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2 Brothers In Rural China Beat The Odds; Practice Law In Shanghai


Returning this morning again to my colleague, Frank Langfitt, NPR's Shanghai correspondent. We're going to talk more about the latest episode in his series "Streets Of Shanghai." This is when Frank offers to drive people around town in China to hear their stories. Yesterday, Frank told us about a recent road trip he took. He drove two guys back to their family homes in central China for the Chinese New Year. Frank is on the line with us from Shanghai. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Good morning to you. So your journey continues this morning. Tell us where we're going.

LANGFITT: Well, both of these guys are heading home to get married, which is quite common this time of year. And today, we're going to go deep into the countryside to attend the wedding of one of the passengers. His name is Rocky. He's a 30-year-old lawyer here in Shanghai.

GREENE: I know asked you about this yesterday. The name Rocky sort of surprises me in China.

LANGFITT: Well, as we were talking about yesterday, David, many educated Chinese choose English names. And this Rocky, he took his name from Rocky Balboa, the fictional boxer from my hometown, Philadelphia. It's quite appropriate. Both Rockys were real long-shots. Our Rocky, the lawyer, he's the son of poor farmers. Many farmers' kids do end up in factories on the coast, but it's a lot harder for someone like our Rocky to actually make it to a Shanghai law firm. We begin our story on Rocky's wedding day.

I'm driving some wedding guests in my rented Buick van. And up ahead, Rocky and his college sweetheart - her name is Xiao Piao - they're standing halfway out of the sunroof of a black sedan. And they're racing passed these terrace rice fields. Rocky's older brother, Ray - he's also a Shanghai lawyer - he's driving. It was this great image.

You get an incredible sense of how far Rocky and his brother have come from this small village. We're just - we're driving in here now. They're in a BMW. And they've just driven past a woman, an old woman, who has a bamboo pole on her shoulders. And she has two wicker baskets on either side.



LANGFITT: The couple arrives to a hero's welcome. A handful of farmers are blasting away on trombones, trumpets and a French horn.



LANGFITT: Rocky's parents live in two-story, ocher-colored farmhouse. They cook by wood fire, still have an outhouse. And earlier in the car, I asked Rocky how he made the leap from here to Shanghai. His fiance, Xiao Piao, offered this.

XIAO PIAO: (Speaking Chinese).

LANGFITT: "The entire village thinks his family sits on good land, good feng shui," she says, referring to the house's location vis-a-vis the natural environment. Rocky politely disagrees.

ROCKY: (Through interpreter) Everyone's fate, career and job are the result of one's struggle. They don't fall from the sky. It has nothing to do with feng shui. If I didn't take the bar and sat around at home, what use would good feng shui have been?

LANGFITT: You know, to understand the brothers' journey and what it means, you've got to meet their mom, Guo. She's 58. She's a spark plug with copper-colored hair.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

GUO: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: When I first arrived in the village, she greeted me with this.

GUO: (Through interpreter) My and my husband's tombs are all completed. Want to take a look?

LANGFITT: I mean, how could I say no? So we stroll over to a pair of tombs built into the hillside. She says, according to village custom, kids are supposed to build their parents tombs. But Guo and her husband did it themselves because their boys are really, really busy back to the East in Shanghai. Now, the couple are subsistence farmers. They grow rice, carrots, cabbage and turnips. And to pay for the boys' education, Guo opened a series of businesses.

GUO: (Through interpreter) I first ran a fruit stand. Then, I sold vegetables. After that, I opened a small shop selling special funeral clothes for the dead. In America, I'm sure you don't have this sort of business.

LANGFITT: When her son Ray had a daughter, Guo moved to Shanghai to take care of her. And at first, she was really lonely and miserable, in part because she couldn't even communicate with people there.

GUO: (Through interpreter) I couldn't speak standard Chinese. I started learning Mandarin after I went to Shanghai.

LANGFITT: She only spoke her village dialect, which is incomprehensible outside her province - the reason? Guo was forced out of school after second grade. More on that - it's important - later. But first, the wedding.


LANGFITT: The couple climbs a muddy hillside to Rocky's house. The fireworks seem more like artillery barrage than celebration.


LANGFITT: Xiao Piao tries to protect two small girls who are cowering from colored papers falling from the sky. Inside the house, the couple bow to their parents, who sit at a table beneath a framed poster of Mao, to this day, still a fixture in many farmhouses.


UNIDENTIFIED GUESTS: (Chatting excitedly in foreign language).

LANGFITT: After the ceremony, Rocky's friends grab his arms and legs and throw him onto the bed where he and his wife will spend the night.


LANGFITT: Rocky's many aunts have formed a village dance troupe and have been practicing six months for this moment. In the courtyard of the farmhouse, they do a series of dances that, to Western eyes, look a lot like country line dancing.


LANGFITT: Soon, more villagers arrive, and not to see the couple - actually, to meet the first foreigner to ever visit the village, which would be me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Chinese).

LANGFITT: One of the things when you come to the countryside in China, you can still find villages where nobody's ever really met or seen or talked to a foreigner before. And that means you end up spending a fair bit of your time posing for photographs, pretty much with everybody who's never met a foreigner.

Altogether, I posed with more than 30 villagers. That in 2015 so many people here still had never met a foreigner just shows you how big the chasm still is between China's countryside and megacities like Shanghai. It's also a reminder of how far these two brothers have come. Rocky's brother, Ray, credits his parents' hard work and expansion of university education in China. It gave them a springboard to these white-collar careers. Not, Ray says, that it was easy.

RAY: (Through interpreter) The year I passed the bar, the pass rate was about 8 percent. I probably spent three months preparing, studying 10 hours a day.

LANGFITT: You know, Ray's experience couldn't be more different than his mom's. Nearly half-a-century earlier, she's forced out of the classroom. This is because the Communist Party had labeled her dad a rich peasant. This was during the cultural evolution when Mao waged war on the bourgeoisie. He saw them as a threat to his revolution. Rocky and Ray's mom remembers.

GUO: (Through interpreter) They said my family's political background was no good, so many kids didn't play with me. All of the kids bullied me. When I was little, my life was really pitiful.

LANGFITT: Her village was so isolated, Guo didn't have much hope for her boys.

GUO: (Through interpreter) I always thought that my kids wouldn't be able to find wives. Look at this place. Why would anyone want to come and join our family?

LANGFITT: By now, most of the guests have gone home. The house is quiet. And Guo considers her sons' journey.

GUO: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: "My kids have made it," she says. "I'm happy. I never imagined a day like today." So in the end, David, she succeeded.

GREENE: Wow, she sure did, Frank, and seems to be celebrating much more than a wedding there. Well, we've been hearing from my colleague, NPR's Frank Langfitt, and his series, "Streets Of Shanghai," when he drives people in China around the city, in this case, into rural China. And, Frank, I know we'll be hearing much more from you tomorrow, right?

LANGFITT: Looking forward to it, David.

GREENE: Thanks, Frank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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