Losses come along with material gains

Updated: 2011-10-28 11:02

By Berlin Fang (China Daily European Weekly)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

In October, three years since my last visit, I returned from the United States to visit my hometown in China. In a sense I did not return - at least to the hometown I used to know, even just a few years ago. The place seems to have undergone an extreme makeover in those three intervening years.

The economic development that has taken place is simply jaw dropping. Beautiful houses have mushroomed at the foot of hills. Modern conveniences such as refrigerators, air-conditioning, microwaves and solar-powered showers are now the norm for households that used to struggle for subsistence. Roads have been built connecting one village to another. Almost all families own electric bicycles, motorcycles or even cars; walking seems to have become a lost art.

Farming has also become easier. For fields not yet abandoned to weeds - many are - a new farming method is being used to plant rice. We used to first sow the seeds in a seedling plot, then root out the seedlings and replant them in a bigger field where they could grow more evenly until harvested; now the seeds are scattered in the fields.

As a kid, I used to be a catcher in the rice, shooing the birds from the seedling nursery. This was my after-school program where, aside from scaring away angry birds, I also did quite a bit of reading. It would terrify parents today if their kids did this, as a kid's main purpose in life these days is to get themselves ready for good scores in the upcoming test, whatever the next one might be.

And as the kids are busy studying, the adults now have more free time on their hands. Most seem to fill this time eating and drinking. I was constantly invited by former friends and classmates, teachers and officials to fancy dinners. By my standards the food was rather expensive, yet the restaurants were always crowded. After dinner I would usually be invited to join them in Karaoke clubs or to play mahjong, which many of them play deep into the night, often till the following morning. I have nothing but gratitude for my friends' hospitality and I enjoyed the food very much, but I soon got tired of the entertainment. I tried to politely refuse. However, my refusals often offended them, though that's not what I intended at all.

Some of my friends confided to me that they also find such dinner parties unhealthy and meaningless, but they go anyway, as they do not want to stick out or become a social outcast in a place where people often bump into one another.

I asked why people don't spend more time with their kids, and the response was invariably: "Doing what?"

I found a great difference in the use of spare time between the two countries. You'd think that life would be more monotonous in the US, where people live further apart from each other. Actually there are all sorts of activities going on. In the evenings, people mow the lawn, read books, or develop various personal hobbies such as woodcutting or duck hunting. Things that I take for granted, such as visiting local museums and libraries or going to the park, are rare excursions in China.

The cultural landscape here, especially in emerging economic areas, is a wasteland that cannot be concealed even by the glare of red-hot economic development.

For instance, when I went to a few local bookstores, I found mostly textbooks, college entrance exam preparation guides, or various electronic handheld devices literally called "study machines". I tried to find some of my books. Boy was I disappointed! I consoled myself with the fact that I could not find works by more famous authors either. And while kids and adults in the big cities can go to libraries to borrow books on a wide range of subjects, there are no public libraries here.

I couldn't escape the feeling as I left my hometown that its newfound economic prosperity seems to be defeating the purpose of improving standards of living.

Unless something is done about it, our economic prosperity will only improve people's material life. If people's hard-earned money is spent on wasteful eating, unhealthy drinking and in deafening Karaoke clubs, can the development be called progress?

The author is an US-based instructional designer and literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues. The opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.