Yesterday afternoon we had the chance to meet Matt, an American from Washington state spending two years in Bangdong as part of the ICWA (institute of current world affairs) program. Meeting Matt was perhaps the most anticipated event of the afternoon. We were all wondering the same thing: why would an American voluntarily live in a rural farming community of less than 100 people when the nearest grocery, pharmacy, and hospital are more than four hours away on unpaved dirt roads.
Seeing Matt in Western clothing and observing his rustic cabin compared to the molded layers of concrete we had been accustomed was nothing short of surprising. It seemed that Chinese culture had not fully taken over Matt’s lifestyle. His breakfasts consisted of pancakes, French toast, and oatmeal (all western foods), and his living space was full of guitars, accordions, and keyboards (all of which he was very proficient at). Listening to Matt’s life story and how we went from a career deeply invested in Spanish studies to one of International Business and Mandarin was very interesting and taught us that your life’s path never needs to be set in stone for it always will be ever-changing.
For Matt, it all started when a priest from Taiwan came to his church back home and talked to him about an opportunity to teach English to underprivileged kids in Taipei. Skeptical at first, Matt took a leap and made the jump. After spending time in Taiwan he longed for an adventure to mainland China to discover a whole new culture. With prior success in teaching, Matt wanted to share his love of China with others. He applied to various programs such as Dragons where he led a semester abroad program in Yunnan province with five courageous college students.
Living in China for 13 years allowed Matt to help fill us in on how communism and President Xi have positively influenced the lives of rural farmers. He elaborated on the efforts taken by Xi to eliminate extreme poverty in China by 2020 through provisions of subsidies and resources to rural families (where 40% of the country’s population live). These economic measures have connected families and allowed rural towns to upgrade infrastructure and connect with metropolitan areas more efficiently. For example, the town of Bangdong has upgraded numerous mud paths to paved roads during the past year and the province of Yunnan has invested in high speed rail that travels at 200 kph (which we took from Kunming to Dali) and helps cut travel times in half. China’s accomplishments over the past decade have shown it’s rise in economic power and rightful placement as a powerful nation on the global scale.
Currently, Matt is in the process of writing a book about his incomparable life story of being just a small town boy in Spokane, Washington to his current self in Bangdong, Yunnan. When asked if he plans to leave Bangdong after his program ends in six months, he replied with “I’m not sure yet, we’ll see when it’s time” and without hesitating he called on the next raised hand. The thing we admire most about Matt is his ability to stay calm, collective, and chill even if he doesn’t know the next step in his life story. Building the courage to live and adapt to a new way of life is inspiring.
Nathan Leibowitz and Dana Yesson