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.