Simple Gifts —by Jinny Batterson
“Ruby” is a Chinese economic success story. Ruby grew up in poverty in a mountainous rural county about 5 hours’ drive across the mountains from the regional hospital in Ya’an, Sichuan, where she is now a doctor, a kidney disease specialist. Since her youth, she’s completed high school, university, and advanced training. She has earned enough to purchase an in-town apartment, one she shared with her aging parents when she wasn’t either on duty or catching a few hours’ sleep at the staff dormitory at the hospital between work shifts. She dresses well and enjoys travel, but has been somewhat limited in her leisure time because of work and family obligations. I first met Ruby at an autumn evening’s “English corner” session, open to students, staff, and town residents in Ya’an where my husband and I were spending the 2008-2009 academic year as foreign teachers at a local university. For much of the year, when she could get time off, Ruby practiced her English with us while she showed us around many of the tourist sites and natural areas closest to our university town.
Over the course of the years when I’ve traveled in China, living standards have improved tremendously. The “three most wanteds” list that in the 1950’s included such basics as a bicycle, a radio, and leather shoes, more recently moved up to washing machine, mobile phone, television, computer, air conditioner, and even car for China’s burgeoning urban middle class. The poverty rate throughout China, measured as those surviving on less than $1.25 per day, decreased from 81% in 1981 to only a third as high, 27%, by 2012. In many urban areas, the rate is even lower. Still, there are pockets in the countryside that the new affluence seems largely to have passed by. Ruby’s hometown was one of these. It was inaccessible via major road. We never had a chance to see it during our year in Ya’an. Its isolation, we heard, reinforced the largely agrarian, hardscrabble existence of its inhabitants, who grew subsistence food crops plus fruit for regional markets.
After our teaching year was over, we kept up with Ruby intermittently by email. On a later China visit, we reconnected. We were excited when she was able to arrange a weekend in the area where she’d grown up. During Ruby’s childhood, settlements in Hanyuan County were mostly located in a fertile alluvial plain, tucked between successive ranges of the mountains of western Sichuan. Then came the double whammy of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake plus the impending relocation of all low-lying settlements to make way for an impoundment lake that would soon flood the valley, backed up behind a hydroelectric dam being built downstream.
By the time we got to Hanyuan, most low-lying areas were abandoned. A steep, raw new city was taking shape higher along the mountain slopes. We had a hot pot dinner at one of the few remaining lowland restaurants, then went to visit one of Ruby’s friends in her new apartment block in the new city. Not many foreigners came to this part of the country, so we were a novelty. On Sunday, before starting the long trek back to Ya’an, Ruby took us for a walk along one of the major streets. Locals came up to her and asked her who we were and why we were in Hanyuan—she replied that we were her friends, and that she’d brought us from Ya’an on a short visit to her hometown. We were headed back uphill to the apartment block where her friend lived when still another group of locals approached us from behind. Three little girls, dressed in warm colorful jackets against the chill, were out walking with their grandfather. The grandfather checked with Ruby to see who we were, then explained in local dialect to his granddaughters. After a block or so, the eldest girl walked up to Jim and took hold of his hand. A little later, the two younger girls, emboldened by their cousin’s example, came up beside me and each took one of my hands. Ruby used her cell phone to snap a low-resolution picture of the group of us—two foreigners, several local adults, and three adventuresome young Chinese girls, enjoying the simple gift of a weekend walk together.