The Duty of a Farmer's Daughter

Portraits of Young People in a Changing China

New America Media, As Told To//Photos, Rian Dundon Posted: Sep 03, 2008

Editor's note: As the glamour of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing fades, NAM takes a post-Olympic look at the country and the real lives of people there. Photographer Rian Dundon captured images and crafted intimate portraits of the lives of young Chinese men and women in a changing society. In the second in a series, Dundon profiles 22-year-old Xiao Jiao. Xiao Jiao grew up in the remote countryside of central Chinaís Hunan Province. Her home village is a hardscrabble of wood and mud houses in a valley ribbed with terraced rice patties.

Like many in China, Xiao Jiaoís parents have scraped a living out of the land, farming the small plot allotted them by the government even as they worked other jobs to supplement their income. The first in her family to go to college, and fluent in English, Xiao Jiao represents a major shift in her familyís legacy. However, her academic success has put a new burden on her shoulders: to find a job and support her parents in their old age.

XIANGXI, China -- Everything is changing rapidly in China. Instead of wasting time dreaming about the distant future, Iím giving more thought to the present. Iím seeking ways to improve myself and learn more in order to adjust to this fast changing world. As I am majoring in English, I think my dream job is to be an interpreter or translator. I know thatís very difficult so Iíll try to find other jobs, but Iíll try to find one where I can use English. One of my teachers said she went to a small county in Zhejiang Province and it was very easy to find an interpreting job because the city is newly developed. I hope I can find a good job, but sometimes I have more despair than hope.

My father is a carpenter, builder, basket maker and farmer. Itís very difficult for my mother to find a job. A woman of her age can maybe find a job as a waitress in a small restaurant, but usually they prefer younger girls. Each family in my village gets a plot of land for farming. The land is for supporting the family but we must also give a little bit to the government as tax. Every family used to sell rice but you cannot get much money from selling rice and vegetables anymore. There is a lot of land in the countryside thatís been deserted by the farmers as they move to Canton Province to seek easier and more lucrative jobs. It used to be that people going to Canton would give their land to people staying back to farm. But now people donít even want it.

Nearly all the farmers in the countryside have only an elementary school education, so I feel a gap with my parents. Iíve never had a deep discussion with them about my future or what I'm worried about. I do love them very much, but we just don't have much in common. The other reason that I think it's difficult is because I don't want them to worry so much about me.

Before I went to college they didn't know much about college or university. The only thing they knew is that if someone goes to college or university their parents should be proud. When all the farmers and people in my hometown heard what I was studying they thought that I would be sure to become an interpreter, translator, or teacher. They assume that students majoring in English have no other choice than to do one of these jobs. And if a foreigner comes to town and you have some difficulty talking with that foreigner, the townspeople say, ďIf you are studying English, why can't you do this?"

Sometimes I wish my parents could be better educated. Then they could understand me more when I talk about my education and what I want to do in the future. Itís a bit frustrating. Sometimes I really admire other students whose parents are well educated. Iím saying this not to demean my own parents, but for example, we never ordered any newspapers. Farmers never read newspapers because it costs money. You have such a big basket of vegetables and when you have sold all the vegetables, the money can hardly buy one small book. But sometimes I think it's okay. They don't need to know so long as I know myself. This can help me think more independently from my parents.

My parentsí main worry is money. In the countryside itís really very, very difficult for parents to send their children to college. When I got into college and they couldnít afford my tuition, my father went to the bank to ask for a loan. Now my parents always ask me if I will be as kind to them as they have been to me. They donít receive welfare from the government, so when they get old they have no way to make money. The only thing they can depend on is their own children and they worry about whether their children will be kind enough to take care of them. Itís really sad because sometimes, especially in the countryside, children treat their parents very badly. And even when some daughters treat their own parents well, very few treat their husbandís parents well. My mother has three younger brothers, and their wives donít treat my grandparents well at all.

My main job now is to study, not to find a boyfriend. I think that love is important, but a womanís future career is more important than marriage and love.

If the woman is beautiful enough of course she can marry a very wealthy husband and live a very good life, but what if her husband divorces her and falls in love with another woman? Before the marriage, the woman may think she is beautiful enough and that she can have a very good future if she just concentrates on her looks. This means she does not concentrate on how to mentally improve herself. For me, I think the knowledge that you master is the only property that no one else can take away from you. People can take away your husband, but no one can take away your knowledge.

Lisa Sangoi contributed reporting for this article.

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