Monday, March 09, 2009

Don't Live in the Park!

Jiuzhaigou Scenery

"Don't live in the park" is one of a list of admonitions hanging in the ticket hall of the Jiuzhaigou National Park in northern Sichuan Province. It could more accurately be translated as, "Don't stay overnight in the park", but after visiting for a few days I appreciated the more nuanced mis-translation. The only people who do live in the park are the residents of the "jiu zhai" the nine stockaded villages that gave the "gou" or mountain gorge its name. The villages are located mostly in the lower part of the valley, and one at the fork, where two more river gorges extend up into the mountains, each one a series of iridescent lakes and stunning waterfalls.

Friends of Ethan's who came to Jiuzhaigou when it was first opened to the public in the late 1980s, were horrified by the way visitors threw trash and trampled around the lakesides. But the park management soon realised they couldn't allow that to continue. Jiuzhaigou is now a supremely well-organized "earthly paradise" that manages thousands of visitors a day during peak times, whilst carefully preserving the natural beauty they come to see. But we were forcefully struck by how much easier it is to preserve the beauty of nature than the authenticity of human culture.

100 km of wooden boardwalks have been laid alongside the park's rivers and lakes so that visitors can file past the most spectacular beauty spots and photograph them from the best vantage spots, and even hike peacefully through the quieter stretches. Trash and waste are removed from the park's boundaries and there is no development inside, no hotels or restaurants or concessions apart from one visitor resource centre. But no-one can fail to notice that the approach to the park gates is lined with hotels, gift shops, restaurants and other facilities to cater for the multitude of visitors, begging the question of how the environment outside the immediate confines of the park is affected. The visitors flock here to see one carefully-tended valley, but what impact does their presence have on the region overall? If it’s true, as we heard, that the people who take the park's trash away wash the empty bags in the river just downstream and return them to be re-used, that suggests the ethos of environmental protection does not extend beyond the gates.

And what about the original residents? We were told that senior park officials claim proudly that Jiuzhaigou disproves the widely-held assumption that participation and buy-in of the local population is necessary for successful management of natural resources. Instead, in Jiuzhaigou they have been transformed into part of the attraction.

We stopped by the side of the Five-Coloured Pond to talk to a woman who was selling carved yak teeth key-chains, and asked her how business was going. “It’s slow,” she said, “there aren’t many visitors at this time of year.” “It must be much better in the summer,” we said. “No, not really, because we’re not allowed to sell like this in the summer. We’re only getting away with it now because there aren’t many park rangers around.”

I’m not sure about the accuracy of this statement, because the trinket sellers were everywhere and the women standing at key points with Tibetan dress-up clothes for tourist photographs have nailed up signs advertising their rates. Also the park rangers seemed to know everything that was going on: at least they knew what we were up to when we skipped out on our tour bus and hiked from one station to another. (We didn’t realize until we got there that the trail system was closed for the winter and we would be obliged to ride a tour bus to designated viewing points only. We opted to walk anyway, either along the roadside or, once or twice, around the edge of the sign saying ‘do not enter’.)

The trinket seller was generally disgruntled. We suggested that she must make a good living just from being a park resident and she shrugged and said that each household does receive a share of park profits, but that has gone down significantly this year and anyway, they are not allowed to grow crops inside the park anymore, so how else can they live? Judging by the elaborately decorated new houses and large cars parked in each village, and the tumble-down older houses in the background, we thought some people must be doing better than others, and the trinket-seller concurred. When we asked if she couldn’t get a job working in the park, she said you have to have connections to get a job, and you have to look the part as well.

