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Life as a Young Rural Chinese Boy

My homestay older brother isn’t one for village life. He finds tea-picking boring, and when I asked what his favorite things to do were his father responded that he “doesn’t do anything.” Years before I met him, he’d tried to make a new life in Beijing but, overwhelmed and struggling to find a steady income, he returned home. Now 28, single, and jobless, it’s hard to see where his future can point other than the tea fields.

Over the past two decades, hundreds of millions of Chinese people with dreams that they couldn’t realize in their hometowns headed to the cities to work. Living standards have risen rapidly. For the educated particularly, this journey has become far easier as reforms to the hukou system, which registers someone’s official area of dwelling, have enabled those with bachelor degrees or technical skills to qualify as official city dwellers instead of “migrants” with lack of access to government services. The government has even coined a new slogan, “The China Dream,” to embody the ideal that individuals can and should dream big (for the good of nation, being the caveat).

Twenty years ago, it was far harder for a young resident of Banddong to dream of city life. But as development has rolled along, T.V.’s, smart phones, and the hundreds of millions who have completed the journey make migration to the city seem doable. As increasing numbers of those who were once my brother’s classmates head to the city, making enough money to send some home to the city, I can’t begin to imagine what it feels like to be left behind by this movement.

Significant income inequality didn’t used to exist Bandong (or so I’ve been told). But with money flowing back from the city migrants, certain families have been able to buy tea driers and install WIFI, while some remain unable to buy a shower. It only seems natural that this would push my brother to have tried his hand at city life. But like many young Chinese rural dwellers, he discovered finding his “China dream” was harder than the current government ad campaign would make it seem. One young migrant worker in a documentary described his future “as like a black hole.” The worker didn’t want to go back to his home, but the city wasn’t offering him the improved life or interesting work he had been imagined. I don’t know what my brother would have said if there wasn’t such a strong language barrier, but I can only imagine it’d be similar.

It felt disempowering to be welcomed into his home without understanding what seemed to be a truly depressing situation, let alone being able to help him reach for something better. I’m privileged to have grown up with the feeling that the world is mine; that whatever dreams I might have I can pursue, and that any experience can be opened with enough hard work. I can’t possibly imagine what my brother feels like as he is literally stuck in what I consider a stiflingly small home, removed from the fortunes being created by hundreds millions of Chinese people as the nation develops. I can only hope that as China develops, more and more people like my brother can be given the opportunity to pursue their dreams, and fewer will have to watch their days pass by smoking cigarettes on the porch where they were born but no longer want to live.

China’s development and urban migration has lifted hundreds of millions out of abject poverty. Moreover, while the cities prosper, some make the personal decision to come back to their hometowns and try to rejuvenate local cultures, to the benefit of themselves and their neighbors. But for some, development has just enabled them to dream without providing the necessary means to pursue those dreams. Mao’s old vision of a fully equal society has vanished, even in rural China. On the bright side, people like my brother can only feel locked in a bad place if a better life exists just out of their grasp. Presumably that better life will be opened to more and more people like my brother as development continues to roll on in China. But while it’s easy to appreciate what China’s development has done for many, it’s important to remember those it leaves behind, unhappier than if they had never known there was a better life out there.