China's Forgotten People

Counting Sheep in Inner Mongolia

ERDOS CITY, China — Am I really here? The question that has so far defined my time in China never felt so apt as the morning when, bouncing along in the back seat of an old grey van through the winding dirt roads of Inner Mongolia, I realized that here, among the wide open grasslands and majestic mountains with air blowing through the windows and every bump throwing me up against the roof, I felt at home. We—five students, two Chinese teachers, and a local driver—were on our way to visit an Inner Mongolian family, interviewing ordinary people for a Social Studies research project. It was our third day in the region, and we had already interviewed several herdsman families, watched two sheep be slaughtered (or, in my case, hid in the yurt while others watched), roasted the sheep, watched Mongolian wrestling and horse racing, and ridden horses and danced with traditional Mongolian singers and dancers. Away from the exciting but polluted bustle that is Beijing and into the refreshingly clean air of the yet unsullied minority province, the dirt under our fingernails came from dusty back roads rather than Olympic preparation construction. I hate the idea of being the foreigner who likens everything to her homeland, but China’s hinterland increasingly resembles the American West. In some ways this makes me happy because everything alike about America and China, two fairly dissimilar nations, is one less reason for misunderstanding. Other times, though, this similarity is disconcerting. Maybe it is naive of me, but I’m surprised to realize that geography, like history, repeats itself. As all travelers realize, people are the same, too. Maybe they speak a language I don’t yet significantly understand, maybe their customs are something I have to work to emulate, but the things that matter aren’t different at all. The lines highlighting my host mother’s mouth suggest my own mom’s smile, and the hands of the shepherd’s wife remind me of my grandmother’s. As my Chinese lags far behind proficient, the facial expressions and gestures that I rely on for communication cross all kinds of international boundaries. The interview, though, reminded me of the undeniable differences between where I am now and the place to which I’ll return in a month. We pulled up to a small farm with a few dogs and a small flock of tiny chickens milling around in front of the house and sheep shelter. An elderly couple welcomed us into their home, beckoning us sit on the large bed while they poured everyone’s tea and started chatting about life raising sheep. Unlike the previous families who praised the shepherding life, telling us that it was very comfortable both financially and in lifestyle, this man had a different story. Two days ago we visited a young couple who had 900 sheep. These people, who had been at it for decades, couldn’t raise enough sheep to make a suitable living because the government regulated how many sheep each family could own. The man told us how much he loved raising sheep but how low-level government officials kept him from adequately feeding his family. My teacher’s translation helped me understand his words, but his gestures conveyed his anger, powerless as it was. He told us he agreed with the policies, but their execution was corrupt. I asked my teacher whether this particular government-citizen interaction was a problem elsewhere in China, but he told me this punishing unfairness was particularly directed at Inner Mongolia’s minority population. I left their home with a bid from the old man to speak more so native speakers can help me improve and well wishes from his wife who had, despite communication barriers, answered my questions about Inner Mongolia’s education system. I also left with a question of justice. In addition to impressions of China’s astounding natural beauty, intriguing juxtaposition of ancient and modern architecture, and kindness of the people I’ve met, I’ll now leave this country wondering how institutionalized injustice can be changed and wondering what, if anything, people like me can do. —Chelsea L. Shover '11, a Crimson news editor, is a resident of Cabot House.