China's Route 312

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A landscape panorama in west China. (William Ju / iStockPhoto)

In 2005, British-born National Public Radio reporter Rob Gifford traveled along China’s Route 312 from Shanghai to Kazakhstan and wrote a book about it called “China Road.” In this extract from the book (published by Random House in 2007), Gifford has just arrived in the remote town of Zhangye in northwest China and has bumped into two men on the street named Ren Wei and Li Caijin, who turn out to be the Gobi Desert representatives of Amway. This extract is reproduced verbatim.

Rob Gifford will present “China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power” as the fifth lecture in this year’s E. N. Thompson Forum on World Issues.

By Rob Gifford

We walk to the Amway office, past huge posters of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, advertising their new movie “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” The office is a third-floor walk-up. Six other Amway reps are already there. Teacher Hu is there as well, the man who appears to have been responsible for bringing Amway to Zhangye. They all shake my hand and welcome me, and offer me a seat for what turns out to be a meeting to encourage new salesmen to join. Each salesperson has brought along at least one friend, and we sit in the large office on chairs which have been laid out to face a speaker’s table at the front.

It then turns into a rather extraordinary evening. I feel as though I have been invited to an evangelical outreach meeting. One after another, the reps stand up and introduce themselves, say what they used to do, and how it was only when they discovered Amway that they discovered their real purpose in life, and now they take home a thousand dollars a month.

Finally, Ren Wei stands up to speak. In his earnest manner, he thanks Teacher Hu first of all, and thanks everyone else for coming, and then, before beginning his speech, turns towards me and thanks Mr Smith. I do one of those movie double takes where I turn round to see if there is another white person called Mr Smith sat behind me, but it’s soon clear that I am Mr Smith. From that point onwards, every speaker who stands up, thanks Teacher Hu, thanks everyone else, and then nods to me and thanks me, Mr Smith, Our Foreign Friend, for coming. Perhaps they think that all foreigners are called Mr Smith. Or perhaps, even here in the Gobi Desert, people are confusing me with Brad Pitt.

“My grandchildren will remember my name,” says Ren, appearing to mean every word, “because I am going to change our family’s fortunes.”

Finally, Teacher Hu himself stands up.

“You can’t choose where you were born, but you can choose your future,” booms Teacher Hu.

“Don’t settle for chabuduo,” he says. ”Don’t settle for ‘more or less’. It’s not good enough for you.”

And so about twenty Chinese people in a rundown office building in a small Gobi Desert town sit and listen to a middle-aged former teacher’s exposition of the Chinese Dream.

‘You too can do it. You too can succeed. You too can be empowered. You too can have the car, the apartment, the respect.’

The audience is listening, and remembering, and will get up the next morning and go out to work in order to realize what they have heard. For those who seize the opportunity, this is part of the seismic shift that is going on. The possibility to dream dreams that might actually be fulfilled now exists. It is starting to change China, one person at a time, and create a new nation. A nation of slowly empowered individuals.

At the end, everyone applauds each other. Teacher Hu thanks the group for coming, and says that now, to finish, we will divide into three small groups of five, introduce ourselves and discuss the meeting.

“It’s a time to share,” he says.

Two and a half thousand years of Confucianism and thirty years of militant Maoism have meant that Chinese people are not used to ‘sharing’ emotionally in a way that seems normal in an American context. The Chinese in this respect are more like the British, although somewhat worse, and are generally reluctant to open up about their emotions at all. That may be the reason that so many Brits stay so long in China. They are just relieved to find another group of people as emotionally deficient as themselves.

Four small groups of five (plus the rather incredulous Mr Smith) retreat to different corners of the room, huddle together, and share.

As the meeting ends, Ren Wei and Li Caijin escort me down the stairs to the front door.

“No need to see me out,” I say, but in true, supremely polite Chinese fashion, they insist.

“It’s amazing what you are doing.“ I have absorbed the earnestness of the evening. I mean it completely.

“You see,” says Li taking me by the arm a little too firmly as we descend the echoey stairs, “We want to live. Right now we are just shengcun. We are just surviving. We want to shenghuo. We want to live ! You know? We want to really live!”

Those words have stayed with me, like almost no others on my whole trip across China. There could hardly be a better summary of everything that this new crazy twenty-first century Chinese revolution is about.

“OK, I’ll see you in New York then, or Paris, or London !!” I smile as we shake hands. They smile back, and we part at the foot of the building. I wander back to the hotel in the warm evening air, asking myself why on earth I am leaving this wonderful country, and pondering the Chinese Dream, and the American Dream, and wondering whether one is taking over from the other.

 

Gifford’s lecture will take place on April 1, 2010, at 7:00 p.m. at the Lied Center for Performing Arts, 12th and R streets, Lincoln, Neb. All lectures in the E. N. Thompson Forum on World Issues are ticketed events. Tickets are free and guarantee a reserved seat. Ticket reservations may be made by contacting the Lied Center at (402) 472-4747 or (800) 432-3231. Tickets may also be picked up in person or may be downloaded from the Thompson Forum Web site, http://enthompson.unl.edu, or ordered by mail or fax. The lecture will also be streamed live on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Web site, http://www.unl.edu.

The opinions in this essay are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Thompson Forum or other sponsoring organizations.

 

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