Monday, November 12, 2007

Dual Lives

I'm sitting in Starbucks right now (Starbucks!) drinking a tiny little latte and using up their quick-as-a-bunny wireless connection. During the two months since I moved into my current apartment it has turned into something of a construction war-zone, so minor things like water, electricity, gas, and - most recently - internet tend to come and go as they please. Other things that leave at will: sidewalks, roads, man-size pot holes (I have not fallen in. Yet.), huge rubble piles, and screeching-slamming-something-MUST-be-dying-middle-of-the-night sounds.
Ahhhh mmmmm. Home. In any case, internet-less as we are, I venture to the nearby international haven of the frappuccino. If that is even a word.

I live a dual-life here, split between Chengdu-the-Booming-Metropolis and the earthy villages scattered around Dayi. In Chengdu I research, connect, fix visa issues (aiya!), do extreme bike-riding to and from the office, and indulge in such pleasures as coffee and hot showers. In Dayi, I listen and look and breathe in the slightly fresher air. I play with puppies and piglets. I interview potential microloan applicants. I marvel.


In Xian He, an old woman peels a green head-sized citrus fruit with her strong, weathered hands. She passes the sour chunks to the party of microloan researchers and village authorities standing in her courtyard then goes about her business feeding the rabbits, herding the piglets, and making whooping noises at the chickens. She is one of our loan applicants. She would like 2000 RMB (about $270) to expand her rabbit enclosure so that she can breed a few more rabbits. With luck and time, the effort will allow her to afford regular meat in her own diet.

Another man would like to use his $270 to invest in the village's communal bamboo factory. Faced with intense poverty and encroaching deforestation, he and twenty of his fellow villagers pooled their resources to create a system that would utilize one of their most abundant resources: thick-stalked bamboo, the local "weed" that shoots up everywhere and has a growth cycle of a mere 3 years. When chopped, sliced thin, woven, and pressed, the bamboo stalks make a sturdy plywood that rivals the strength of regular wood, and can be sold at a profit. Brilliant. Yes.

In between these site visits, we pause for lunch and card playing with the head of the village and the village accountant, both members of the communist party. We play "Struggle Against the Landlord", a favorite local game that involves two "family members" using their cards to struggle against the evil "landlord", who, of course, is given an unfair advantage (cultural relic, anyone?). The game is a cross between Poker, B.S., and a melodrama. We scream and scheme and slam our cards on the table with thwacks of our knuckles. Meanwhile, a live chicken suspended by its feet is carried into the kitchen. Later, it arrives on the table in three different dishes and a soup. Lunch.

So...yes, Starbucks. "I must be back in Chengdu," I think to myself. The clean wooden tables scattered with biscotti and business cards are quite the contrast from yesterday's ducks paddling through rice paddies. I didn't see the cow that my latte came from, nor did I discuss life-goals with the Barista.
Back to life #2.