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In Drum Village, people are often waiting.
People in Drum Village wait for all sorts of things: the next job, the wheat harvest, their school graduation, lunch, love, a laugh, the future.
China has experienced enormous economic growth over the past four decades, with the rising tide affecting urbanites and villages alike—albeit vastly unevenly. However, times are changing, with the nationally declared economic slowdown lapping at the door. Drum Village finds itself at cross roads: heavily reliant on coal mining and primary industry, the economy of the region is in decline.
I’m told in Drum Village that 'people in this province don’t like to go out,’ a self-understood cultural fact of the region. Instead of going out to the far-flung factories of the coastal regions, people have preferred to head out to closer places, with many men working in the small mines and smelters dotted throughout the province. In recent years, however, work in the mines has dried up.
Back at home, returned workers pick up jobs here and there, but there is not much to go around. The arid Loess Plateau offers little in the way of agricultural potential: as villagers say, the land produces ‘not enough to live, but not little enough to die.’ Out of work, but always on the lookout, returned men are often waiting.
They are not the only ones waiting in Drum Village. As the cultural life of the region transforms alongside China’s ‘economic miracle,’ expectations and aspirations have shifted too. But with the rippling effects of economic slowdown now bringing its own changes once more, desire and impotence can emerge hand in hand; resonating perhaps with Jeffrey’s (2008) argument that waiting has become a characteristic condition of contemporary inequality.
And yet, waiting does not mean that life stops flowing in Drum Village. As the glue of quotidian encounters, living is populated with all kinds of waiting: those insidious, but also those innocuous, those necessary, those enabling.
Rather than just being a negative state of existence, life is full to the brim with different waitings. Indeed, waiting is never empty: it is always an enfolded complex of activity and passivity, involving effort and alive with the potential to be otherwise (Bissell, 2007). In being active, or productive, waiting is suspended not above place, but deeply within it.
Waiting need not feel like anything in particular. People wait defiantly, distractedly, delightedly, destructively, indifferently. As a duration characterised by a minor vigilance for what’s coming, waiting need not manifest as a colonizing stillness or an arresting immobility. It might instead be felt as a background hum: an atmospheric whir of something being afoot. Even as we wait, there is much going in, much to do.
Waiting is not just an immobile interstice in a wider migrant journey: even formerly-mobile Drum Villagers are not just waiting to leave or become mobile again (c.f. Hyndman and Giles, 2011; Mountz, 2011; Schapendonk and Steel, 2014). But, neither are they necessarily looking to stay either. For Gray (2011), rationalizations of waiting form part of becoming a ‘staying subject’ rather than a migrant one; yet, in Drum Village, acts of waiting, or staying, don’t really congeal into any stable kind of subject with which to identify. Rather than a desire to be mobile, for these mobile villagers, waiting more closely tracks the movements of desire itself, in which uncertain rhythms of mobility become differently folded through (Collins, 2017).
In giving oneself over to the expectation or hope of arrival, waiting rests in a faith in the emergence of the other. More than just being imbricated within living, waiting is testimony to the act of living together. “As an event of the unwilled” (Bissell, 2007: 287), waiting is a mark of the social: an orientation to that which we cannot control, evidence of our corporeal vulnerability (Harrison, 2008).
Despite this exposure, waiting need not be a trapping bind: it can also be profoundly enabling, opening a path on to the difference of the waited-upon somethings that waiting offers. It is an essential moment of the everyday, a practice which greases the wheels to make things happen.
Oriented to the arrival of a less-than-certain-future-other there is also be something of optimism in waiting. This optimism can sometimes be paradoxical: it evokes a hopeful attachment to the future, but in doing so might also betray that this desired world might never come (Berlant, 2011).
But, then, desires are also always evolving, always open to transformation. Rather than a deadening, waiting might be a practice in which new cravings, capacities and actions might begin to emerge, as an active site of potential. Perhaps, at the intersection of waiting, desire and impotence, a new space can open: one which might accrue and expand to become that something worth waiting for.
One way or another, people in Drum Village are often waiting.