This might sound like me rambling, but as the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is about to depart, and the people are coming back to the city again, I want to write about how much I like Shanghai when it’s so empty like this when the memory and feeling of it being empty are still fresh in my mind. In the past week, the city was empty owing to the migrants, whose population constitutes almost half of the city’s population, returning home to be with their families over the course of one-week annual holiday known as chunjie or Spring Festival — better known in English as the Chinese New Year. Thanks to the emptiness of the city, I was able to sit down and think about my love-hate relationship with the city, as it was reaching its limit as I probed inside of my own head:
Cities are full of crappy people. Selfish people. When they don’t like each other, instead of talking it out between them, they instead hire two lawyers, involved law enforcemebr, get all kinds of resources and time to be used at their expenses. In a rural area where I used to live, we just met and talked it out, and that’s done.
In fact, there’s nothing new about my love-hate relationship with the city, especially Shanghai. I have, for quite a while now, begun to feel that Shanghai has been gradually and consistently changing me into someone who I am not — by way of changing other people around me to pressure me, both directly and indirectly, into accepting the fact that in order to survive here, I must take part in the larger system as a member of a counterproductive community where the sense of community is defined by material reciprocity, rather than respect, sympathy, and the true unity under the basic idea of right and equality. This is unhealthy on all fronts. I think it’s Shanghai is the kind of city that attracts these kinds of people. I’d be unfair that I feel this way because Shanghai’s today is packed of people who need to make ends meet therefore they need to put themselves and their families before other things. Shanghai was, in fact, like this too in early 20th century when Shangai was dubbed “Paris of the Orient.” It’s a bad land where bad people could do unimaginable things to advance their own interest.
So, as I mentioned in my last post, I’d decided to leave town to go to Chongming Island, an rural island north of Shanghai.
I cycled 10 miles to get to the boat pier, and took a 45-minute-long boat ride to get to the island, and then another 30 miles of cycling to a house and a farm of a friend of a friend who lived on the island. I didn’t think I could survive there at first because the lack of basic amenities, say, a normal toilet! (the last time I used squatting toilet was when I was 10). Also, there’s no heating whatsoever there, and the weather was cold. Because it’s in the middle of nothing except plants, the wind blew through the vast and flat landscape very easily. Every time the cold breeze touched my skin, I felt as though my bones were decaying. It’s that cold. I thought it was the way for me to reconnect with my rural nature (the place where I grew up in the northeastern part of Thailand was just like this island). It’s my colleague Leo (a PhD student working on organic farming movements and consumption at the University of London) who took me there first last year since many of his informants were farmers growing organic produce. Being away from the city of Shanghai that I loathed, I felt as though I was able to communicate with myself more efficiently. The weather was cold, again, but the people’s hearts were extremely warm. I was touched by the hospitality. I slept in a metallic cabin that the farmer who hosted me that night bought second-hand to use as housing for herself and for her guests. There’s a small little house there but because the heating system was non-existence, she only used that building to store her produce, and to accommodate the kitchen, toilet and shower room, but nobody stayed there at night.
In addition to being fed by Leo’s friend, I was also being fed by a friend of Leo’s friend, a villager who worked with Leo’s friend in the farm. He fed me a large meal (after many meals that I hitherto was fed with, as we’re in the celebrating mode), and there I recalled a conversation with my PhD advisor about the alliance versus the descent theory. The former, the alliance theory, argues that people tend to “marry out” in order to create alliances among groups in order to share resources, knowledge, and good genes.
The proponents of this theory believe that the most remarkable evidence of this idea is the process called “bride exchange,” as the name entails, women are the protocol through which the process of allying operates. In Chinese society, in particular, women are marrie out for the same reason, if the cultura phenomenon is to be explained by this theory. The descent theory, on the other hand, argues that people tend to “marry in” because that’s the only way to keep the property intact, and scarce resources in check. Of course we all know about incest taboo for which the descent theory also has an explaination: there is a rule about who can marry each other. Obviously direct siblings would not marry one another, but cross-cousin marriage is both acceptable and quite popular. It’s all about protecting the property.
I wholeheartedly believe now that the alliance theory makes more sense. It is simply because, after having been fed by strangers who had nothing to do with me and had noting to gain from feeding me, we simple human beings deep down want to spread our empathy to those who are not necessarily members of the same lineage group. The villagers wouldn’t let me stop eating and drinking. I passed out many times in those three days. When I got up, I was fed with more food, and more alcohol. I got to hang out and treated as a member of many families that I visited, including those who I met for the first time. I didn’t want to return to the city.
In fact, I have been enjoying labor work lately. I don’t know if the urban work is something that suits me. I know that I should not romanticize this pastoral vignette, but I do think that a simple life is what, not only I but, all of us should desire.