eating, unhealthy drinking and in deafening karaoke clubs, can the development actually be called progress?
We become what we spend our spare time doing. I am definitely not the only person who became worried. Months ago, I had a visitor from China on a Sunday afternoon when we were having a small group of people from the church visiting us. The group leader was teaching kids to sing songs about various virtues in practical terms kids can understand and apply. When they left, my friend commented: while the Americans spend their Sundays reading or teaching their kids these basic values, what are the Chinese parents doing, other than eating, drinking, playing cards or mahjong? Twenty years from now, how different will the two peoples become?
The author is an US-based instructional designer and literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues. Published in China Daily on 10/26/2011