Living abroad is not for everyone, and some countries are definitely easier to live in than others. China is certainly not the hardest of places to live, but there are, as one would expect, frustrations and language barriers, and you learn only as much as you want to. Sadly, some never learn anything and spend their time wondering why the country they chose to live in, is not more like their own. In any place there are things that irritate you and there is no getting away from that, but living in a different country should be an adventure, something to soak up and learn about. Differences are good, they make us more interesting, and the way a person deals with them really determines how much they will enjoy the experience.
I like to talk to people and find out what it’s like to be a local, how normal everyday people, just like me, live, in this country that is so widely different from my own. Usually, that system works for me, but China is slightly different, even from other parts of Asia I have lived in. Today’s China is accessible, but the China that existed when I grew up is a different kettle of fish. One needs to go back at least two generations to learn how much life has changed and that is not an easy task when you can’t speak the language. The young are mostly unaware of what China was like before they were born. They grew up in this era , this China, but the ‘new’ China is not like the old.
The ‘new’ China is about growth and on an individual basis, it is about money – having lots of it! This is nowhere more obvious than in Shenzhen, the first city built expressly for profit making, privately owned commerce; the first city to benefit from billions of foreign investment dollars; a city that is now being touted as the fastest growing city in the world. Here in a population of somewhere around 14 million people, (depending on the source you use), there are 85 billionaires (measured in $US)!! The number of millionaires is not clear but one can take a guess at the preponderance of the rich.
On any given day, when the school bell rings, the small road outside the school I work in is literally jammed with Mercedes sports cars, BMWs, Jaguars and Porsches. These are parked in the given spaces, but when those are full, they simply block up the road. No-one asks them to move and they won’t, not until they collect their little treasures and then they squash, squeeze and toot their way out into mainstream traffic. Ferraris are not an uncommon sight and Lamborghinis, though not as often seen, do brave the traffic in Shenzhen. Yesterday, for the first time, I saw a child delivered home in a Rolls Royce!
In contrast to the obvious wealth of some, is the more obvious lack of it for the many. The bulk of the workers, who generate the output that creates this wealth, come from rural China and they have little to no experience of living in a city. They too, are here to get ahead in the great race for riches, many having left their families hundreds of miles away. It is the same phenomenon that occurs in all developing countries, but in such concentration, with everyone living literally on top of one another, it is both interesting, and frustrating.
This year is the first time I’ve seen cars occasionally stop at pedestrian crossings, although buses still bully their way through regardless of foot traffic. On the footpaths, not much has changed. Electric bikes and scooters still creep up on you and then toot for you to move out of the way. Push bikes too, seem not to understand that pavements are designed for foot traffic. Strangely, the Chinese think nothing of it and simply move aside to let them pass, a testament to the different way we look at things. I marvel at their patience with traffic on pavements when mine so often deserts me and I have to bite my tongue.
With everyone living in high rise apartments, people come outside at regular intervals to take in the air. There are a plentiful number of parks about, but if you don’t live near one, there is always somewhere.
Wide tiled plazas are common and for the not so wealthy, this is where a lot of socialising goes on. Small children sit astride ride ons or in their pushchairs and groups of adults sit around playing cards.
Mobile carts sell nuts or sugar cane juice and families simply stroll. Where I live, the doorway of a local dept store is a favourite place to sit. Women bring small plastic stools and their tiny charges play as they sit in the doorway enjoying air conditioning that they don’t have to pay for. Again, no one complains or moves them on; if you want to go in and shop, you must step around them in order to enter. Life is, for the most part, pretty laid back and pleasant.
In the new China too, consumerism is alive and well and capitalism has raised its ugly head. A person is more often than not judged on the amount they earn or the image they present. Not much different from the ‘west’ there. It’s all economics and everyone is looking for that ‘better’ life, whether through a good marriage or just hard graft.
Advertisements are everywhere…you simply cannot escape them. Taxis, lifts, trains and buses all have television screens blaring ad after ad at you. Big buildings are adorned with huge television screens, all advertising one thing or another, and although at night this lights the place up nicely, the constant bombardment of advertising drives me doollally. Commercial television is much the same as at home I dare say, but I don’t watch it as it’s all in Chinese. Only one station, from Hong Kong, has programmes and news in English so I turn that one on now and then. However, just as you are getting interested in some news item or other, there is an ad break. Nothing new there you say? Well, there is a difference. Here, the commercial break doesn’t wait for the end of an item. In fact the announcer is more than likely still talking when the break comes. Also, whilst the ads are on, the news continues and by the time you get back to it (after the ads), half the news is lost to you. This happens during movies too. It’s quite amusing in some ways, but I do miss a good news broadcast.
It takes flexibility to live among people you cant really communicate with and to whom different things matter. You can’t expect that they follow the same rules as you do. Sometimes what we see as plain good manners (and can be sorely lacking in parts of our own communities) just doesn’t apply there. Here, for instance, pushing in (queue jumping) is a common trait; staring too, is commonplace; spitting and coughing into the air is just plain scary and I won’t even mention the toileting of kids in public areas like pavements or plazas. But then again, I can count on one hand the number of times I have had a seat given up for me on an Australian bus or train, yet here this is very much the norm. There is no hesitation at all and they do the same for small children. Here, they greet you as you walk into a store, they are not shy about talking to you (albeit in another language) and students at school show respect for their teachers. In fact, there is a general respect for anyone older. I like that a lot.
In some ways though, you could be anywhere in the world. Headphones are a common sight and I never cease to be amazed at how much time people spend tap, tap tapping on their phones. It is beyond me what they have to talk about or how small things amuse. Even when people have dinner together or simply go to a café with friends, it is common to see one or all playing with their phones rather than talking to each other. Mobile phones lend themselves to rudeness, no matter the country or the economic status of the person wielding one. But, this is the age of technology and there is plenty of it about. There are malls in Shenzhen purely devoted to the sale of mobile phones, where row upon row of shops sell the same thing. The same holds true for computers. Technology is the master of seduction and has the world firmly in its grip.
This is the new China, the one that the rest of the world will grow up with; the one that will economically dominate this century. It hasn’t yet completely found its feet, but is well on the way. In a country of more than a billion people, the changes and development that have occurred in the last thirty five years are nothing short of amazing. But this China is still in transition and thankfully the old ways still mingle with the new. Within family groups, grandparents are very important and many generations of children have been brought up by them, whilst parents worked to provide. This is still evident today. New mothers generally go back to work after two months and then grandparents take over. There are no childcare centres as we know them and there is no after school care. Here, if grandparents cannot fill the gap, then someone must be hired privately to do the job. Family bonds are very strong and it is not uncommon for three generations to live in the same home.
It remains to be seen how the younger generations of today will handle their more mature years. Many have grown up in families restricted under the one child rule where everything possible has been lavished upon that one child. These children are growing up in a world where only the fittest survive, where the strongest win and many have had everything handed to them. They have no notion of a world without mobile phones and computers; a world without Facebook and Twitter (or the Chinese equivalents). Will they keep up the traditions of their elders? The very essence of China is theirs to carry forward. I sincerely hope they do. The world needs different cultures; we cant all be the same. Diversity is wonderful and no, it isn’t always easy, but it’s always exciting and the world can do with some exciting.