Just as in Jiaju village, it’s easy to imagine how the wealthiest and most powerful families would be best-positioned to profit from the opportunities tourism presents. The benefits could end up being very unfairly distributed, depending on who is supervising the process. At least this woman was not happy, but one would actually have to live in the park, or very near it, to approach a real understanding of how people’s lives have been affected. Instead we could only see what was on the surface, and one aspect of that was shocking. On our way out, we hopped on a bus that called in at the largest of the nine villages. The tour guide bus announced that we would all be able to visit a Tibetan household and see how the local people lived. Sure enough, the bus pulled up in front of a large, newly painted house with signs at the gate saying in Chinese ‘Come in to rest and smoke – for free!’ Resting and smoking were the only things that were free. We entered the courtyard and I thought there must be a mistake, we had stepped into a gift shop instead of a family home. But in fact the family had turned their home into a gift shop, complete with glass counters and racks of clothing for sale.

So many busloads of tourists thronged around that it was difficult to move, but we managed to squeeze through into the living quarters, where the father of the family turned out barley bread at 5 yuan each and one of the three daughters sold small bags of barley. The walls were hung with large photos of the family meeting with different government officials and Chinese pop stars. Each table had a small plastic menu of drinks, snacks and tea for 25 or 30 yuan each. It was also possible to tour the shrine room and to go upstairs where the family’s bedroom doors were left open for visitors to view inside. As we gazed around in astonishment, a fellow tourist asked me in English, “Do you like Chinese culture?” At a loss for where to begin answering that question, I just said yes. It’s true, I do, but I wasn’t sure what type of culture, if any, was on display. That evening we discussed what we had seen with Carrie, a graduate student from the US, and Brian, a British man who had come to write a guide to park’s flora. We went over all of the obvious issues: as soon a place with a distinctive culture comes into contact with an outsider, let alone groups of tourists, then it begins to change, and who should manage that? Should anyone try to? If culture is kept alive purely for tourists, is it still culture or something else? The village house was more like a hybrid of gift shop and display case. We didn’t reach any conclusions but we wondered grimly how much the future of Ganzi Prefecture will resemble that house.

Ethnic minority doll key chains sold in the park

We decided not to return to the park the next day and instead we set off to try and find the Golden-haired Monkey Nature Preserve that our friend Andrew who works at the park, had recommended. As Andrew had lent us his jeep, we were able to make our way along the valley to where a large billboard of a monkey indicted the turn-off. We rattled 10 km up the river gorge, this one occupied by Han Chinese farmers cultivating their dusty fields. As the road petered out into a rocky path we found a half-constructed building, but no sign of any monkey preserve. Undeterred, we decided to hike up the gulley anyway to see if we could spot any monkeys by ourselves.

We spent a pleasant day hiking through the forest, first up to a fire-prevention station called “lower pasture” and then back down to the river and along its banks until it was time to turn back. The air was clean and there were snow-capped mountains on either side. We hiked all day and didn’t see any signs of monkeys, apart from some poo and tracks in the snow that were possibly of monkey origin. We didn’t see a single person either, only some cows. It was truly

possible monkey poo?

As we returned to the car we ran into a girl and her parents who were repairing the damaged road. The girl said that we would never see monkeys by ourselves, they live deep in the gorges and run around in the trees high overhead so you have to take a guide to have any hope of spotting them. It struck us that animals are even harder to control as a source of tourist revenue than people or waterfalls, at least if you attempt to leave them in the wild and not throw them in a zoo. Perhaps the half-constructed building will be part of a more organized monkey preserve, but we were happy enough with things as they were: the most gratifying tourism after all, is the kind were there are no other tourists.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rain Day

I can switch the display on my mobile phone from Chinese to English, which I do when I need to send a text in Chinese, or when I want to know the date in the lunar calendar. Most of the time the date is simply something like first month fifteenth day (today), but every now and then is a particular date, marking the beginning of a new period in the agricultural calendar. In Chinese the lunar calendar is called the nong-li, meaning farming calendar.

Over the years that we have been living in Chengdu, we have watched with interest to see how the weather changes following the Lunar New Year. The first year, on a chill, damp day about ten days after the holiday I went to buy an electric heater and was surprised when the sales girl told me they had already changed stock and didn't have any left. But it's still very cold I told her. Not for long, she replied, it's spring now. As I left the store I realised she was right, the sun was out and there was a definite feeling of spring in the air. And every year since the same thing has happened. The tenth day of the first month of the lunar calendar is called li-chun, the start of spring, and every year at around that time, the weather takes a turn for the better.

