This piece evolved from various conversations with fellow urban dwellers, and through my musings as I live the city life. There seems to be on one hand a nostalgia for the olden days where (it seems) things were simpler and the community spirit was stronger, and on the other, a mindset that urbanization is better and natural for human progress. How do we make sense of these two disparate thoughts? I share my take on this not as a social scientist but as a millennial that has only known the city life.
First I question a taken for granted equation:
City VS Rural = Developed VS Less developed
Many questions to our implicit acknowledgement of this equation in everyday living and value judgments arise: What does development look like? Are cities the pinnacle of human development? What does rural mean anyway?
Aside: I LOLed at this definition of rural from the US Census– “The Census does not define “rural.” They consider “rural” to include all people, housing, and territory that are not within an urban area. Any area that is not urban is rural.” *I qualify that I equated urban to city here. Both terms have definitions with different nuances which I will avoid for the sake of brevity.
It appears that polities and the people that compose them are, whether consciously or not, seeking to move away from the rural towards the urban. And yet, there is the desire to preserve a rural corner that one can retreat to, to refresh the soul. (Think farm stays and our delight in paddy fields/village life that reflect the ‘old way of life’ when travelling overseas)
Rural life can be associated with nostalgic longings. A commentary on the kampung spirit (value of care and community) cuts through this. The author writes, “much as I have a passion for people to cultivate and develop a kampung spirit, I would never suggest that we return to those impoverished days… We should not regress to those days of poor sanitation, poor housing and poverty. But we can cherry-pick that gracious way of living, community concern and incorporate it into our modern lives.” I agree with the author that it is naïve to hark back to the past. Can there be a ‘rural’ way of life in our modern worlds? Perhaps we should be more reflexive about how we live and move and have our being, within the city we find ourselves in.
Firstly, I observe that modern people are caught up in a frenzy state of “progress”. “Progress” being the means to afford a decent (or more than decent) abode, to marry and set up a family, to pay for the children’s enrichment activities, WHILE enjoying the pleasures of life like hobbies/food, etc. All the while there is underlying anxiety and/or angst about whether one can thrive in this modern world characterised by flux. The 996 work culture is a reality for many, not just in China.
A poignant conversation I had with a batchmate more than a year ago stayed with me: We were discussing our future after the PhD. Both of wanted to escape the competitive life of academia. The discussion moved to this 996 culture. She said, “The competition in China is too intense because we have such a big population. It is difficult to speak up against these working hours because the employer can easily find someone else to replace you.” To which I could only reply, “人在江湖，身不由己” (when one is in society, many things are beyond one’s control). But we also dreamed aloud: Do we really have to follow this culture in order to survive?
I sense that answers to this question depend on your social position too. The very fact that I am discussing this question on a blog post is telling- I can afford to explore opportunities to escape a brutal working life. What of the many food delivery workers or sole income earners that have little choice but to hustle like this just to survive?
My conclusion in this matter is that this aspect of city life is not development at all. The widening social inequality and general acquiescence of this as an inevitable collateral of progress is a great evil.
Secondly, it is a fact that the rural way of life where agriculture is the primary industry, is hard. Back-breaking labor, even if there are machines to help now. I wonder if that necessary means that this is a ‘less developed’ way of life? While being careful not to fall into the trap of romantic nostalgia about this lifestyle, I think there can be much to learn from people who are content with this lifestyle. There tends to be a more intimate relationship with nature and a more humble view of man. A natural understanding that we need to look out for each other. A more contented state of being with one’s possessions and wealth. In this aspect, modern man has regressed and the city is less developed.
Thinking about what models of living have both the modern technologies and the kampung spirit brought up the ‘intentional communities’ or communes that are popular in the UK. Found out from The Guardian that there is an intensified interest in communal living in recent times, with people seeking to have a better relationship with nature amongst other things. In Singapore, there is also a growing freegan community to minimize on the capitalistic consumerism and focus on more important intangibles like relationship I wonder if this can be “scaled-up”- can cities be formed from these ‘intentional communities’?
Of course, there are no easy answers to my questions. Putting this out is firstly for me to reflect on my way of life, and then hopefully encouraging you, Reader, to do so as well. As city life take generations of people to develop the norms and value systems, so also with whatever new vision for life- one idea, one action, one family, one community at a time.