I grew up in America’s farm country, Iowa and Illinois, with frequent trips to Indiana where I had relatives with a real-life farm. My hometown, Moline, is the headquarters of John Deere. Yet for all of that, my actual experience with farms mainly consists of driving past them with the windows up and my nose occasionally scrunched up in the classic, condescending grimace of a city boy smelling other people’s animals.
Those were American farms, though, at once more unobtrusive, human-friendly, and massively concentrated than Chinese agriculture. I’ve marveled at the Chinese way of farming since my first summer in-country, when I observed through the windows of speeding vehicles the tiny little carved-out spaces lush with green which seemed to spring from dusty orange clay.
Chinese farming is a paradox for me, at once phenomenally productive (filling the supermarkets of hungry Dalian every day) and desolate. The countryside is filled with the elderly, the youths having left for better-paying jobs and greater flexibility in the factory towns of China. But the young factory people must be fed by someone, and as far as I can tell it’s the old farm-hands who work the land and send their products to the factories, ironically being paid so little that their children must go off to the factories, work slavishly as laborers, and send their excess home to provide for their parents a living that the selling of farm products doesn’t. All these issues, grand and humble, came together for me when I went to visit Ma Lei’s family in the family village.
Ma Lei’s family is a demographic archetype. Her grandparents were born to local landowners, and therefore vastly wealthy by the standards of the early 1900s in northeastern China. There’s some sort of a story involving her paternal grandfather, now 90 years old, working with a bank from Hong Kong, but my Chinese isn’t up to actually following it. The parents still work the farm, though Ma Lei's father also works construction. Both Ma Lei and her younger brother have gone off to the cities for work.
I’d eat brambles to be able to hear and understand the family's stories, and I have redoubled my language studies in the hopes that I can one day commit the family story to print. I’ll have to do it before Ma Lei’s English is good enough to understand what I’m writing, though, because she tao yan’s any hint of my writing about her, or her family, or indeed about anything at all personal. She is aware that she’s engaged to a writer, and she knows that I write about stories from China, but I don’t think she has quite realized that means her.
(Tao yan, by the way, is one of those magnificent Chinese terms that means a dozen different things. It’s sometimes joked by Chinese students of English that our language has ten different words for the same thing, whereas Chinese has one word for ten different things. What’s especially interesting to me, philosophically, is that Chinese often uses the same word for opposite relationships. Tao yan, for example, can mean “very bad,” “disgusting,” or “nasty,” when it’s used as an adjective. But as a verb, it means “hate” or “be disgusted by.” Couple this with the fact that verbs are often omitted from Chinese sentences, and “Wo tao yan” can mean either “I am disgusting” or “I am disgusted.”)
Ma Lei’s family had been rich, by local standards, and had owned land rented by others. Hence they were tao yan after the Revolution and the Mao Ze Dong wenti, as they call it — “the Mao Tze Deng problem.” There was a time when Ma Lei’s father and grandfather moved far north, to Jilin province, where Ma Lei was born. There was an incident during which Ma Lei’s sweet old Yeye (grandfather) was beaten with belts by a crowd of Cultural Revolutionaries. As Ma Lei tells the story, her father tracked down the instigators of that incident and gave them an eye for an eye, but I cannot verify that story. Ma Lei’s father is an unusually good man, that much I can see from his face, but the Cultural Revolution was a time when no one stood up for anyone else, and children frequently were the tormenters of their own parents.
Be that as it may, I knew a bit about Ma Lei's family before I went out to the family farm. I was amazed, though, at the life I saw there. I thought I would find a hardscrabble existence of poverty and deprivation. Instead, I found proud people with a very comfortable life and ample provisions.