This year was really a test of my faith in this system, as the New Year occurred so early in the year by the solar calendar. Usually it's around the middle or end of February, sometimes even early March, but this year it was at the end of January. But sure enough, by li-chun, the birds were singing and the temperature had risen 5 or 6 degrees. Blossoms are out and, although we've had a few colder days, it feels as though winter is over. I expressed my surprise to Xiao Long that the weather had improved. "Well of course it has" she replied, "it's spring now, look on the calendar!" I realised that I need to ditch my solar calendar assumptions and read more about the lunar version: it obviously works, at least in China. Apparently not in the rest of the world, because at the same time the UK was under two feet of snow.

Yesterday, February 18th, was the 14th day of the first lunar month, called yu-shui, or rain water. Apparently it's a little bit like St Swithuns Day in the UK or Groundhog Day in the US: rain on yu-shui augers good rainfall for the next few months, but no rain on yu-shui means no rain for the next few months. This is bad news for the farmers, especially this year when the winter has been so dry thus far, and the north of China is experiencing a drought. Yesterday afternoon, Xiao Long and I peered out of the windows at the overcast but less humid than usual grey skies and agreed that yu-shui did not look promising.

But, lo and behold, as I left the school board meeting last night at around 9.30, the ground was damp and the air was misted with light rain. The Lunar Calendar comes up trumps again! But maybe not enough - when I mentioned the rain to Xiao Long this morning she was derisive. "Call that rain!" she snorted, "it wasn't even tears! I can cry better than that!"

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Only Problem with Ganzi is Getting There

This is what we decided after our third or fourth day in the car. It's always been that way so long as we have been visiting Ganzi. Once you are there, the sunshine, blue skies and radiant landscape give you such a lift that you forget about the tortuous roads, terrible toilets and thumping headache you have suffered along the way.

But really, I'm not sure what we were complaining about this time: we drove our own vehicle at our own pace and didn't suffer any major delays. Times were, we would sit on a bus for two or even three days waiting for yet another pile of dirt to be cleared off the road over Erlongshan. These days a 4 km tunnel cuts right through the middle of the mountain. Even though the road up to the tunnel is always fog-bound and gloomy, and at this time of year often icy, the weather on the other side is often completely different.

True to form, on this trip we sat around in a double-parked line of traffic, while cars ahead of us stopped in the middle of the road to put on chains, so they could crawl through the snow to reach the tunnel. Local men on motorbikes stand by the roadside with chains for hire. For 100 yuan they will fix them onto your wheels, then ride with you to the tunnel mouth and remove them. As we waited around on the narrow road, fitting in some snowball practice for the boys, I remembered many other long delays on this road, wondering how long I could hold out before climbing up or down the hillside to find a secluded toilet spot. At one point we even considered turning back, as it was nearly 5 pm and we did not want to spend the night on the mountain in the snow. But based on prior experience, we were fairly confident things would be different through the tunnel, and sure enough, once we made it out the other side the sun was shining, the road was clear and we cruised down the hill to Luding.

The trip to Ganzi is about to get even easier, as an airport is ready to open at the top of the Zhiduo mountain pass above Kangding. We drove past it on our way back, a long strip of tarmac stretched out along the rocky mountainside. I remembered a cold foggy hike along the same route 12 years ago, when we didn't see a single person all day, and pitched our tent in a spot that is probably now under the runway. The tourists are coming and I hope the people of Ganzi are ready for them. I fear that few are as prepared as the people of Jiaju.

They're coming: ready or not!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Most Beautiful Village in China?

Morning in Jiaju Village

Driving out of the Erlongshan Tunnel and down the steep mountain road that leads into Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, there are a series of large billboards advertising the tourist attractions of each county in the area. Jialong county, for example, proclaims itself the home of Sichuan Pepper, and has a vast picture of the ubiquitous little devils flowering on a bush. Isaac, who had eaten a whole one by mistake in a mouthful of vegetables the evening before, laughed out loud at that and said was one place he never wanted to go. But he did reflect that it would be a draw for most Sichuanese tourists.

