You’re Not Welcome Here

There are places you aren’t supposed to be.  Sometimes it’s a real place on the map; other times it’s in the depths of a dissentious conversation.  In the grip of China’s tightly control world, it didn’t take long to find myself in the middle of both.

The trip was straightforward enough, a bussed tour to all the famous sites China has to offer: the forbidden city, the terra cotta warriors of Xian, the three gorges dam, and the urban splendors of Shanghai.  A neat package of the ancient country.  A travel brochure come to life.

I was pleased to eat up the stir-fried scorpions, larvae and deer penis in the street markets.  The Great Wall was no doubt astonishing.  But by the time we got onboard the Yangtze River cruise, I could see we weren’t getting the whole story.

It happened when we stopped in Hoy Yien, a resettlement for villagers displaced by the rising waters of the dam. Our guide had arranged for a visit into the cinderblock home of a family forced off their farmland.  The matriarch spoke with dead-eyes, proclaiming through the interpreter how the modern conveniences of her new life were well-worth the change.  Outside, corn grew in the corridors between houses and chickens pecked at insects on the concrete—the only remnants of their past lives to have made the move.

I asked our guide if these people had a choice in moving.  He reasoned frankly, “they could either move or drown.”

Despite further questioning, he only responded with praise for the government bringing electricity to the region so long stuck in “primitive conditions.”  That night I felt like an outlaw discussing the merits of such a project on the upper deck of the ship with my family.  But regardless of our words, those people still live hanging onto whatever shred of happiness they once had on their ancestral land.

The next day, the ship stopped in a sizeable town and we walked through its market.  Seeking relief from the fifty foreigners behind me, I strolled ahead of the pack looking for signs of life that would surely disappear when the mass arrived.

Beyond the array of produce I took a flight of stairs up into the unknown.  As I reached to top, it was clear I was beyond the welcome displayed to tourists.  One hundred people stared as I tentatively moved into the meat section.  Butchers held their cleavers in pork bellies and conversations halted in lieu of my presence.  Those eyes, visceral, penetrating.  Quietly, I made it around and shuffled back down to the group.

At once I understood something completely.  Every place has its problems—the villagers of Hoy Yien can attest to that—but its their problem.  They own it, just as we own ours.  And when it really comes down to it, everyone puts on a show, a front, up until the point when they don’t.

And that’s when it gets REAL.