The Zhang family, holding packaging designed by us (2018)
The Zhang R. Family
Twenty years ago, there was a village in the mountains called Xiaohusai. There was no running water; there was no electricity. The nearest school was 3 hours away on foot. In the village lived two children: Zhang Ruihong and Wang Yilan. They would climb mountains and build tire swings on trees, and play house with their friends while trying to avoid the poisonous snakes that often hid amongst the grass.
The Zhangs' kitchen exterior and tea roaster.
Fast-forward twenty years: today, Xiaohusai has electricity and running water, and Zhang Ruihong and Wang Yilan are in their late twenties with two children. They've never thought about leaving the village. “We’ve thought about going on vacation,” Yilan says thoughtfully. “To Dali, maybe.” The destination in question is a nearby city, only a little over an hour away by maglev.
Things were a lot harder back in their childhood. The only way out of their secluded village was by foot. “It’s a bit better these days,” Ruihong tells us, “because we have cars and motorcycles now. Our parents used to walk down the mountain for hours, carrying huge bags of tea on their backs."
Good food was scarce and expensive as well. When Yilan’s parents went to town, they’d sometimes bring back oranges for her and her siblings. “I’d even eat the orange peels because I didn’t want to waste anything,” she laughs. She takes out her dusty Huawei phone, “Do you guys by any chance know a song called Diamonds?”
We continue chatting with her along with the tunes of Rihanna’s Diamonds blasting, as Yilan hums along lightheartedly. “I don’t know what the words mean, though." She shrugs with a laugh.
Zhang Ruihong and Wang Yilan (left/middle), 2017
“We must’ve gotten smartphones around... 3 years ago,” Yilan says. She quickly urges us to add her on WeChat. “Running water came just last year, actually. Our water pipes used to just be bamboo sticks, so running water was really unreliable."
"Oh!” She suddenly cries delightedly, as if remembering something wonderful. “And electricity! These lights... they’re like magic. I never want to turn them off.”
Yet a wistful look remains on Ruihong’s face. He says, “Our daughter has been having a lot of health problems lately, though. She’s constantly in and out of the hospital. And Yilan has been complaining about migraines for a while now.”
“I’m okay,” Yilan protests at this, “We don’t have the money to spare right now.”
Interviewing the Zhangs at their house, 2017
A few days later, we visit Ruihong and Yilan’s daughter, Zhang Shunyuan, in her school on the small town a few hours away. She says, “I want to become a doctor when I grow up, so my mom’s head will stop hurting and she will smile more."
“I wish I could visit Shanghai one day,” she continues. “I wish I could visit America.”
The Zhangs have a large debt to pay off, as they still have tens of kilograms of unsold tea sitting in their warehouse. To help lighten their economic burden, we have been awarding a need-based scholarship to Zhang Shunyuan since 2016. In 2020, she will be entering high school.