Danba County, which was our first planned stop, has a picture of a hillside village with the area's famous stone towers and a sign proclaiming it "the most beautiful village
in China." When we eventually arrived in Danba the next day, we started to look for signs to the village of Jiaju where we had booked into a homestay. On a corkscrew bend of the mountain road we were directed to, we saw the same billboard with the same claim: apparently Jiaju is that village. My pictures don't really do it justice, but I think they have a strong argument.

Jiaju Village

On the recommendation of friends, we stayed at the home of Baosheng, who turned out to be the man responsible for the village's self-promotion. When he retired from his government job nine years ago he was asked to supervise tourism development and he has done a very thorough job. His major achievement must be the paved road that winds a tortuous 4 km from the valley floor up the steep mountainside to the village. Without it, very few visitors would ever reach Jiaju in the first place. I spent a long time puzzling over a similar village on the other side of the valley and wondering how the residents ever managed to leave home. Eventually I made out the faint zigzag line of a footpath twisting across the hillside, but I wouldn't have wanted to stop by there for tea.

When you reach the end of the impressive road to Jiaju, there is a gate and reception center and a formidable-looking man who asks for 30 yuan entrance fee per adult. We said we had booked to stay at Baosheng's place and he hesitated, but then said we had to pay anyway. Perhaps we could have argued around it, in the spirit of our budget-travel youth, but those days are gone: there we were in our large all-terrain vehicle and they had to pay for their road somehow. Later, as we sat on Baosheng's roof terrace drinking butter tea, he told us that five years of entrance fees had almost finished paying off the loans for the road. Up until now, 90% of the fees have gone to road upkeep and repayment, and the other 10% has been shared among the villagers, but from this year they will only need 50% for upkeep and can share out the other 50.

But Baosheng is concerned that they haven't yet figured out a fair way to share the profits among the villagers. He is certain that everyone should benefit from Jiaju's new identity as the most beautiful village in China, but not everyone participates to the same degree. About a dozen families have set up tourist homestays and others staff the gate or dress up in traditional clothes for photographs, but many don't want to get involved, or perhaps resent the intrusion. Baosheng wants everyone to be responsible for keeping the place tidy, for building clean toilets and for maintaining architectural traditions, but he hasn't yet figured out how to do it equitably. It's easy to imagine the kind of disputes that might arise, if someone wants to use their tourist income to build a modern house for example. Jiaju won't keep its label for long if that happens. Baosheng even apologized for the cement roof we were sitting on, saying that he knew it wasn't traditional, but it was very good at keeping the rain out. We agreed that it's possible to incorporate modern technology into traditional buildings and still preserve their beauty.

The homestay where we spent the night

These aren't unusual issues. Villages all over China, and many other parts of the world, are struggling with similar questions. The fact that the people of Jiaju are asking them, and that someone as capable and thoughtful as Baosheng is guiding the process, gives them real hope of figuring out manageable solutions. What is most impressive is that they are doing it themselves, by their own choice and with the active participation of most of the community.

Several small groups of tourists from Chengdu and Xi'an were also staying at Baosheng's place. It's a fairly intrepid type of Chinese tourist who chooses to spend their holiday driving around Ganzi instead of at home eating and setting off fireworks. It's a bit like a British family going on a road trip through eastern Europe over Christmas. These people were all friendly and pleasant. We exchanged travel stories and road news as we ate our dinner of many different varities of pork. The next morning one guy had to reverse his large car several hundred yards along a narrow muddy track in order to let us out, but you don't make it all the way from Xi'an to Jiaju in the first place to let that kind of maneuver faze you.

