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This semester, I am enrolled in a course on Economics and Religion, with special focus on capitalism in Asia and its impact on Islam in Indonesia/Malaysia, Buddhism in Thailand and China, and Catholicism in the Philippines. One of the class discussions we had involved the story of the Apple Factory workers in China, which appeared recently in the New York Times.

We debated the story with the type of helpless resignation that comes up in class discussions involving topics happening right now which are beyond our control to stop or influence* in any way.

One of the consensuses a group of people in the class (who are, like me, Asian Studies majors) reached was that while the circumstances were tragic, it was still probably more beneficial for the workers to have jobs in the city in an industrial sect which gave them a salary and benefits which could help them support family members back in the country**, rather than doing labour on a farm, and understandable why they would seek the jobs in the Apple factory.

At this point, one girl in the class, who is not an Asian Studies major*** spoke up in opposition to this idea, saying that farming was better for them than working in the factory. When pressed by me and another student to elaborate, she said that farming was simply “better” for the soul and body than being “cramped in a factory”, and that they wouldn’t need such health benefits if they were out on a farm.

Not willing to let that go, I said that farming in China wasn’t something which was free of health hazards; there’s exposure to a variety of pesticides, backbreaking labour, accidents with big machinery, and the pay is an absolute pittance, even compared to what the factory workers make. She smiled in a vaguely vacant fashion, and then burbled, “Oh… I was thinking it would be more like the organic farming co-op my friends and I do in the summer on Salt Spring Island.”

Romantic notions of farming as being some sort of “pure” work which is spiritually and emotionally enduring compared to city life has transformed into an entire cottage industry, appealing to city dwellers’ romantic notions of farming; there’s even an entry called Picking Their Own Fruit on Stuff White People Like**** which points a joking finger at the entire archetype of the romantic farmer:

So when white people think about growing their own food they are reminded of pastoral images of farming, working the land, and growing whole natural foods for their family.

This isn’t unique to 21st century yuppie culture though, read some Horace and you’ll see that the city slicker’s romantic and out-of-touch dream of the farmer or shepherd goes back all the way to the Roman Empire. I spent an entire semester reading poetry in Latin and Greek which evoked this, with settings among sheep and veggies,  leaving me with a bad taste for both mutton and lyrical poetry.

It persists in today’s cultural mythology, and as a young, educated person dead centre in its demographic target, some of it’s appealed to my sensibilities: I plan on growing a window box of herbs in the spring to use in my cooking, I’ve read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Jennifer McLagan’s books on cooking with butcher cuts, and try to support farmer’s markets and Vancouver Island growers, grocers, and gardeners with my money whenever feasible.

I am not all that outraged that it’s becoming trendy to be aware of where your food is coming from and bridging the gap between farmer and consumer, in fact, it delights me as a foodie. But I am chagrined that this interest in where our food comes from has yet to translate into an understanding that while farming can indeed be rewarding work, it’s highly difficult work under almost all circumstances, and isn’t universally satisfying. The farmer rural China would probably be dumbfounded to learn that someone would consider his life romantic or appealing, when he’s struggling to coax up enough of a crop to ensure financial security for his family, and may not succeed.

That doesn’t mean we should pity him, or that it should be our imperative to go to China and see what we can do to save the farmer from his own lifestyle, but we should consider that romance and ignorance contribute to an incomplete picture of other people living in other cultures and lifestyles, which we should try to dispel, not contribute towards in any fashion. It would appear that people who romanticise life in “the East”, or who wish to get “back in touch with nature” misunderstand nature and “the East” more than any other group.

* One way to somewhat absolve it is to buy secondhand electronics, but that’s an imperfect solution, naturally.

** Last year I did a mini research project on female garment workers in Cambodia who sent money to their families and Tongan/Samoan workers in Hawaii who sent money they made back to “the old country”, so I’m quasi-familiar with the topic in other contexts.

*** Maybe I’m letting my personal prejudices colour my interpretation of her, but she doesn’t appear to know anything about Asia at all.

**** If you’re going to be contentious about that site’s content, name, or stereotyping about white culture, do it elsewhere. This is neither the time nor the place.