I had a happy childhood growing up in China’s northeastern province of Heilongjiang in the 1980s and 1990s. Our family never worried about food — I always ate until I was full, and often beyond that, halted by nothing short of a stomachache. I breathed fresh air, drank clean water, and took abundance for granted. It was a perfect life, and in the naivety of childhood, I assumed that everyone lived like this.
But this fairy tale was shattered one day when a woman knocked on our door. She held an empty iron tea mug with a rusting peony stamped across the side. Her children hid silently behind her on the stairs. Staring me in the eyes she said: “My husband’s in the hospital, and my children have not eaten. Can you please give us some food?”
Although I was only 9 years old, I could empathize with her. Like many other men in our town, her husband worked for the Kwang, the local coal mine. When any miner was injured and hospitalized, his family lost its only source of household income.
Kwang means “mine” in Chinese, but we also used the term to refer to our surrounding village. Collectively, the mine, the miners, the village, and the villagers: We were all the Kwang. The name had rung in my head from my earliest memory. It was a place that would swallow up workers in the morning and spit them back out, black as soot, at night.
I had always been told to close the door on anyone who begged for money, but I hadn’t been instructed on what to do when someone asked for food. I told her to wait while I sought out my mother, who was taking her afternoon nap.
My mother went to the door and took the mug from the woman. In the kitchen, she filled it with leftovers from our lunch of stewed pork, cabbage, and tofu. She asked me to find an empty jar, which she also filled, and added rice to both containers. I helped carry the food to the door and my mother asked, “Will this be enough?”
That family never came back, but seeing hunger on my doorstep suddenly thrust me into reality. I began to understand why my family always put such pressure on me to study and focus in school. Studying done well meant acceptance into a good university far away from the clutches of the Kwang. Poverty was a form of slavery; freedom to me was a train ticket and a suitcase. Whenever I thought about that woman with her children on our doorstep, I immediately buried myself in my textbooks. I worked hard and earned good grades. At the age of 17, I left the Kwang.
I moved to the provincial capital of Harbin, where I had been accepted by one of the best schools in the city. In my second year, I moved from the historic downtown campus to a brand-new one in a different part of the city. I turned down a room packed with ten bunk beds in favor of one with only four.
I had to keep going forward. Each passage was a step up and away from relying on the Kwang for sustenance. After university, I settled in the city of Dalian, in Northeast China’s Liaoning province. At the time China was undergoing rapid growth, and I would spend evenings observing the construction cranes dotting the city skyline while thinking of the Kwang, which remained forever frozen in my childhood memories as a place that never changed.
While I was growing up, the Kwang had been a bustling center of activity. The T intersection down the road from the mine managed all traffic in and out of the village. Buses, cars, and motorcycles all converged in a thunderous roar before driving off, leaving only an acrid stench behind. The miners dropped off after a heavy day’s labor were courted by vendors. Fingers stained by soot clutched cigarettes, whose smoke merged with the car exhaust to leave a permanent haze in the air.
One of the most striking buildings in the town was the bathhouse. Although it had been rebuilt several times, the bathhouse always smelled like unwashed towels and fresh mold. The building’s exterior was forever a greenish-yellow color, as though its cement bricks had somehow soaked up the water meant for bathing. Blackened, unrecognizable faces would go in one door and come out clean and fresh from another. It was almost as if the men were being purged.
This was how I remembered the Kwang, but the longer I stayed away, the more it changed. The campus of my primary and junior middle school deteriorated. Our soccer ground was neglected and eventually overgrown with bushes. Students kept leaving, and the faculty had to be cut. Like me, most of the younger generation of the Kwang were anxious to get out, and the only people who remained were retirees and middle-aged workers living on salaries from the mine. It was rapidly becoming an aging community.
In early 2015, while I was still living in Dalian, I heard that the mine had begun to delay issuing checks. I suddenly remembered the woman at our door when I was a child. I also remembered my mother, who had always had her financial security guaranteed by the Kwang. She had been a benefactor to the woman at the door, as the Kwang had been to us, but finally our well had also dried up. My mother, embarrassed to be seen with no money, began skipping out on social activities. She and my father had no choice but to live on their savings.
In February 2016, as the Year of the Sheep gave way to the Year of the Monkey, my father finally received a 500-yuan paycheck (almost $80). This was only half of his monthly salary, which was several months in arrears, but even this was a blessing. Others weren’t so lucky.
The Kwang workers took to the streets. They gathered in front of city hall and the headquarters of the mining company, demanding leaders respond to their appeals.
At the end of the first day of protests, my father received another 500-yuan deposit to his salary account. He had now received his whole paycheck — for the previous November. City hall leaders spoke with the organizers of the protest, promising to seek bank loans and to work with the provincial government to release the salaries for the last two months. It was a start at least.
I couldn’t be there at the time, but I kept up with the protest through the Internet. A friend asked me, “Why are you still so concerned with the Kwang now that you are living far away?”
Why was I concerned? I wasn’t sure myself. But then it hit me: I shouldn’t be asking why, but who. Who was I not to care?
There is a saying in Africa that it takes a village to raise a child. The same is true in China. What is true everywhere is this: When children grow up, their villages and their experiences are embedded within them, shaping who they have become. Even as an adult, I remain the same happy child who grew up in the Kwang.
(Header image: A view of state-owned Longmay Group’s Pinggang coal mine, on the outskirts of Jixi, Heilongjiang province, Oct. 24, 2015. Jason Lee/Reuters/VCG)