As we left, the women from Xi'an were up on the roof with Baosheng's daughters-in-law, giggling as they tried on Tibetan clothes and took each other's photos. The prettiest daughter in particular clearly loved this part, as there was an entire noticeboard of photos of her, presumably taken by guests and mailed back to the family. This was different from the bored women who stand around at tourist attractions with cameras and tired looking ethnic outfits, charging a lot of money to take dress-up pictures. Everyone was having a good time. I hope that continues to be the case for the villagers of Jiaju, and that they can hold onto their proud claim of being the most beautiful, without feeling they have given up too much.

Winter supplies of dried pork and corn at our homestay

Friday, February 06, 2009

Don't Get Used to It!

"Don't get used to it - we've got to keep moving," was one of the catch-phrases of our recent road trip through western Sichuan, uttered by someone whenever we stopped to admire a view or play in the snow. It's a line from the film Bolt, in case you were wondering. Other lines from that film or from Wall-E provided a narrative for our trip. "Nothing real is real" was one of Sam's favourites, a little mangled from the original line, but highly appropriate for the Buddhist sentiments of the area; "that's one stuck melon" was another, apropos of nothing.
"Hey, I didn't know we had a pool" was top of my list, not just because we ended the trip soaking in the hot springs at Hailougou Glacier Park, but because we had escaped from the cloud-bound city, and our eyes were open the entire time to the astonishing beauty of the plateau.

Happy “Niu” Year

Today is the 12th Day of the Year of the Ox, or niu in Chinese, hence the bad puns appearing everywhere. There is even a visual pun based around the shape of an ox’s head and the currency symbol for the Chinese yuan: wishing you lots of cash in the year ahead, a more than usually heartfelt wish, considering the shape of the world’s finances.

This year we stayed in Chengdu for the holiday itself, then set off on a road trip to the western part of Sichuan, the far eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. More about that later. We choose to depart after the New Year because the few days before the holiday are a bad, bad time to travel; in fact a bad, bad time to go out of doors. I had to go to Carrefour the day before the holiday and it was a zoo. Everyone was shopping their socks off for holiday food and gifts to take home for family and friends, then cramming into cars, buses and trains to get home in time for the big celebration on New Year’s Eve.

Xiao Long and her extended family took the train back to their hometown, but were only able to buy 6 seats between 17 people, so most of them had to stand or perch in the aisle. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the journey had only taken 6 hours as scheduled, but delays added another 11 hours to their travel time, and they didn’t reach home until 3 am the following morning. Xiao Long said the train was so full that you couldn’t even use the toilets: all the cubicles were full of passengers who couldn’t find any other space to stand in.

Meanwhile, in the city, orange tents had appeared on every street corner selling fireworks of every size, shape and possible description. Two years ago when we stayed around for the New Year, fireworks were only sold outside the city limits, but apparently they have been allowed to move into town on the grounds that letting off fireworks is a Chinese cultural tradition. It is a tradition that every man, woman and child indulged in this year, judging from the nightly spectacle visible, and audible, from every corner of our apartment. I have seen many fireworks displays on Bonfire Night in the UK, and on the 4th of July in the USA, but even the display put on over Manhattan only lasts 20 minutes. Here they go on all night, for around 2 weeks. On New Year’s Eve there were multiple fireworks displays throughout the city for hours and hours, culminating in a frenzy of explosions around midnight. It was amazingly beautiful and a lot of fun, but you can only watch the same types of fizz-bang coloured lights for so long and after a while we grew blasé and watched a movie instead. However, there was no getting way from the noise, or the smell.

The next day the ground of our compound was littered with ash and dead fireworks. One chubby ten-year old boy we met playing outside commented that the marble-floored stage area usually used for rollerblading and bike-riding was so dirty you could play baseball on it. Then he calmly took a cigarette lighter and a bunch of firecrackers out of his pocket and started lighting them and throwing them into the ornamental pond. The attitude towards firework safety is different from what I am used to. All the orange tents bear signs saying that fireworks must be let off at least 10 metres away, but no-one takes any notice. Under the cultural park underpass, a couple of guys were buying rockets from an orange tent, then crouching down to let them off on the busy street corner a few feet away, with vehicles passing in four directions. They explained that the rockets were sending all of their misfortune from the past year up into space, clearing the way for better luck in the coming year. Fair enough, but it would have been really bad luck if one had veered off into the path of an oncoming vehicle, or worse, into the back of the orange tent.

