Shanghai Journal – Day 3

June 6, 2011

It is the beginning of my 3rd full day in China and, as usual, my head is full of new information, new questions, and ideas.  I last wrote to you before I was heading to the celebration of the new library in Tongji Village.  This village used to be home to many Shanghaineese.  Most have moved out to modern residences or have retrofitted their living space in the village.  The remaining dwellings are rented by members of the floating population.  These families come from ten to 15 different provinces across China.  They are almost exclusively Han Chinese.  From what I’ve read, the ethnic minority groups are less likely to be inclined to migrate.  The families are literate at the middle school level.

People rent a room in this village meaning that a family of up to five can live in one room with no heat, air conditioning or individual plumbing.  Most parents in the village work 12 hours days.  From what the social workers and students working there tell me, there are significant numbers of mothers who stay at home watching children. There is a lot of concern about these mothers’ parenting practices and their ability to help their children with their school work.  I have to wonder what kind of mother I would be in such circumstances.  Where would one sit to help children with homework?  How would I get them to concentrate in the winter when it was cold and there was no heat?  How would I encourage them to play when there is very little green space that does not appear to be used as a space for garbage? In truth, kids will figure out ways to play in most any situation but still…

As I reflect on what I saw in the village, I find myself alternating between trying to focus on strengths – such as the fact that the children I saw looked generally properly clothed and well fed and the amazing variety of small shops and fresh vegetable stands that were present – and the threat of public health disasters that seemed endemic to the place.  From what I’ve been reading, the rural health system in China is under greater and greater strain and the municipal government in Shanghai is not, under the current system, responsible for the health of the floating population.  Therefore, children living in Tongji village and the 10 other villages like it in Shanghai can get care like immunizations if their parents choose to take them to a local hospital and pay for such services.  The extent to which that actually happens appears to be unknown. I have no idea what happens with sewage, who would know about or take care of a tuberculosis outbreak, the list goes on…Of course, there are likely answers to these questions so I will keep my ears open and try to learn more.

All of this leaves me wondering what I’m doing here and what I have to offer.  My Chinese colleagues are involved in the village, getting to know families, helping to problem-solve, and provide other services.  So, I take a deep breath and do what we said we were going to do – engage in a participatory research project that will give members of this community a chance to tell their story through the use of photographs. Whether that is enough to offer, I don’t know.  But at the moment it is all I have.

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Shanghai Journal – Day 1

June 4, 2011

It’s 6:55 a.m. in Shanghai and the strains of “Tiny Dancer” are drifting through my open window. The music is loud and stops almost as soon as it begins. A few moments later, another easy listening favorite who’s name I can’t summon wafts in the window and ends quite quickly. As I wait for the next musical wake up call, I’m reminded of one of the many reasons I love coming to China. I never know exactly what will be waiting but I know it will be interesting, unpredictable, and in the course of the journey I’ll learn a lot although much will remain inscrutable.

This is my first time coming on my own and predictably there are a lot of things I forgot because I was taking care of myself and not in the company of other faculty who have the common goal of shepherding a group of smart, resourceful, students on a summer abroad experience. So, I forgot my letter of invitation and wondered if this would be a problem as I went through immigration and customs – it wasn’t. I forgot my flash drive which had my presentation on it. It’s on my computer – no big deal. I forgot my rain jacket, although I do have an umbrella which it appears I will need today.

Today is going to be really exciting, if not really wet, because I’m going with my Chinese hosts to the opening of a small library in a migrant village in Shanghai. This is the topic I’m here to work on: comparing in country migration in Shanghai to undocumented migration in the U.S. More specifically, my partners and I will be comparing the well-being of migrant youth in China to migrant youth in North Carolina. I have data from North Carolina and we will begin to plan a project to gather similar data here.

In China, the migrant population is called the “Floating Population.” The village where we will be going is inside Shanghai and contains 4000 people – 1000 of which are children under sixteen. My colleague, Professor Zhu Meihua, has started an agency that works with the residents of this village. They have a formal office in the PuDong area of Shanghai and have a small office located in the actual village. The library is the fruit of Meihua and her small group of new social workers’ efforts. They painted it themselves and solicited donations allowing them to open the library with 1000 books! There will be an opening ceremony today. It is fitting to me that a library is one of the first resources to be put in place for this population. Reading is power. It is power to see a larger world, to escape the difficulties of day to day life, to obtain knowledge that allows for new possibilities, to understand your world. It is no wonder there is so much conversation about reading scores. It is the basis for every other miracle of education. We talk about it but often ignore it or take it for granted. “I’m too busy to read fiction or anything else.” “Who has time for the newspaper anymore?” “I only read journal articles so I can keep up with the research in my field.” But it is so interesting that in a community that has very little, like this village of floating people, one of the first impetuses is to provide a library filled with reference books, and stories and poetry. Somehow we know how transformative the written word can be and providing that to others is almost as important as providing basic necessities.

Tiny Dancer has played and stopped again…and off I go to start the adventures of the day.