Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dying Alone

Behold the fate of ordinary people in the globalized economy's "winner":
For many in China isolation is a new experience brought on by economic transformation. From the 1950s to 1970s people were allocated to factory units for life by the Party authorities. Megaphones blared propaganda continuously. Workers had to sing Maoist songs, wear uniforms and participate in daily group exercises. Party officials were everywhere and permission was needed for everything, including getting married or moving house.

But there was an upside. The residents were promised a job for life, a free school and clinic. The intention was they stayed in one place all their lives, though the Cultural Revolution threw that into turbulence. Over time living side-by-side turned neighbours into families and families became communities, however hard their lives.

Since the 1990s the factories have been closed and demolished. Farmers' land near cities is being sold for development into high-rise flats. One ex-farmer in Chongqing whose land had been confiscated told me: "My land being expropriated [changed my life. I wish] to have my own land and to live my life as a peasant farmer." Another was worried about where he would live now that his land had gone: "[My greatest worry] is having no place to live. [I wish] to have more living places built for the peasant workers." Another said: "[I wish] the urban residents who have just changed from rural residents could all get employed."

In fact, longstanding residents are evicted from their homes and given a small flat and minimal financial compensation in the least desirable accommodation. Either there is no public space or it is far away and soulless. Employment prospects for ex-farmers are poor or non-existent. There is nothing to do except stay indoors, watch TV or gamble on the stock market - now, some believe, approaching a national obsession.

Millions of mostly young people have moved to the east coast to work in factories and live itinerant and restricted lives. The hours are long and the work is repetitive. The workers, many young women, live in dormitories and are corralled with other people from their region under the watchful eye of an overseer from the same part of the country. They work hard, save assiduously, send money home and if they lose their job, they often don't go back, because they cannot face the shame of returning home unemployed and no longer supporting their families. Some, in desperation, are driven to prostitution to maintain their remittances home. Sex can be bought for less than £1 ($1.60) under a bridge or flyover in Sichuan. Suicide rates are so high in some of these factories that the owners have put nets around them to break the fall of people jumping out of windows.
Back home the parents of these "factory girls" are left alone to grow old without the care of their children - breaking a long Confucian tradition of caring for elders.
As one man in Chongqing told me: "I'm a lonely old fellow. I have had good service for the elderly [from social workers]. I hope this service will carry on." This old man was facing a fate unknown in China until recently, but all too familiar in the West. "I hope the old people's home can be built quickly," he said.
In many villages there are no young adults, just old people and a few of their grandchildren sent back to the countryside. Old people without family support and few financial resources have to fall back on social workers. The one child policy has made children lonely too. Without siblings for company or rivalry, all their parents' and grandparents' expectations rest on their young shoulders, bringing untold anxiety and pressure. As one 11-year-old boy told me: "I'm worried in the future I will not be a good student and I will disappoint my parents. I hope I can go to university and make a positive contribution to my homeland." Play and the pleasures of childhood are hard to fit in around homework. One girl told me: "I have little time to get rest because I need to study hard every day and to learn singing… I wish to be a very good student and to become an artist when I grow up."
The old restricted, hierarchical, multi-generational families built on Mao's authoritarian utopianism and an older tradition of Confucian values have been replaced by isolated and impoverished old people, listless ex-farmers, hard-pressed factory girls and children trying to cope alone with extreme educational pressure and unrealistic family expectations.
Loneliness, ineradicable and irreversible, coupled with anxiety about the unpredictability of the future, could become pervasive across all generations in China.
Viewpoint: Fear and loneliness in China (BBC)

Contrast this with the "poor" Greek island of Ikaria, recently profiled in a popular New York Times article on longevity:
 Although unemployment is high — perhaps as high as 40 percent — most everyone has access to a family garden and livestock, Parikos told me. People who work might have several jobs. Someone involved in tourism, for example, might also be a painter or an electrician or have a store. “People are fine here because we are very self-sufficient,” she said. “We may not have money for luxuries, but we will have food on the table and still have fun with family and friends. We may not be in a hurry to get work done during the day, so we work into the night. At the end of the day, we don’t go home to sit on the couch.”

Parikos was nursing a mug of coffee. Sunlight sifted in through the window shades; the waves of the nearby Aegean could be barely heard over the din of breakfast. “Do you know there’s no word in Greek for privacy?” she declared. “When everyone knows everyone else’s business, you get a feeling of connection and security. The lack of privacy is actually good, because it puts a check on people who don’t want to be caught or who do something to embarrass their family. If your kids misbehave, your neighbor has no problem disciplining them. There is less crime, not because of good policing, but because of the risk of shaming the family. You asked me about food, and yes, we do eat better here than in America. But it’s more about how we eat. Even if it’s your lunch break from work, you relax and enjoy your meal. You enjoy the company of whoever you are with. Food here is always enjoyed in combination with conversation.”

In the United States, when it comes to improving health, people tend to focus on exercise and what we put into our mouths — organic foods, omega-3’s, micronutrients. We spend nearly $30 billion a year on vitamins and supplements alone. Yet in Ikaria and the other places like it, diet only partly explained higher life expectancy. Exercise — at least the way we think of it, as willful, dutiful, physical activity — played a small role at best.