On the second day of the New Year, when the roads were quiet because most people were at home eating, or visiting friends and relatives nearby, we set off on our trip. As we were packing up the car at the entrance to our compound, three children were setting off firecrackers and little rockets in the gateway, where cars come in and out. I judged the children to be aged 6, 7 and 9. There was no adult with them, so they were lighting them by themselves, then rushing off to the orange tent on the corner to buy more. The gate guards looked on indulgently and cheered when each one went off. In my mind, the potential for horrible accidents was so great I could hardly watch them, but perhaps I just don’t get it. Probably the parents of those children would have considered us irresponsible if they had known we were packing up our car to set off over icy roads and mountain passes for a holiday at 4,200 metres above sea-level.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

To Shop is Patriotic

Early in December Ethan and I went to Beijing for a couple of days. Ethan had been invited to speak at a conference organized by the National Poverty Alleviation Bureau to celebrate 30 years of Gaige Kaifeng (Reform and Opening), the policy initiated by Deng Xiao-ping in 1978 that launched China’s economic transformation.

I love going to Beijing because it brings back memories of the year I spent as a student there at the People’s University in 1985-86. Much as I love Chengdu, Beijing was my first home in China and I am very fond of the city. Of course, these days it is barely recognizable from the low-rise, ramshackle communist capital it was back then. These days I completely loose my bearings among the vast, glittering boulevards of hotels and luxury brand shopping malls, but the moment I can turn down a side-street thronged with busy Beijingers and bicycles, I know where I am again.

The conference was a surprise. We were expecting a programme of predictable, tedious speeches from government officials congratulating themselves on their success in fighting poverty. That was exactly how things started, but after 4 or 5 men in suits had read out bombastic statements of that type, an elderly man with a long wisp of a Confucian beard took the stage and turned it all upside down. He delivered a speech in the quavering tones of Chinese opera, which grabbed the attention the students, NGO workers and government officials in the audience. I wish I could have understood all of it, but his main point was that the whole world is inter-connected and China forgets this at its peril. No matter how much China has achieved over the past 30 years, the country cannot rest on its laurels, not just because of the poverty remaining in China but the rest of the world as well. He talked at length about the current economic crisis and warned against Chinese people taking any satisfaction in America’s woes. He said that if America suffers, China will suffer as well and it is China’s duty to save America! Now that China is poised to become the world’s economic powerhouse it has a responsibility for the economic health of all countries, not just its own people. He was making a very serious point, contradicting the schadenfreude that has pervaded much of the commentary about the crisis, and his humorous delivery ensured that the audience really took notice.

We were impressed, and went on to be equally impressed by several of the speakers in the next session, who were senior academics from universities and government research offices. A couple gave predictable, boring addresses but three or four stood up and delivered thoughtful talks in an engaging manner.

One reiterated the theme of inter-connection, argued for policies supporting rural enterprises and emphasized the need for education, in particular for the system to allow greater creativity. His most memorable line, echoing Deng Xiao-ping’s famous “To get rich is glorious”, was “To shop is patriotic”, and he exhorted the audience to get out there and spend money to support China’s manufacturing industries. I feel well-equipped to go along with that one.

The speakers contradicted each other with enthusiasm. The next man took issue with the education argument, asking how it would be paid for, and said he was opposed to solving problems by formulating new policies. He argued that 80% of rural households in China are still primarily agricultural, only 20% are running small businesses, so the problems they face are related to farming or livestock management, not business development.

