China changed me

China was not on some big “places I want to visit next” list for me, but a great opportunity that arose because of the fact that my remarkably talented sister was living there. So before I went there, in spite of the work I did with my guidebook helping to plan our touring options, I really had no expectations. I somehow didn’t even realize that the great wall was so steep and that it was more like mountain climbing than like strolling.

Your intrepid blogger and her sister having a little rest on the climb. Note the fantastic footwear.

So there were a few things about China that really surprised me. Really surprised. Me. Culture things. Economics things. People things. Especially on my return to Britain and the world in which we live. Now my aim here is not at all to make any political judgements, it’s merely to pass along some information that has caused me to stop and think in a different way about problems currently facing Britain.

Thing 1, energy and the environment

A colleague recently introduced me to the concept of the Guardian’s 10:10 campaign, in which people in the UK (and the rest of the west, by example) pledge to reduce carbon footprints by 10% in 2010. I’m not here to argue against this campaign, or to suggest that being aware of one’s own energy consumption is a bad idea. But after visiting China last month, it’s really hard for me to see how this sort of thing can make any sort of a difference at all, beyond good PR and perhaps self-back-patting.

China was, as I have mentioned before, a shiny disco nightclub. Take Piccadilly Circus, or Times Square in NY, and cube it. And again. And again. And again. For a while, ad nauseum. And then multiply it, proportionally speaking, with the number of cities in China with populations over 1 million. There are 60 and you’ve probably not heard of most of them.

I visited the bustling city of Nanchang on my tour, which falls well in the upper half of this list but which is probably off the radar of most of those in the west. Nanjing, where my sister lives, is higher on the list and slightly more well-known to the west but still not the commonplace city that most westerners would have heard of. My sister, who has lived in Asia on-and-off for the parts of the last decade, has noted how the light pollution means that you cannot see much in the way of stars. (Pollution does not help either, of course.)

One of the things that was most striking to me on my visit was the lights outside of the main districts. Even a poor hole-in-the-wall restaurant with plastic chairs and tables inside (those that would be normally for outdoor picnics in the west) had neon signs and a well-lit visage. And I’m not criticizing in any way. As far as I could tell, bright lights and neon were a sign of “modern” China and thus something that was aspirational in the true sense of the word.

But it seems to me that, after having seen this almost unbelievable aspect of China, a few tens of millions of Brits shivering in the dark during “Earth hour” or reducing their carbon footprints by 10% is unlikely to make a big change in the global sense. I pass no value judgements here. I’m not in any way suggesting that we should not be aware of our carbon footprint, and I’m in favor of trying to be as energy-efficient as possible in all situations, as good stewards of this fantastic planet that I love to explore. But I think it’s time to admit that until we figure out how to handle the developing world, including the very modern shiny disco nightclub that is China, we’re not likely to make a difference in the grand scheme of things but introducing war-like energy austerity measures in the relatively tiny UK.

Thing 2, labor and the workforce

Taking the train from Nanjing to Shanghai on a rainy Sunday afternoon, it was hard not to notice the army of workers out in rain-suits working on the railroad tracks. Now admittedly it was only weeks before the opening of the Shanghai Expo, so this could have been a huge anomaly. But compared with everything else I saw in China, I’m guessing it wasn’t. The shops were open all day, every day. Important tourist sights were filled with security officers along with the plentiful souvenir shop and food stall workers. Whenever it was raining, people magically appeared at the entrances to the shopping malls to hand umbrella-shaped plastic baggies to all who entered, to keep the floors from getting wet and slippery. Everything was remarkably clean. All garbage bins had sections for recycling and they were never overflowing, even on the wicked-steep sections of the great wall. We actually saw a great wall cleaner lady, who was remarkably fit considering her age (greater than ours) walking along, picking up trash, and emptying the great wall garbage bins. (I admit I had no idea that there would be great wall garbage bins…) But that’s getting away from my main point.

Everywhere you looked, people were working.

I returned to the UK on my (thankfully) strike-unaffected BA flight, to a world where the flight attendants are striking, over and over, arguing about money and benefits that would seem amazing to the average Chinese person. There are over one billion of them in China. And surely the recent outcry over immigration reform and “British jobs for British workers” is being carried out in the face of the knowledge that there are many hard-working people in less fortunate countries who would really be quite happy to do jobs, such as BA flight attendant duties, at a fraction of what the current workers are fighting about.

I admit it, in this case I was not so keen on the BA strike even before I headed to China. Striking in a recession seemed a bit foolhardy to me, and that was BEFORE the volcano gods started frowning on European air travel. Surely there are also plenty of people out of work here in Britain who would be happy to take those jobs. But if not, there are a whole lotta other people out there who clearly would.