Social structure might turn out to be more important. In Sardinia, a cultural attitude that celebrated the elderly kept them engaged in the community and in extended-family homes until they were in their 100s. Studies have linked early retirement among some workers in industrialized economies to reduced life expectancy. In Okinawa, there’s none of this artificial punctuation of life. Instead, the notion of ikigai — “the reason for which you wake up in the morning” — suffuses people’s entire adult lives. It gets centenarians out of bed and out of the easy chair to teach karate, or to guide the village spiritually, or to pass down traditions to children. The Nicoyans in Costa Rica use the term plan de vida to describe a lifelong sense of purpose. As Dr. Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging, once told me, being able to define your life meaning adds to your life expectancy.

 Ask the very old on Ikaria how they managed to live past 90, and they’ll usually talk about the clean air and the wine. Or, as one 101-year-old woman put it to me with a shrug, “We just forget to die.” The reality is they have no idea how they got to be so old. And neither do we. To answer that question would require carefully tracking the lifestyles of a study group and a control group for an entire human lifetime (and then some). We do know from reliable data that people on Ikaria are outliving those on surrounding islands (a control group, of sorts). Samos, for instance, is just eight miles away. People there with the same genetic background eat yogurt, drink wine, breathe the same air, fish from the same sea as their neighbors on Ikaria. But people on Samos tend to live no longer than average Greeks. This is what makes the Ikarian formula so tantalizing.

If you pay careful attention to the way Ikarians have lived their lives, it appears that a dozen subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work. It’s easy to get enough rest if no one else wakes up early and the village goes dead during afternoon naptime. It helps that the cheapest, most accessible foods are also the most healthful — and that your ancestors have spent centuries developing ways to make them taste good. It’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills. You’re not likely to ever feel the existential pain of not belonging or even the simple stress of arriving late. Your community makes sure you’ll always have something to eat, but peer pressure will get you to contribute something too. You’re going to grow a garden, because that’s what your parents did, and that’s what your neighbors are doing. You’re less likely to be a victim of crime because everyone at once is a busybody and feels as if he’s being watched. At day’s end, you’ll share a cup of the seasonal herbal tea with your neighbor because that’s what he’s serving. Several glasses of wine may follow the tea, but you’ll drink them in the company of good friends. On Sunday, you’ll attend church, and you’ll fast before Orthodox feast days. Even if you’re antisocial, you’ll never be entirely alone. Your neighbors will cajole you out of your house for the village festival to eat your portion of goat meat. 
The Island Where People Forget To Die (New York Times)

UPDATE: It's not just China, this is from "wealthy" Japan earlier this year:
The discovery of three bodies that lay unnoticed for up to two months in an apartment in Japan has raised concern over so-called "lonely deaths".

The three people, believed to be from the same family, were discovered on Tuesday in Saitama, north of Tokyo. Electricity and gas to the house had been cut off, there was no food in the house and just a few one-yen coins. Despite being the world's third richest country, Japan has seen a number of similar cases in recent years. Such deaths are referred to as "kodokushi" - lonely deaths.

Our correspondent says the case has prompted soul-searching in one of the most affluent societies on earth about whether the needy are falling through gaps in the welfare system. Increasing numbers of poverty stricken elderly people are dying lonely and unnoticed deaths in Japan. Last month two sisters in their forties were found dead in their freezing apartment on the snowbound northern island of Hokkaido. In 2010 the authorities discovered that Tokyo's oldest man had actually been dead for some 30 years, which in turn triggered a hunt for "missing" centenarians around the country.
Japanese authorities concerned about 'lonely deaths' (BBC)

And about that Korean economic miracle:
Once a byword for hyper-exploited sweatshop labour, churning out cheap transistor radios and trainers, the country now possesses the only thing that stands between iPhone and world domination (the Samsung Galaxy). It is also a world leader in industries such as shipbuilding, steel and automobiles.

The country is, per capita, the third most innovative in the world, after Japan and Taiwan, when measured by the number of patents granted by the US patent office. It has one of the world's highest university enrolment ratios, and schoolchildren who rank in the top five in virtually all standardised international tests.

So, when things seem to be going so swimmingly, why are Koreans clamouring for big changes in the run-up to the general election next week? Because they are desperately unhappy.

According to a recent World Values Survey, Koreans are the second unhappiest people (after Hungary) among the citizens of the 32 OECD countries studied. Worse, its children are the unhappiest in the rich world, according to a survey of 23 OECD countries done by Yonsei University in Seoul. In 2009 the country topped the international league table for suicides, with 28.4 suicides per 100,000 people. Japan was a distant second with 19.7. But Koreans never used to be this unhappy. Until 1995 its suicide rate was, at about 10 per 100,000 people, just below the OECD average. Since then it has almost tripled.  
South Korea's Economic Reforms--A Recipe For Unhappiness. Ha-Joon Chang, The Guardian

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.