Another speaker contradicted the elderly man who had started the day, by saying it is impossible for China to save America, just as it is impossible for China to solve its poverty problem in the short term, because it is a long-term problem with complex historical roots. For example, the pro-urban strategy that has been employed over the years, such as controlling the price of grain to benefit city dwellers while penalizing the farmers. Yet another took this line further, explaining how all his life he had studied and believed socialist economic principles based on the Soviet model, but his observations had led him to realize they were incorrect and the only solution for building wealth was to allow free markets. He said it was a mistaken assumption that market economics neglect the poor, how could this be true when so many people have been lifted out of poverty since economic reforms began in China, but that more market freedom was necessary, such as lifting controls on grain prices to benefit poor farmers.

Later in the day there were plenty of tedious speakers, mostly giving presentations of the “ten points about poverty alleviation in such and such a county” variety. Several used power point, but in a way that made their talks even more soporific, by presenting huge blocks of tiny Chinese text on each slide and reading them out on a monotone. Ethan’s presentation gave the perspective of a ‘lao-wai’ (foreigner) on 30 years of reform and opening, as he has been coming to China for 27 of those years. He had put a lot of time into preparing his speech in Chinese and it was well-received.

The conference did include a good deal of self-congratulation, and not without good reason. Part of the purpose was to celebrate the successes of the past 30 years, during which time more people have been lifted out of poverty than at any other time in human history. But coming back to Beijing 23 years after I first arrived there as a student, what was most compelling to me was the way the speakers critiqued policy failings and openly discussed problems that are as yet unsolved. That really represents reform and opening.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

November Update

I haven’t posted anything since shortly after the earthquake, because we were travelling all summer and I’ve been too busy or lazy since then. We visited family and friends in Europe and the US, and enjoyed being away from the aftershocks for a couple of months and losing that dizzy feeling. All apart from one moment at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California, where Isaac built an earthquake-proof structure out of wooden blocks, then pressed a button to simulate an earthquake. The sound of the table shaking and the blocks tumbling down really unsettled me and I wondered for a moment if I really wanted to come back.

We did of course and there continue to be aftershocks even now, but we’ve only really noticed a couple. One at 11 pm on a Friday night sent me scurrying to repack an emergency bag and make sure all our papers were in order, just in case we have to do a runner. That momentary sensation of instability brings everything back.

That 11 pm aftershock was the first experience of earth movement for Xiao Long’s husband Zeng Jun, as he was away for most of this year and missed the earthquake. Apparently when he felt the tremor, he jumped up and tried to rush the family out of the building, but they all laughed at him and told him to sit down – this was nothing compared to the real event. Of course any of us would have reacted the same way as he did if one of those rattling moments had happened a year ago, but it’s all relative. I gather that’s how Californians feel, they just get used to it.

Zeng Jun just returned to Chengdu from a city near Tianjin in the north of China, where he has been running a hotpot restaurant since April. This was a new business venture after he decided to sell his car: at a big loss, much to Xiao Long’s annoyance. Originally he planned to open a hotpot place in Chengdu, but after making a down payment to rent somewhere, he found out the building was scheduled for demolition, so he decided to head north, where he has an uncle and a few army buddies. He and Xiao Long ran a restaurant successfully up there for a few years when they were first married. It is incredible how quickly people make these decisions here and how quickly they act. Within a week of arriving he had rented a place, hired some staff and was serving customers, making about 200 yuan profit per day. It was hard work though. He and a buddy worked around the clock, 7 days a week: shopping for the food, doing all the cooking and cleaning up at the end of the day.

Xiao Long took their daughter Zeng Jing to visit him in the summer, but it doesn’t sound like they had a very good time. She said the place was dirty and ugly and too hot, and Zeng Jun was living in a dormitory with minimal facilities. He really missed home and every day was a grind. Millions of people all over China are living that way in order to support their families and improve their lives. At least he was running his own business, not working at a factory or construction site where he could lose his job at any moment. But in the end he did lose, due to a stroke of extremely bad luck. One night a drunken customer picked a fight about paying for his meal and punched Zeng Jun, threatening to come back and beat him up properly. After that Zeng Jun lost heart. He was afraid the guy would follow through with his threat, or else find some way to close him down. As Zeng Jun was not a local and didn’t have good contacts it would be difficult for him to argue his case if trouble occurred. So in early November, he packed up and came home with nothing to show for his hard work. Because he broke the lease on the restaurant he ended up losing money, about 20,000 yuan, a big hit for the family finances. He arrived home with 200 yuan in his pocket.

