Food is a huge topic here in China. Everyone talks about it. In Beijing the greeting is ‘have you eaten’ instead of ‘hello’. I cannot begin to describe the variety and wonderfulness of the foods. But I have traveled enough around the area to see the small farms and the conditions of the farms and the farmers and it all makes me wonder about food and farming and culture and poverty. This is a very complicated topic and I will only be expressing my opinions, not researched facts so please keep that in mind.
Last night I watched the documentary “The Last Train Home”. It is about a married couple, from the Sichuan region of China, who left their two young children with grandma and grandpa on the family farm and go off to the city to work in a garment factory. They send money home to support everyone and come home once a year at Chinese New Year. It is a powerful exploration of the financial pressures, cultural pressures, and history of family farms in China. The couple live in factory dormitory housing and struggle to survive. When they come home for New Year they bring gifts to the children. The children only seem to see the things that their parents can purchase and not the struggle it took to get them or the suffering of being away from their family. The children are resentful that their parents have left them, and the parents only wish is for their children to do well in school and escape the poverty that has dogged them their whole lives. The pressure on the kids is immense. In the end the seventeen year old daughter drops out of school and goes to work first in a factory and then in a bar/lounge in another city. It is heart breaking to watch but well worth it.
Watching this movie made me think about several things. First, that the family farm in the movie is portrayed as a peaceful place and a place of great cultural history by the videographer but the family clearly feels this is a place of suffering. The grandmother speaks of her dreams as a girl of getting a good education and choosing a career but that is cut short by the cultural revolution where she is sent to work on the farm. She tells of how hard her life was then. Strikingly, she says this while washing clothes in a stone basin outside with her bare hands. This movie was filmed in 2006. I can only imagine if this is good, what must it have been like when it was bad? The outcome of this forced migration back to the farm seems to be the belief that the farm is a place of sadness and suffering and back breaking work. Everything possible should be done to get out of farming.
Then I thought about the mythos of the American family farm. The beautiful pictures from my 1940’s story books showing rosy cheeked children in white frocks swinging from rope swings in ancient oak and maple trees. Flash forward to the present and I picture the Mennonite and Amish families that live in upstate New York. The labor of the children in these families is essential to the farm’s survival. Do they resent it? Is it their strong faith that keeps them going? I know the families do face great struggles as the children reach adolescence and fully realize all the modern temptations around them. Do we as Americans falsely idealize the farm life?
Right now in the US many states are toughening the immigration laws which is creating shortages of workers on farms and affecting the harvesting of crops. Some farmers say Americans are not willing to do back breaking work for low pay. There has been a backlash against these farmers for speaking out, but no rush in of unemployed Americans to take the immigrant’ s place. So where does the truth lie about farming? I would love to hear from my friends who grew up on farms or who live on farms now. Why did you leave? Why did you stay? What do you remember as a child on the farm? Was there outside income or did your family support itself entirely by farming? Either way, do you think that made and difference? And how?
For the past 30 years or so China has been developing an open door policy and welcoming foreign investment, companies , and their employees in. This economic influx has brought even more migrant workers from the countryside. They are around me every day. Some are lucky enough to be private drivers for expats but most are construction workers, maids, street sweepers, and trinket hawkers. The more entrepreneurial of them have fruit or flower carts that they pull around town on bikes. I don’t have a personal maid but I know from speaking to others who do that a maid makes in the range of $15-$25 USD a day for an eight hour day. This job includes cleaning, washing, ironing, dishes, running errands, and watching the children. A construction worker often lives on the construction site in tin shacks and works six or seven days a week for about 10 hours a day. I have seen them up many stories in the air with no other safety equipment that a rope tied around their waist. It is hard to imagine that this kind of work is an improvement over their life in the countryside. But the money they send home to their families must make those lives easier. The sense of self sacrifice for the family welfare is overwhelming.
Another burgeoning business that has grown from literally feeding the needs of the expats, is farming. The Chinese have incredible business acumen and move quickly when they see an opportunity. Expats came ,and with them came the desire for certain foods, so the Chinese started growing more of these to sell at expat markets. The expats also want safe food. While China does have strict laws about what pesticides are allowed there is virtually no way for the government to enforce these laws so there is a free for all with pesticides. Many expats choose to buy organic food grown locally. The irony, as pointed out by one of my dear friends when I was having an anxiety attack about this issue, is that the organic farms don’t magically truck in separate water, and the level of water pollution in China can (isn’t always but can) be very high. So as a consumer where do I put my dollars down? I can say ‘screw it’ and buy where all the locals buy and take my chances. I can buy in the expat markets where things are packaged beautifully and labeled in English, but still very little guarantee about where it really comes from. Or I can buy from the local organic farms which are much more expensive but I know exactly where it comes from. The truth is that these organic vegetables probably carry as much water pollution as all the others. But perhaps by buying them I am helping local farmers reduce their, and their children’s, exposure to pesticides. I may also be helping the people develop an economy less based on the mass production that requires so many pesticides. But if I know that this produce comes from an area that has especially polluted water I feel hesitant. And yet the local produce is unmarked. Ignorance is bliss I guess.
In New York I belonged to a summer CSA and a winter CSA, both from organic farms. I also grew some of my own organic vegetables. In truth I didn’t know for sure that these farms were truly organic, it was all a matter of faith. Faith in the culture, in the government, in my friends, and knowledge gained by living there for so long and having a full grasp of the language. In China I am working hard to learn about the culture, learn as much of the language as I can, and become friends with the locals in order to better understand their perspectives and life demands. My guiding force in my life has always been that I should try to make to whole world better in every little way that I can, for everyone that I can, because in the end I am leaving this earth to my children and they will have to live with the environment and people that I leave for them. Economic forces being what they are, many of us are facing increasing pressure to change our choices in order to save money. I am struggling with where to save and where to spend knowing that, like the ocean, the pressure increases the further down (the economic) ladder you go. And my choices may have a small impact on my family but may make another child drop out of school, go to work in a factory, and struggle to take that last train home.
For further thoughts on the American farming issue take a look at this article: http://globalcomment.com/2011/how-anti-immigration-laws-are-creating-farm-worker-shortages/comment-page-1/#comment-80300