BEIJING â€" In Bijie, an impoverished rural area of Guizhou Province, children are dying, some in ghastly accidents, some by their own hand. It's as if the place is cursed.
Earlier this month, four "left-behind" siblings, aged five to 13, committed suicide by ingesting pesticide. Their father works in the city all year, and their mother ran away from home, so they were left to fend for themselves.
Three years ago, another group of children whose migrant parents were away working in the cities died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a fire they set in a trash bin where they hid to keep warm. The victims were five boys, aged nine to 13.
In December 2013, five Bijie children were killed by agricultural vehicles on their way home from school. A few months later, news of another horrendous scandal surfaced: At least a dozen primary schoolgirls in Bijie were raped by their teacher. Most of the girls, again, had been left behind by their parents, meaning that afterwards, they had no one to talk to about the unbearable humiliation and pain they suffered.
There is a Chinese nursery rhyme called "Our Motherland is a Garden." For the left-behind children of Bijie, home is wasteland, a place where they can be suffocated, crushed by vehicles, raped, or even kill themselves because they can no longer bear the loneliness and poverty.
"She just put her head down"
We'll never find out exactly what was in the minds of the four children who killed themselves. But one primary school teacher's post on an Internet forum offers a glimpse into the cruel situation these left-behind children endure:
"I teach in the rural areas, and many come from single-parent families. The mother of one of my students ran away from home. The three sisters are all only primary school age. They live very far away from school. Every day my student looks listless. In the beginning I always told her that she looked like she hadn't eaten. And she would just put her head down," the teacher wrote.
"Later on I learned that every day at noon she walked a long distance to go home for lunch. If her elder sister managed to beg some rice from a relative, the sisters would eat it with a spicy bar, a sort of starch bar made mainly with chili, flour and soy bean. Otherwise she'd just return to school with an empty stomach. I was really distraught to learn that. And yet there are so many children in my school in similar situations. The longer I stay here the more helpless and depressed I feel," the post concluded.
Like a poem written by Huang Canran, these left-behind children "suffer and swallow their tears in silence. Their lives pass with sorrow and resentment. They simulate joy in agony. They dream that inaccessible reunion dream blocked by the system and end their lives, as such, in tears."
After the shocking incident of the five suffocated children, the then Bijie mayor vowed to carry out a citywide investigation of the population of children left-behind by their parents, so as to have a complete management file to implement relief measures. And yet the disasters kept occurring, one after the after â€" in Bijie, specifically, but also in other parts of China, where left-behind children number in the tens of millions.
A report published by the China Women's Federation suggests that as of 2013, the country had more than 60 million minors left at home by their parents. Another 35.8 million children migrate with their parents. Either way, hardships abound. Most live in unheated, rudimentary dwellings.
Over the years, people have come up with various ideas about how to tackle the issue. Some says migrant workers need paid holidays. Others want the government to provide certain financial subsidies. But for all the talk, there's been little real action.
None of these suggestions, furthermore, address the real root of the problem, which is the unequal distribution of power inherent in the country's deformed urban-rural structure. Most resources and opportunities are concentrated in mega-cities. Medium-sized cities are scarce, while small cities grow slowly or not at all.
Urban development, in the meantime, is unbalanced. The majority of urbanization is along the coast, while in each province the center of gravity is around the political center of the provincial capital. As U.S. sociologist Ching-Kun Yang pointed out years ago, the imbalance in favor of large cities hinders the country's overall modernization. Chinaâ€™s big cities have become nearly as fashionable as their counterparts in the capitalist world while the countryside remains primitive.
Complicating matters even more is the hukou, China's household registration system, which basically divides people into "agricultural" and "non-agricultural" groups, and discriminates against the migrant workers and their offspring living in the cities.
Those that are left to eke out an existence in the countryside, in the meantime, deal with hardships that go beyond just the lack of development. The truth is that Chinaâ€™s urbanâ€"rural relation is an aggressive plundering one. Chinaâ€™s cities thrive by sucking the rural areaâ€™s blood.
As a result, the social ecological chain in the countryside has been broken. Households used to have four generations, all living and working together. It was something Chinese people cherished and aspired to. Now, all the men and women at their prime are gone. What's left are the elderly, the children, the sick and the disabled. How could the villages not wither away?
Politics play a role as well. Villagers have little control over their own fates. They have no say when it comes to transferring their land, or how the local township is to be built. A place where people are denied autonomous rights is doomed to fade. The left-behind children, in this sense, are just a symptom, albeit the most alarming one, of a much larger malady.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
- The Perverse Effect Of Street Art On Neighborhood Gentrification ... ›
- Taiwan To Hong Kong To L.A., Birth Of Bubble Tea Culture ... ›
- How The Pandemic Is Helping Reinvent Food Production ... ›
- What's Chic Now In Paris Dining? African-American Soul Food ... ›