Learn­ing from China’s lonely el­ders in the coun­try­side

China Daily (Canada) - - EXPATS -


Most of the older peo­ple in the ru­ral Chi­nese vil­lage who the young Ox­ford Univer­sity re­searcher hoped to talk to shared a look of ner­vous­ness and cu­rios­ity.

Af­ter all, the doc­toral can­di­date from the United King­dom was only in her 20s, she didn’t ex­actly fit in.

But with a dol­lop of com­pas­sion and a lis­ten­ing ear, their mood be­gan to change.

As Ver­ity Robins sat on the el­ders’ kang, a brick bed com­mon in north­ern China and heated in win­ter, and asked about their fam­ily mem­bers, their health and their re­cent har­vest, all in flu­ent Chi­nese, they felt more at ease and talked more.

Robins, who has trav­eled across China and vis­ited nearly 50 vil­lages in the past 10 years, is do­ing re­search on the el­derly in Chi­nese vil­lages.

Older peo­ple liv­ing in dif­fi­cult con­di­tions ac­count for about half of the na­tion’s to­tal ag­ing pop­u­la­tion of 212 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the So­cial Blue Book jointly re­leased by the Chi­nese Acad­emy of So­cial Sci­ences and the So­cial Sci­ences Aca­demic Press.

Nearly half of the ag­ing pop­u­la­tion in the coun­try­side are “empty nest” el­derly, who are alone in the vil­lages while their chil­dren are work­ing in cities.

Some older peo­ple she talked to in the vil­lage in North­west China’s Shaanxi prov­ince wept, but “whether it’s for a stranger’s so­lic­i­tude or their own un­speak­able lone­li­ness, I can­not tell”, said Robins. One older man she in­ter­viewed told her: “It’s not easy for for­eign­ers to come across oceans to see us old and use­less peo­ple.”

The 27-year-old Bri­ton is in­ter­ested in Chi­nese cul­tures and speaks good Man­darin, as well as some re­gional di­alects.

“I feel the Shaanxi di­alect is easy to understand. Words just take a dif­fer­ent tone,” she said, af­ter fin­ish­ing a day of in­ter­views.

Those in­ter­views were usu­ally com­prised of 10 to 14 30-minute in­di­vid­ual in­ter­views with older farm­ers and a group in­ter­view with the com­mit­tee mem­bers of the vil­lage’s Older Peo­ple’s As­so­ci­a­tion, es­tab­lished for the ben­e­fit of se­nior vil­lagers by lo­cal gov­ern­ments and sup­ported by Help Age In­ter­na­tional, an NGO work­ing in over 70 coun­tries.

Robins worked for Help Age as a re­searcher and con­sul­tant over the sum­mer, but it is only one of the NGOs she has worked with to get in­depth knowl­edge about older Chi­nese peo­ple and find out in­no­va­tive ways to help them.

“She has a re­searcher’s com­mit­ment to ex­tended field­work in ru­ral ar­eas of China, and that’s what strikes me the most,” said Luo Zheng­peng, a Chi­nese friend of Robins’ who is a doc­toral can­di­date at the Univer­sity of Hong Kong.

Her in­ter­ac­tion with older peo­ple in China started many years ago.

In 2009, Robins, then 21, came to China and vol­un­teered at an NGO based in Kun­ming, cap­i­tal of South China’s Yun­nan prov­ince. She went with a group of col­lege stu­dents to a re­mote com­mu­nity made up of older peo­ple with lep­rosy.

There were around 30 peo­ple in the vil­lage, and a couple of chi­dren, per­haps grand­chil­dren. Par­ents who are away work­ing in cities of­ten must rely on grand­par­ents to raise their chil­dren. With­out them the el­derly would truly be iso­lated and alone.

“They ( the lep­ers) were pushed out of the vil­lages. ... Their fam­i­lies didn’t want them,” said Robins.

To reach the vil­lage, Robins and other NGO work­ers walked for two hours and trav­eled for an­other hour in a cart un­til they were deep in the moun­tains, where they stayed for a month, sleep­ing on the floor of a derelict house.

“It was a good ex­pe­ri­ence, but I was al­ways scared be­cause there was one night when we woke up and there were ants all over the floor. I felt they were crawl­ing on end,” Robins said.

This was the first time she had spent such a long time in a Chi­nese vil­lage, hav­ing close in­ter­ac­tion with lonely, trau­ma­tized older peo­ple, car­ry­ing wa­ter for them from afar and try­ing to heal their deep psy­cho­log­i­cal wounds.

Af­ter that, Robins made the Chi­nese coun­try­side her main field of study. She went on to be­come a doc­toral can­di­date at Ox­ford af­ter us­ing her China ex­pe­ri­ence in par­tial ful­fill­ment of her mas­ter’s de­gree.

She cur­rently is do­ing cross-de­part­men­tal stud­ies in pol­i­tics and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions.

“The great thing about be­friend­ing Chi­nese peo­ple in their 70s and 80s is that their lives are like a per­sonal ac­count of Chi­nese history; they’ve been through ev­ery step of China’s re­cent past,” Robins said.

She said that for her, China is no longer just a place that she fre­quently trav­els to, but a home away from home where she al­ways finds time to re­turn.

The great thing about be­friend­ing Chi­nese peo­ple in their 70s and 80s is that their lives are like a per­sonal ac­count of Chi­nese history.” Ver­ity Robins, re­searcher at Ox­ford Univer­sity

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