From The Ashes: Observations From Six Weeks Back In China
After seven years in China, then the last six years living in blue-skied California, I’ve been back in China now for six weeks, and I thought I’d share some observations I’ve made (and of course I’m basing all on my own personal experience and in no way is this scientifically representative of, well, any significant part of any part of the population of China):
You know all those snarky bloggers in the US that wouldn’t be caught dead holding up a iPad to take a picture or pulling out a Galaxy Note to make a phone call? No such inhibitions here – I’ve seen people walking down crowded, pothole ridden sidewalks holding up an iPad in front of themselves, reading while they walk. Over the national holiday earlier this month, I saw numerous Chinese tourists whipping out their iPads to take the same family-standing-rigid-shot they’ve been taking for fifty years with other cameras. The Galaxy Note seems to be the phone of choice for the man-purse-Audi-driving set (i.e. it’s a real man’s phone). Yes, there are plenty of “normal” sized iPhone/Androids everywhere, but going big in public is certainly nothing to be ashamed of here.
Parking on the sidewalk.
Chalk this up to “most unexpected annoying thing so far” on my list: everyone (in Beijing at least) parks on the damn sidewalk. Yes, there are a lot of cars and not enough sidewalks, but there is really no excuse for how widespread of a problem this is. I asked a friend how long this has been going on, and he said it’s really only exploded as a issue in the last year or so, but it is so bad that often there is no way to even walk on the (rather wide) sidewalks at all, and the only – quite ironic actually – way you can continue moving forward is to go around the cars by walking in the street. My friend told me that people do get fined for parking this way (about 200 RMB or around $30), but honestly, if you can afford a car in China, a 200 RMB fine once-in-awhile is really nothing. Why the Beijing government has not figured out that it can make a ton of money by towing all of these cars is beyond me, but maybe they are just worried that it will increase the trend of…
Few people smile anymore.
It took a couple of weeks for this to sink in, but it really is true (again, I’m mainly talking about Beijing here because I haven’t traveled much to this point) – people are smiling a heck of a lot less these days. My feeling is that it is a mixture of a lot of crappy things (terrible rains/floods this summer, historically weird political situation, all those cars parked on sidewalks, the TERRIBLE air quality, et al), but I think the main reason is pretty simple…
Everything costs way more than it used to.
I’d been told about the inflation, but I have to be honest, before I got here I was still very much like, “yeah, ok, it’s more, but it’s still China – you can always find inexpensive stuff if you shop in the right places”… well, I was most wrong. Nearly everything is way more expensive (and this goes outside of the capital as well – I was out in the countryside this weekend and was told construction workers for hire are 4x a day what they were six years ago), including of course real estate. Which brings me to my last observation for now…
Things are slowing down.
Now, I don’t mean to say this in an economic way necessarily (where they’re getting the money I don’t know ((all those extra houses they bought maybe?)), but people are still spending left and right), but I get the sense that the big spinning wheel that was China the last 15 years or so is starting to do less revolutions per second. Again, I don’t believe it signals a shift in economics – things are generally pretty slow going in the US, but the slow turning wheel that is America still in general does a good job of figuring out how to make money – but rather just either a natural winding down or perhaps even a realization that maybe society can’t deal with a breakneck pace of life forever. Are people tired? I suspect yes, they are. The last couple of years have been very trying on Chinese society (really starting with the outrage over the Sichuan earthquake, and piled on by multiple events since), and after six short weeks, I feel like people here are feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders (and of course much much much much more so for the many impoverished). I’m not sure what it would take to lift this weight from people’s shoulders (and I’m guessing if you ask most people here if they think their life will be better in 5-10 years they will probably overwhelmingly say “yes”), but the weight is there, and – like the air – they are sour and gloomy.