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CHINA IS NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE

Popularity 10Viewed 6199 times 2014-3-2 20:02 |System category:Life

I don't know if I'm just cantankerous through getting older, but I had way more fun and rode more emotional roller coasters when I first came to China twenty years ago.  I experienced more fear, shock, exhilaration, adventure, hilarity, frustration, outrage and simple pleasure than I do now.  I worked for 1100 RMB per month, threw my bones, peanut shells and food scraps on the floor with everyone else, choked on cigarette smoke, ate whatever I was served and rarely got sick, and saw more of China by train and bus than I ever do now.  I've lost my own spirit of adventure and am cursed with a feeling of "I've seen it all before and now everyone else has too."  I can only be glad that I saw China in the early nineties and continue to envy those who came in the seventies or even a hundred years ago.  

China has changed in front of my eyes.  I told everyone I was coming to China to see the three gorges before they got flooded, and I did.  I saw the towering cliffs from the bottom deck of a cheap boat at midnight, with the full moon aimed directly on the river setting the current glittering as I held my breath and peed in the choking toilet, overwhelmed by the beauty (not the toilet, of course, the moon, the shining water and the cliffs.)  Now I hear the three gorges dam is considered a failure anyway. It doesn't divert much-needed water to the Huang He in the north nor does it mitigate floods on the Yangzi.  I'm not sure of that, but I found much more than I ever bargained for when I came to Guangzhou and then Harbin to teach English and I knew the rest of my life would be connected with China.  The other reason for selecting China that I trumpeted to my friends and family was that I wanted to see China before the cars came to eat it up.  Well, that has already happened too.

The changes I have seen have made life much more comfortable, safe and easy and have surpassed what I ever thought was possible.  I try to remember what my street looked like before the streetside four storey apartment buildings were bulldozed for an amazing shopping mall that I'm thrilled to live near, and like the many other vanished blocks in this city, I fail to remember them clearly.  The school where I teach was surrounded by banana trees and the horizon was flat as far as you could see to the glorious hills in the north. The area was considered rural.  Now we are towered over and surrounded by 36 storey apartment compounds in an instant city that wiped out all memories of the bananas, which we falsely blamed for all the mosquitoes that invaded the school each spring.  Even after the bananas were gone one morning, shocking us all with hearts sinking, knowing the world had changed, the mosquitoes still flocked in.  But not any more - the longyan trees and the irrigation that fed them and the cows that chased grade six out of their field trip to collect "life in a drop of water" samples are all gone too and that put paid to the mossies.   Who could regret that?  I kind of do.  The first sound of each summer day consisted of kids, teachers and TAs waving electric bats in every corner and the unremitting crackle of frying mosquitoes sounded like a chorus of mini-crackers celebrating the start of a new day or the arrival of spring.  I learned that mosquitoes absolutely adore velvet and you could disturb millions of them by shaking the red velvet piano cover and the dark red velvet chunlian around the classroom door.  Troubling thoughts of the karma that went with the wholesale slaughter of innocent creatures just trying to perpetuate their own species did cross my mind.  But that's gone into the past too.  Is there worse karma for those who actually remove a whole habitat that supported a species?  Whew!  I live again.  

This blog intends to explore changes in China through the lens of everyday experiences.  

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)


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Reply Report Dr.Bill.Shen 2014-3-2 21:18
In 1987, I started teaching in a university. My salary was 82 RMB. At that time, a brand new bicycle costed 130 RMB, a brand new 9 in black and white TV set was priced at 600 RMB.
Reply Report benji.yang 2014-3-2 21:23
I absolutely empathize with your feeling jealous of those who came in the 1970s or a hundred years ago; much in the same way that I envy your arriving 20 years ago! I only arrived four years ago, and I think even the change inside of these four years has been enormous, albiet at a more societal level rather than in terms of physical change that you describe.

