They listen intently to our questions. But I am startled sometimes, because they are watching us too, as if to ask.. did I answer you correctly? Some of them joke with us, or yell - not at us, but because the questions make them realize something they're angry about. Tony always asks the questions, and I record. The respondents' eyes flick between us, as if they're not sure who to talk to. I test out different faces on them - intent concentration, an encouraging smile, the blank stare.
Liu Tong interviews a 60-something man behind the man's house on the village's outskirts. The village gov't helped him to buy these blocks, which he uses to grow "Mu er" literally "Tree Ear." In English this is called "Jew's Ear Mushroom/Fungus". It's a common ingredient in many vegetable dishes in this area. They have to harvest every two-three days, and it takes them about two days to harvest a complete plot.
In our second-to-last survey yesterday, I watched Tony explain questions to a 39-year-old villager. The villager was was shirtless from the heat, paunchy, and chain-smoked cigarettes. We escaped the heat in a shed built for tractors, sitting on low wooden stools. Tony was on autopilot, his eyes on his over-handled survey pages, and his mind on his own words. As the villager began to talk, I looked into his eyes, and he looked into mine. He knew I was writing him.
I see you, I said to him in my head. Suddenly, he saw me, too.
Two days earlier I'd felt the same while interviewing a woman who was planting peppers in her yard. With her, I almost never saw her eyes - her big white hat flopping over half her face as we spoke. But when she finally looked, I saw a deep sharpness in her. She was not young, but she was beautiful.
These many days, I have not enjoyed being in Hunchun. I feel trapped in this office, so far from the museums, shows and friends that comprise regular diversions for me. Even now, as we start to pull stories from the data, I am resigning myself to another week here. But invited in to the fields and homes of these people, everything seemed clearer than it ever had been. When we leave, their politeness echoes, "Sit a while. Come back and visit again. Walk slowly."
It was meditative, this work, like dancing or writing. Most of all - It wasn't work. Vic Gundotra, talking to a small group of ConOps employees, said, "My father once told me: if you never want to work a day in your whole life, do what you love." I am not afraid of work, and I've always thought that if the work was really bitter that it ought to be making one hell of a difference. Nothing worth doing is all happy puppies and flowers. I've had two people send me quotes about the painfulness of trying to make a difference, and how often the daily pragmatism can beat all the hope out of you. How at the end, you sometimes measure yourself in inches of difference and not the many feet you'd hoped to gain. Or you find you have nothing to measure at all.
In those times, it is most important for me to love what I do. If it only tastes bitter, I will give up, or the work will turn me bitter, too. I must desire not just the result, but the process. To feel my muscles sing in the midst of the slog, and to thank the mud that slows me down for making me stronger.
This work is about seeing people - really, truly see them - and then being unafraid to treat them also as data points, because that's the only way to make smart decisions that matter. It is about taking risks, because when you do you walk hand-in-hand with setback and loss, but sometimes the payoff is big. I see some older conservationists overtaken by realism. They see a dying planet and their life's work lost. I know I could so easily slip and become that, and also so easily turn away from this lost cause. But I cannot - I want, and love, all of it.