In China’s Countryside, Poverty Is a Lifestyle, Not a Choice — Sixth Tone magazine

Mendai Village is nestled in the mountains west of Jishou

It’s not often I see stories about Xiangxi, that part of western Hunan where I lived for nine years, so I want to share this one with you.

The writer is Deng ChaoChao, who works with impoverished villages in the Chinese countryside, including Mendaicun 们岱村 west of Jishou. I’ve marked it on the Google map above. Writing for Sixth Tone, an online magazine in China, she describes the cooperative ventures her NGO has helped villagers create to augment their meager incomes.

She also mentions working with university students on a service project. I wonder if those students are from Jishou University.

The best way to help people is to get them to the point where they no longer feel the need to agonize over a bit of oil left in a pot, or to where they can buy shoes or a bus ticket on their own.
– Deng Chaochao, NGO worker

While I have never visited Mendai, I have visited Paibi, which is not far away as the crow flies. It’s on the northern edge of the map above (labeled Piabixiang). I wrote about that visit last July. I was visiting a school in a town, and not a rural village, though.

I won’t reproduce Deng ChaoChao’s article here, for copyright reasons, but here is an excerpt.

The village of Mendai is located in an impoverished part of western Hunan, a province in central China. Difficult to reach and suffering from a shortage of farmland and labor, it is also where I’ve spent the past year working on poverty alleviation programs.

Early this year, a group of university students visited the village as part of their research work. One of them remarked that the villagers were not poor at all. After all, this student said, they had televisions, telephones, rice cookers, and cooking oil — what else could they need?

At first, I didn’t know how to respond, since I had once felt the same way. I used to believe poverty was a matter of material limitations, and that lifting people out of poverty simply meant giving them enough money to buy the things they lacked.

Only after arriving in the countryside did I realize that poverty is a lifestyle. It is a way of thinking, one that permeates every aspect of people’s lives.

Sometimes, when villagers invite me over for a meal, I’ll lend a hand in the kitchen. Once, after plating a dish, I noticed some oil left over in the pan. As I went to wash it out, my host grabbed me by the hand. She showed me a nearby rice bowl, the inside of which was filled with blackened oil, old fried vegetables, and leftover gunk from the pan. “We can reuse it next time,” she said.

I wanted to tell her reusing oil like this was unhealthy, but I worried this would come off as elitist. I was reminded of all the times I had seen older residents walking around with holes in their shoes, or middle-aged women waking up at five in the morning to trek 10 kilometers on market day. It can be hard to watch, but even though you want to help, you feel powerless to do so. Buying someone a pair of shoes or a bus ticket to town doesn’t solve anything; all it does is draw attention to your status as an outsider.

Continue reading at Sixth Tone.

Incidentally, Sixth Tone has many interesting and surprisingly frank stories about Chinese society, politics and culture. Well worth a visit if you have the time.

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