If you haven’t heard of the Three Rivers Dam in China, stop reading this blog right now and go look it up. I would guess that it has changed the lives of more human beings on this planet than any other human endeavour (other than war) since…what, the Roman Empire? Perhaps. Most of those human beings are Chinese, which means, sadly, that most Americans know next to nothing about them. (Quick: name five cities in Europe. Now name five cities in China. And they’re bigger cities; too: China is roughly the size of Europe, but has almost twice the population.) “Up the Yangtze” is about this colossal change that has come to China, but it’s also about Westernization, and colonization, and modernization, and probably some other -izations, too. Last but not least, it’s about two youngsters employed on a cruise ship cashing in on the nostalgia generated by the disappearing “old china” — disappearing underneath the rising Yangstze river west of that big dam.
The boy is arrogant, aggressive, and proud of his ability to garner tips. His family comes from the city, and he’s pretty proud to say that he makes more money than his father or mother. You can’t really blame him for his arrogance: he might be sixteen years old. The girl is timid, shy, and shocked; she comes from a peasant family, her father and mother illiterate. They farm along the River, but foresee their farm disappearing under the water. They send her to the ship to make some money for the family, but also to learn how to survive in a rapidly changing world – to learn English, city customs, and Western culture.
A lot of conflicting feelings and sentiments poured through me as I watched “Up the Yangstze.” Often I was reminded of my students, coming from the rural, agrarian reservations and trying to learn to adapt to a different culture and lifestyle while maintaining a sense of their identity and connection to their families. It’s a lot to ask of a kid. The tourists on the river are mostly white, and just seem so idiotic. And yet without them and their extravagant tips, where would these kids be? What jobs would they turn to? They are Westernized, taught to speak English, reminded never to bring up politics and religion, and to not smile too much. This is how you make the money, this is how you keep the job. There are no easy answers. There are lots of problems, heartaches, challenges, messes, and gordian knots. This is the world we live in.