In summary…
China changed me. I had read about it for a long time. I was familiar with the economic situation and how quickly it has changed in the last decade or two. But seeing it in person was something else entirely. Reading about a billion people did not mean much until I spent two weeks in those crowds. Reading about the developing economy did not mean much until I saw the shiny disco lights and the people employed to do the most small of tasks, like handing out plastic umbrella bags.

China has itself changed, and quickly. Any economist is familiar with this concept but it’s amazing how visible it was to the casual tourist. But my overall impression was definitely one of, “There’s a new world order, it’s about to start changing in the west, so start bracing yourself now.” I can’t help but think that we are missing the elephant in the room when it comes to globalization, and although I had read that many times, it didn’t mean a thing to me until I saw it. I’ve started learning Chinese characters after my trip. (Admittedly with a fun iChinese app on my iPhone.) I’m convinced that the world, it is a-changin’.

11 responses to “China changed me

  1. I had no idea that after climbing that steeper-than-I-had-imagined-it-would-be Great Wall, I would find a man with a patio umbrella, a generator, and a freezer full of ice cream, offering to take a Polaroid photo of me and sell me a certificate to show that I had climbed the Great Wall!

    What is the name of the iPhone app? (My kids are just beginning to learn Chinese.)

    • It is called “iChinese” and the company making it is Hubermat Software. It follows one of the more common Chinese texts lesson by lesson and really takes advantage of the iPhone touch interface to practice making characters.

  2. I’d certainly take one of those flight attendant jobs. I was abruptly “laid off” from my temp position on Friday and don’t know when the agency will find me a new one. The uncertainty wears on your after a while. And, of course, anything that would get me to the UK – I’ll do it.

  3. I’ve always told my (British) husband that the Chinese and the British have many similarities i.e., being reserved with their opinions, answers, actions, emotions, etc., compared to, say, the Americans (more open, optimistic, outwardly passionate…). But one significant difference has always been in the area of “practicality”. I think the Brits are often more “legalistic” in carrying things out…. i.e., everything has to be justified by a social policy, and there is always some significant resistance to change. And China itself had suffered through that kind of long-drawn bureaucratic what-not, but these days, it seems they just to want to catch up with the rest of the world, yeah let’s say the capitalist world. Again, like you, I am not generalizing, but indeed if we want to address environmental problems, I agree that we really should start from the geographical, population and economic giants like China, the US, for there to be any significant global impact.
    Thanks for sharing this. I envy your trip but someday soon, I too will visit, if only to honor my own heritage. I speak the language [although it was “acquired” for me, I can safely say I am somewhat of a native speaker], so let me know if you need help with it. πŸ™‚ Btw, RAD SHOES!

  4. I was also blown away by the difference between the popular Western view of China and what it really is today. You can’t walk down Nanjing Road in Shanghai and think about rickshaws any more other than as a tourist novelty. It is like the West End on Saturday night, except a lot brighter.

  5. I read a while back that that China “owns” about a quarter of the USA’s national debt – that is so shocking. China probably owns a similar chunk of the UK’s debt. We should never underestimate what China has achieved.

    With regards to carbon footprints ….. I believe that China is looking forward to a greener future. They seem to have plans and strategies in place – we in the UK are thinking the right way but I don’t think we have any real vision for, say, a national transport strategy or for locally produced green energy supplies.

    On the positive side, I read the other day that many middle class Chinese are looking to consume the sort of goods that Britain and Europe have historically produced – high quality, branded products. We should be ready to meet this demand!

  6. Hi NFAH. Great post! I agree that there is a bigger picture to the energy dilemma. I’ve been thinking lately, though, that sometimes symbolic change can be seen/heard/and have an impact far beyond the actual change. At least, that’s my hope.

    I also (in my snoozy daze) was thinking of the movie “Serenity” (from the Firefly series) and how it imagines a future in outer space where everyone speaks Chinese (Mandarin.) I thought that was a pretty intelligent imagining of the future!

  7. Interesting point about the energy consumption, but here are my thoughts.

    1. USA and Europe (USA more than Europe) still have one of the highest energy+resource consumption rate (total as well as per capita) in the world. If the third world countries are to increase their standard of living, then there has to be more energy consumption. Given that the current environmental situation has been primarily caused by the European+USA, it seems unfair to single out China and other developing countries to reduce their consumption. Also, I’m willing to bet that the per capita consumption in China is still much lower than that in UK, USA and other European countries.

    2. As Rachel above mentioned, symbols do matter. So, while an Earth hour once a year may not add up in terms of significant quantifiable changes, the awareness from it can and does spread to other aspects of life.

    Thanks for sharing your views from the trip.

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