National Geographic : 2013 Mar
return to river town 93 question-and-answer session a freshman stands up and asks, “Do you think that China will ever be able to surpass the United states in democracy and freedom?” When I was a teacher, no student would have dared to ask such a thing in public. My answer is diplomatic but honest: “That depends on you and your generation.” I also find that educated Chinese seem much more interested in analyzing their own soci- ety. Emily tells me that her cousin may be rich, but she’s noticed that money hasn’t made him happier. William observes that his younger relatives now migrate to destinations close to home rather than the coast, a sign that China’s boom is moving inland. William and his wife recently decided to violate the “planned birth” policy by having a second child. He made this decision after attending a funeral of a man with only one child. “I had to help his son lift the casket,” William says. “It made me think about what happens when we’re gone and my daughter is alone in the world. It’s better to have a sibling.” His classmate Mo Money—another poor kid who gave himself a bold English name— has succeeded as a teacher at an elite school in Chongqing. But he’s ambivalent about the relentless pressure of urban China. “Life is so competitive,” he says. “I think this is a special stage for China. The Chinese may have criti- cized other countries when they went through this—there was so much criticism of capitalist America in the old days. But now we are going through the same thing.” From Fuling I hitch a ride down the Yangtze with a student named Jimmy, who has a new sUV. I remember when this journey took two days by riverboat; now it’s a three-hour drive on a beautiful new highway. We pass the resettled cities of Yunyang and Fengjie, and then we ar- rive in new Wushan. The old town sites lie far beneath the Yangtze, and these fresh-built places appear prosperous. But in the past few years the region has suffered from landslides, and some believe that the constantly evaporating reservoir water has changed weather patterns. students PREsIDENTIAL NAMEsAKE Dai Xiaohong, the son of illiterate farmers, became fluent in English and named himself William Jefferson Foster in honor of President Clinton. Here he gives private lessons in coastal Zhejiang Province, where students come from families of entrepreneurs. River Town. He went word by word; it took two years.