The first day I met Lily I asked her if she liked Beijing.
“No,” she said. “People here are dishonest- they tell you one thing when they think another. Beijing has too many Hans, and I don’t like Hans.” Hans are ethnic Chinese, as opposed to minority groups like Tibetans, Mongolians and Koreans. I had assumed that Lily was a Han herself, like most Chinese people.
“I’m half Tujia and half Miao,” she explained. (Miao are known as Hmong in the US.) “My hometown is in Hubei.” She showed me some slides that another Tujia took, of their village and of people in traditional Tujia clothing.
“My friend took these to preserve Tujia culture, because it is disappearing,” Lily said. “Everyone just wants to make money like the Hans, so they leave the villages and abandon Tujia customs. No one can speak Tujiaese anymore.”
“Do you want to go back?” I asked.
“No, there’s nothing to go back to,” Lily said. “Our village is going to be submerged when they finish the Yangtze River Dam. A lot of people are angry because they didn’t give us enough money, and they forced us to move to higher ground that isn’t good for farming. Also, the concrete houses they built for us are terrible compared to our own traditional houses.”
“It would be much better if we could have our own country,” she said. “Actually, all minorities in China want their own country. But no one can say it.”
Lily told me a little about growing up in her village. Her maternal grandfather was a shaman, so she had special status when she was little. But her mother died young, and she didn’t like her Miao father, who like many Tujia had given up his culture. The Miao were once bitter enemies of the Chinese, but by now they have nearly totally assimilated.
Lily’s politics were not as straightforward as they seemed. Later she told me what she thought of China’s government.
“They have messed up China,” she said. “There’s too much corruption and inequality.” This is a common opinion these days. I don’t like the Chinese system, but I this government is the most realistic and enlightened China has ever had.
“It’s not that I’m not patriotic,” she went on. “I love China, and I’d defend it if it was attacked.” I wasn’t expecting that from someone who didn’t like Hans and thought her ethnic group should be independent.
“China was much better in the ‘70’s,” Lily said. “Everyone was poor, but there was no crime and you could trust people. My parents didn’t have to worry if I went out alone. Now they’d be afraid that I’d get kidnapped.”
I feel very uncomfortable when people praise ‘70’s China. The Cultural Revolution lasted until ’76, and the persecution, cynicism and the breakdown of society that it caused is very different from the idealized view that younger people like Lily and the shopkeeper in Lhasa have. People aren’t taught how bad the Cultural Revolution was, so they assume it was better than the ultracaptialist present. On the other hand, perhaps the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, when the Cultural Revolution was over but the reforms hadn’t yet fully begun, really were an idyllic if poor time. At least, if you lived in rural Hubei or Tibet.