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China’s urban refugees: Leaving pollution, city life behind

Rob Schmitz Mar 27, 2013

China’s urban refugees: Leaving pollution, city life behind

Rob Schmitz Mar 27, 2013

After she graduated from a top Beijing college, Jia Liming began working as a government official for China’s National Sports Bureau. It had great pay, fantastic benefits, an easy workload, a prized job in the booming capital city. She was living the Chinese dream.

But it wasn’t her dream.

“I felt lost in the big city because I didn’t know what was the purpose of life and I felt confused and I felt depression sometimes,” Jia says. “It felt so boring. The job was boring. Life was boring. Everything was boring.”

So Jia quit her job, said goodbye to her friends, and moved 2,000 miles west.

These days, geese and ducks splashing in a frigid mountain lake wake Jia up each morning. She has breakfast, then she hikes for half an hour along a Himalayan mountain trail to work. She passes by crimson-robed monks chanting morning prayers at the local Buddhist monastery before arriving to the boutique hotel she manages here in a Tibetan part of Western China.

Jia’s not earning as much as her friends in Beijing, but she says she’s at peace. Her friends think she’s a little crazy.

“All my classmates, the majority live in Beijing and the quality of life is very bad actually,” says Jia. “They have to spend money somewhere else to take a vacation or whatever, so happiness becomes ‘somewhere else.’ I live in that ‘somewhere else’.”

More and more people are flooding into China’s cities. They’re part of a government urbanization campaign created, in part, to boost China’s consumer class. Gary Sigley is an Asian studies professor at the University of Western Australia who is studying this phenomenon. He says the scale of urbanization can be jarring for some.

‘While they’re shopping, they can catch glimpses on the tourist advertisements of these more exotic places and imagine there’s a place outside the city which is a good place to live,” says Sigley.

Escaping urban China has even become fashionable. Some who have gone off the beaten path have become minor celebrities. Last month, a couple blogged about quitting their jobs in Beijing for a life in the mountains. The post was forwarded tens of thousands of times, attracting national media coverage.

“All we want is fresh air and safe, natural food,” the couple wrote.

In a cobblestone alleyway in the Western Chinese town of Dali, a group of urban transplants sit at a table, sharing a bottle of wine. It’s 10 in the morning. The sun has just come up behind the steep mountains that surround the town. They’re reflected in the turquoise waters of an alpine lake, below. Xu Yan and her husband quit their jobs in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou to start a wine shop here.

“We’ve met more friends here in a year and a half than we did in our fourteen years in the city,” says Xu,  “The people are more interesting here. They’re journalists, writers, artists, creative types. We talk about our dreams and how life should be lived. That’s the last topic urban dwellers in China want to talk about.”

Xu’s friend Zhang Fangtian isn’t drinking wine today. He telecommutes here, working as a career counselor. His first client was himself. He’s from a big city outside Beijing, where he says he was miserable as a manager at one of China’s largest state-owned telecommunications firms.

“I was constantly sick because of all the banquets I had to attend,” says Zhang, “I was drunk my first day as manager! On paper, it was a good job: I owned company shares, medical insurance, a pension fund. But I gave that all up for a healthier life.”

Zhang and his wife lived in Beijing when their daughter was born. He says the horrendous water and air pollution there was the final straw.

“We were really worried about the pollution’s impact on our baby,” says Zhang, “Right before we left, we took our daughter to the doctor for tests. Because of all the pollution, she had five times the permissible amount of lead in her blood. We were terrified.”

At a quiet bookstore down the alley, Pang Yi Ou shoos her cat out of the way so he customers can drink some coffee. Pang, her husband, her mother, and her daughter arrived a year ago from the Eastern city of Nanjing. Within days of arriving to the mountains, her mother’s asthma vanished. They don’t earn much from the bookstore, but then again, Pang says, they’re hardly paying anything in rent.

“My friends told me I was so brave for giving up what I had in the city,” remembers Pang. “I think most of my friends are different from me. They don’t think it’s wise to pick up and move to the place of your dreams until you’ve saved money. -maybe after you’re 40.”

Pang shakes her head. She doesn’t understand that. Life is too short to wait, she says. And in China, city life, with all its pollution, stress, and expectations, can be shorter still.

To see how bad the air pollution in Beijing is in comparison to cities in the U.S., check our smog simulator here.

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