Xiao Long took it well overall as she and Zeng Jing were happy to have him home. Zeng Jun was over the moon to be back with his family, able to sleep in a comfortable bed and be looked after by his wife and sister. His older sister Xiao Zeng and her husband and son have been occupying one room of familyy’s small apartment since the earthquake. With the family matriarch joining them as well every other week it’s a tight squeeze, but it means there’s always someone to look after the two kids, and the cousins are growing up more like brother and sister, an advantage in a one-child family society.

For a couple of weeks Zeng Jun celebrated his homecoming, inviting his relatives and army buddies over. One night he and his friends stayed up all night and polished off 5 bottles of baijiu (like vodka but stronger). Xiao Long said she had to mop the floor 4 times to clean up all the sticky mess from spilled toasts. But Zeng Jun knew he couldn’t sit around forever. It’s a stretch for the family to manage on Xiao Long’s salary even though we recently gave her a large raise. She now earns 1750 a month, compared to 700 when she started working for us 3 and a half years ago. That raise is roughly consistent with the cost of living: local families were paying 600 to a full-time live-in ayi when we arrived and now they are paying 1200. The cost of everything has risen, and in the meantime exchange rates have plummeted, from 8.2 to the US$ to 6.8 and from 15 to the pound to less than 11, so our spending power has really declined.

Xiao Long announced that she was going to buy a bicycle and let her husband use her electric bike to look for work. I said we would buy her the bicycle as a Christmas present and we got her a nice one at Decathlon, but it’s a long and often cold 50 minute trek to and from work. When I pointed out that in her family the women were the main breadwinners, as well as looking after the home and children, she defended her husband and said that he had been unlucky the past few years, but up until then he had done pretty well. He used to earn 5,000 a month driving a taxi, but because he isn’t a Chengdu resident, he can only drive someone else’s cab on the night shift and they both agree that’s too dangerous and tough on family life to start doing again.

Then a few days ago Xiao Long reported that Zeng Jun had earned 200 yuan the previous night. When I asked what he was doing, she shrugged and said “That’s his business. I don’t ask, I don’t want to know.” This makes it sound shadier than it probably is - most likely he’s operating her motorbike as an informal, illegal taxi, ferrying goods and people around the city after dark. It’s all OK with her as long as it keeps the family moving onwards and upwards.

Speaking of upward mobility, Xiao Long has to go to school for a parents’ meeting tomorrow, a meeting with the principal for a select group of the best students, to talk about options for middle school. Zeng Jing warned her mother that she would probably be called up on stage because Zeng Jing is doing so well in school, so Xiao Long is dreading the meeting. I thought she might have been happy to be commended in this way, but she says it’s embarrassing. The principal is not so much praising them as using them to criticize everyone else. Soon after they moved to Chengdu they were called up in front of the whole school because Zeng Jing’s grades had improved from mediocre when she first arrived, to near the top of the class. The principal harangued the other parents, asking if a girl from the countryside could do so well, why couldn’t their children who grew up in Chengdu? She managed to make everyone feel bad: Zeng Jing and her parents for being poor peasants from the countryside whom no-one expects much of, and everyone else for being outshone by them.

This kind of public shaming technique is an everyday part of the education system. The good students are constantly praised and held up as examples and given more attention, while the bad students are berated. The ten students with the lowest grades in each class at the end of the month are made to stay behind after school for an extra 50 minute class every day, where they teacher supervises their homework and lectures them about falling behind. Despite growing up with this approach, Xiao Long thinks it’s ineffectual. The bad students just get used to thinking of themselves as hopeless and give up. They’re only 10 years old but they’re already clear about where they’re going and it isn’t very far. I wonder what will happen to them, but I also wonder how Zeng Jing and the other kids who are tipped to succeed will meet the expectations everyone has of them.