Thursday, March 6, 2014

Three Weeks in China

A photo of a Chinese fashion model.

I wrote the following travel article about three years ago for a magazine called Maine Ahead.  I think Maine Ahead might be defunct now.  

I'd write something new, but thinking is hard work, and it's a rainy windswept day on the Florida coast, and I'm just too lazy today.  Also, we were talking about Eurasia yesterday, and China is part of that conversation.

With that in mind... 

China doesn’t look like China anymore.  Not really.   

I went looking for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  The mysterious mists clinging to stark, steep hillsides.  The ancient stone temples with incense burning at outdoor altars and carved inscriptions long erased by the winds of time.  The beautiful women in black silk pajamas.

That stuff isn’t gone, but you have to know where to look for it.  The beautiful women are easy to find, but they’re more likely to be wearing thigh-high miniskirts now, or jeans and T-shirts that say things like “Google,” or “Just Do It,” or “I’m with stupid.”

People in China, even people who don’t speak English, like to wear shirts with American-style slogans on them.

To get to the temples and the stark cliffsides, you have to pass through cities.  Big cities.  Vast, sprawling cities, with high-rise upon high-rise marching into the vague distance.  There are a lot of people in China.  That seems obvious, but you can’t really get a handle on it until you see it.  In China, a city with a million people is little more than a town – barely worth mentioning.

I stayed in one city – a bit smaller than Boston in physical size – where a shade over five million people live.  Boston has about 650,000.  

I stayed in one city and its surrounding municipality – Chongqing, you might know it as Chongking – where 31 million people live.  Just for comparison, there are 35 million people in all of Canada, "from sea to sea."  The streets of downtown Chongking are so crowded, that when someone is ten feet away from you, you can’t see them anymore.

I spoke to people in China.  I learned to say things in Mandarin.  Things like:

Ni hao.  Which means “Hello.”

Ni hui shuo yingyu ma?  “Do you speak English?”

Dwoe sh ow chee-an?  “How much does it cost?”

Tai gui le.  “That’s too much.”

Shopping is a big thing in China.  Malls are everywhere, filled with new products – many of them with familiar names like Sony, Rolex, and Levi’s – and people fussing over them.  Indeed, the economy is booming.  People are buying cars by the millions.

Everywhere is the crashing and gnashing of machinery.  Roads being built.  Railroad tracks.  High-rises.  More going up all the time – 20 high-rises in a row, sometimes, all being built at the same time.  Factories and power plants going full-tilt, unleashing smog the likes of which I’d never seen before, or even imagined.

I doubt I can describe the famous Chinese air pollution in a way that will make a Westerner understand it.  We don’t have smog like that here.  Let’s say that.  We don’t have anything remotely similar.  Not in Los Angeles.  Not in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  Not in South Texas.  I have been to these places and groaned in despair at human blindness, greed and stupidity.  Then I went to China.  There are places in China that make the New Jersey Turnpike look like the Caribbean.

There are places in China, notably on the outskirts of the city of Wuhan, or traveling south by train from Beijing, where in the middle of the day you can’t see 100 yards.  You can’t see the sky.  Everything is gray and white and black, and obscured by smoke.  It looks like there must be a big fire somewhere nearby, or maybe a bomb just went off.  Or maybe a nuclear winter has begun.

There is grit in the air, and pretty soon it’s in your lungs.  You can feel it embedded in there.  People are living in the midst of this.  A lot of people.

I stayed with a Chinese man and his family in an apartment in Chongking.  When dealing with foreigners, the man calls himself John.  John is 39 years old, with a young wife and a 2 year old daughter.

He is in the ascendant class, skimming the cream off the economic boom.  I don’t know what he does for a living, but he says he’s a travel agent.  Could be he is.

He shouts into the telephone a lot.  He says things like, “I am big money!”

John and his family live on the top floor of a fabulous high rise.  His apartment would be worth $3 million dollars if it were in Manhattan.  Maybe $5 million.  It’s just a huge, ultra-modern place with floor to ceiling windows everywhere that reveal sweeping panoramas of the city skyline and the river.  The police guard the entrance downstairs, and they give you a military-style salute as you enter.

“Patrick,” John said to me one day.  His little girl was on his lap.  “You’re lucky.  We’re the same age, but you have your health.  My health is no good.  I can’t breathe anymore.  I don’t know what it is.  My lungs are no good.  My heart is no good.  I wake up and I can’t breathe.”

Like almost everybody in China, this man smokes, and the air is so foul in his city that breathing itself is a dangerous act.  This is what it’s like to be on top.

If so, then what’s it like to be on the bottom?  On the plane ride home, I met another man, an American, on his way to the States for a visit.  He’s lived in China for six years.  He works for a Chinese farming company.  An agribusiness, we call them here.  When he said “farming company,” I actually looked at his hands in surprise.

“You work the farm?”

“No,” he said, putting his soft, small hands in his pockets.  “It’s a gigantic farm.  I work for the company.”

“But somebody works the farm?” I said.

“Yes.  Chinese people work the farm.”

“What do you do?”

“I work with buyers from American and French food companies, assuring them that our products meet the quality standards of their countries.  I also help them conduct inspections to make sure our workers aren’t being mistreated.”

“Mistreated?” I said.  “In what way?”

“Well,” he said, “in some companies, the workers have to work 18 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week.  They live in barracks and never get to go home.  The company takes away their ID cards, and they can’t leave without their ID cards.  They have to pay high rent and shop at company stores, and they become indebted to the company.”

He paused.  “In extreme cases, the company might be holding their families hostage.”

He must have seen the look on my face.

“Yeah,” he said.  “It’s bad.”

“But your company doesn’t do that sort of thing?”  I said.

“No,” he said.  “I work for an excellent company.” 

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