When I talk about Guangxi, I find myself talking about “the students,” but I realized I haven’t properly introduced them to you yet. For the next few days I’m going to try to give you a view of what it’s like to grow up in rural China by highlighting some of the stories they’ve told me. After that I’m going to take a little time to introduce you to a few individual students. I hope you’ll keep up with this series, because I think it is invaluable for understanding China.
These are a few images of the villages that roughly 1/3 of China’s population inhabits. Most of my students came from places like this. They usually consist of a few new homes, paid for by family members who have gone to work in the factories of Guangdong. The rest of the villagers live in small mud-brick shacks with dirt floors, or depressing, communist-style “dorms”.
If you were a student from one of these villages the main room of your home would have a single incandescent bulb dangling dangerously from the exposed wires that run up the wall, seemingly added as an afterthought. Your living room consists of a few pieces of simple hard wood furniture arranged around a TV that may or might not work. Your mother and grandmother occupy the bench that serves as the couch, leaving you to crouch on a tiny wooden stool that only comes half way up your shin.
You only see your father once a year when he comes back for Spring Festival to share his earnings and celebrate. The man next to your mother in the picture that hangs on the wall above the TV seems to have disappeared long ago. On the wall opposite is an old poster of Chairman Mao, the paper is browned and fragile.
You heard that one of the rich families has recently tiled their floor, and you couldn’t help but be jealous. Your home has a rough cement floor that seems impossible to clean. During the day the light shines through the holes in the tiled roof, exposing the cobwebs that would otherwise be concealed in the corners. Against the wall is a set of small buckets that you arrange strategically when it rains.
The three of you share a bedroom. Your grandmother’s bed is next to the far wall. It has no mattress, just a thick board on top of a rickety metal frame. In the winter you can hardly find her under the pile of blankets it takes to keep her warm. If you are a girl you share a bed with your mother, otherwise you will have your own small mat. In the summer the two of you try to keep as much space between you as possible while laying on top of the smooth bamboo mat. Every morning you wake up covered in mosquito bites because there is no money at the moment for a new net to hang around the bed.
Your kitchen is in a small, separate room. Generally there is a pile of wood in the corner that you bought that morning. The family wok occupies the only burner of the bricked-in wood stove. Next to that a small flat space is occupied by a large wooden cutting board, made from heavy old-growth trees, a single large butcher knife rests on top. The board is stained with the fat and blood of the pork you chopped on it last night. The plastered wall shows the path that the smoke takes as it leaves from the small hole near the highest point of the ceiling.
From the kitchen a back door leads to a low brick wall that surrounds a simple cement hole that serves as the bathroom. The hole opens over a slab of concrete that slopes directly into the field that provides the family’s income.
As night falls, the smell of the rice paddies, being mud and waste, wafts through the village, and the sound of dragon flies and crickets drown out the hushed chatting of the neighbors just up the dirt road.