I always enjoy visiting my grandparents and hearing their stories of China in the 1950s and 1960s... always really enlightening.
Reply Report ColinSpeakman 2014-3-2 23:29
I figure the laowai who came in the 1990s must have felt more like pioneers. I wish I had had the foresight to visit then. I got to Hong Kong in that decade pre and post hand back from UK to PRC but that does not count. Strangely I visited Vietnam quite a few times in that era and that was an experience.  I show my students a film made about China main cities in 1972 by an Italian Director - so few foreigners, so few cars. Anybody got a Tardis?
Reply Report voice_cd 2014-3-4 17:04
Thanks for sharing your story here! We have highlighted your story to the homepage.
Reply Report huaren2323 2014-3-8 23:41
Life is ever changing and at many instances cyclical..enjoy each day each moment...as we are , like leaves. have the scene pass by us.
Reply Report msbom 2014-3-9 18:01
huaren2323: Life is ever changing and at many instances cyclical..enjoy each day each moment...as we are , like leaves. have the scene pass by us.
This is so true about change. In some ways we have no choice - most of the changes are not made by us personally, we can only watch and adapt. Many of them distress us - just last night I turned my corner only to see it was gone, yes, the corner was gone and diggers were pounding into it. I think they're building a new metro station. That used to be a nice wide corner footpath. Small thing, but I walk on it every single day.  All these little changes amass into big change like the frog in the boiling water. I try to care and notice so it doesn't just pass me by inch by inch. I have been fascinated by the concept of change and time since I was young. What is it really?
Reply Report msbom 2014-3-9 18:13
ColinSpeakman: I figure the laowai who came in the 1990s must have felt more like pioneers. I wish I had had the foresight to visit then. I got to Hong Kong in that  ...
I would love to see that movie.  I have my own classifying system for Chinese buildings.  Stone or concrete with brown or green wooden window frames = pre-80s.  Small white tiles with blue glass = 80s and early 90s.  Pink or pale colored bigger tiles maybe green glass windows = 90s top fashion.  Villages filled with half-finished 4-6 storey windowless homes = 00s (in south China, sporadic money coming from family working overseas,) but increasingly, modern China looks like everywhere else modern.
Reply Report huaren2323 2014-3-14 06:37
msbom: This is so true about change. In some ways we have no choice - most of the changes are not made by us personally, we can only watch and adapt. Many of ...
Well change other than taxes is inevitable. Time is the fourth dimension, as our being exist in three dimension, time (the fourth dimension) differentiate the very same molecules in our body as we travel through space.
Reply Report Maierwei 2014-3-15 21:00
A pleasant read! When I read you ate what people ate and rarely got sick, I envied you though. I normally never pick food and am quite healthy, but after my 1.5 years in China I got a stomach infection for life, and didn't eat outside for the following year, and drank medicine for months. Now I am,on top of being vegetarian, a picky eater and need to avoid alcohol. I would never guess I'd end up like this...
Reply Report huaren2323 2014-3-18 05:52
Maierwei: A pleasant read! When I read you ate what people ate and rarely got sick, I envied you though. I normally never pick food and am quite healthy, but af ...
Glad you got over the digestive problem. It is best to avoid street food which looks so tempting. Pork and chicken that is not stored nor prepared well can be really serious with parasitic invaders that keeps perpetuating itself in time. Other than that, China is an amazing place to just living the moment.
Reply Report Maierwei 2014-3-18 19:12
huaren2323: Glad you got over the digestive problem. It is best to avoid street food which looks so tempting. Pork and chicken that is not stored nor prepared wel ...
I am vegetarian and have never eaten meat in China, and my digestive problems (h.pylori infection) still exist...
Reply Report MissBarbara 2014-3-19 01:17
It sounds like you and I got here about the same time, the first time I set foot in China was NOvember 18, 1992.
Reply Report huaren2323 2014-3-19 02:12
Maierwei: I am vegetarian and have never eaten meat in China, and my digestive problems (h.pylori infection) still exist...
Oh oh...I hope you overcome your H.pylori sooner than later. I now read that it is a serious condition.
Reply Report Maierwei 2014-3-19 20:54
huaren2323: Oh oh...I hope you overcome your H.pylori sooner than later. I now read that it is a serious condition.
Thanks. It's surprisingly common in China. Modern medicine has no cure for it (antibiotics usually don't work) and while waiting at a TCM doctor's office I heard 4 people in front me had the same complaints (Yes, it was one of those Chinese medicine hospitals without any privacy).

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  • IN CHINA'S GOLDEN TRIANGLE 2014-6-7 08:15

    laoren1234: I heard Kinmen is famous for its liquor, Kinmen Gaoliang. Did you have a chance to try it?
    Yes, laoren, but I tried it long ago and found it's not my favourite. There were giant bottles here and there marking the site of factories of the famous gaoliang from Jinmen. Many people carried it home with them.

  • IN CHINA'S GOLDEN TRIANGLE 2014-6-4 08:45

    Thanks for sharing your story here, we have highlighted your blog.

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