Wednesday, October 26, 2011

China: Land of Opportunity

view from my window, 11th floor, China World
Repeatedly over my week in Beijing, every Westerner I met announced that they would eventually leave the city. Why? They all had the same reason: “Because of the air quality.” In a city that teems with 20 million people, and by the looks of things, 2 million cars on the roads at any one time, it’s not the density of people and traffic, the stigma of being a foreigner, or the difficulty of the language that will force everyone out. It’s the air quality. Air quality is not really in the vocabulary of the cities in which I live, so I didn’t fully understand what everyone was talking about. And when the announcement came from British people, I wondered what could be worse than the damp, cold and overcast skies of the place they call home. When I opened my curtains on my final morning I finally understood. So that’s polluted air, I thought, as I searched for the second layer of high rise buildings on the other side of Jianguomenwai Avenue. That was, until I got to breakfast and my waiter told me it wasn’t pollution, it was “froggy.” Froggy or fumes, it doesn’t make much difference. I could finally imagine how depressing it might get to open the curtains to this, morning after morning after morning.
Same View on a Sunny Day
I enjoyed a week of brilliant sunshine in Beijing, and the sun was just the beginning of what, for me, was a glorious week. I hate nothing more than tourists and travelers who compare their host country and culture to the comforts of home. But I can’t resist sitting China side by side with the world I come from.

If I had my time again or if I had the courage to pack up my life in Paris and move anywhere in the world, froggy or fumes, it might possibly be China. With a dream and a dime, I can imagine coming to Beijing where I could thrive, where doors would open and I could make the world happen for me. This is the sense I get of what happens when one comes to Beijing: whatever the nature of the dream, in Beijing for the small price of time and energy, that dream will come true.
Being Tourists

 The Chinese don’t seem to be as stuck on being Chinese as the French are on being French, or the British on being British. With one pocket full of energy and the other filled with ideas, foreigners are embraced, included, even promoted in their plight. To give one example, a colleague has come to Beijing where she will, after only a couple of years on Chinese turf, curate an exhibition in the 798 district. In London, such opportunities don’t present themselves to the young and aspiring for it takes lifelong connections in the art world to wedge one foot inside the door. And in another example, an American Friend is in Beijing studying Chinese medicine. As he happily admits; he didn’t even finish high school in America, and here he is studying to be a doctor. Everything is possible in Beijing, especially if you are foreign. That said, to be a foreigner doesn’t necessarily mean privilege, but it does mean, at the very least, to be a worker among the hoards of Chinese workers.
Guards in Tiananmen Square
Unlike the British, the Chinese don’t care much for rules and regulations. Unlike any other nation of people I know, the British don’t give an inch when it comes to two things: 1. Changing place in the queue, and 2. Waiving the paperwork. Britain is a country where people are oppressed by the bureaucracy – the form filling, the imperative to account for every decision in the workplace, the signing and countersigning first by one committee, then the next and the next. In China, my sense is that the relationship to bureaucracy is complicated and as unpredictable as everything else. Looking from the outside, everyday life in China appears to have no notion of forms and mindless bureaucratic hurdles. Even traffic lights seem to be a mere suggestion. However, I am assured that the layers of bureaucracy are even thicker and deeper in China than they are in Britain. Of course, they must be, we are talking about a Communist country that has suffered years of colonization. But there’s a difference, and the difference is what makes living here as a foreigner not only attractive, but possible: the Chinese are not afraid to circumvent the rules for a few thousand RMB. There is nothing that can’t be bought and sold under the table: visas, permits of all genres, higher education, and the list goes on.
This is meant to show people exercising in the background, but it didn't come out
Together with the potential access to circumventing the bureaucracy, there is another factor that makes dreams come true in China. This is not a world that weighs under the social devastation of unemployment. And neither is this a world in which people sit around in cafés whiling away the hours, philosophizing and bemoaning their rights, or lack of them. In China, everyone works. Work is the driving force of an economy that is growing and growing and growing at exponential rates. And this translates to the foundational principle for the realization of a dream in China: work hard and the world will become yours.

This man wanted to taxi me home, but it was too cold,
so I gave him the money anyway and took his photo

The reality in China is of course, the working poor. The other night when I was out with my American friend who has recently moved here to Beijing, after 20 mins on the corner trying to hail a cab a man on a bike stopped with the idea of taking me home. It was too cold so we gave him the money anyway, and took his photo. Then he insisted on taking photos of us, and me being the perfectionist, I kept asking him to retake the photo because it wasn’t the right focal length. After three photos my friend stopped me, with what for me was indeed a reality that had never occurred to me: “some people are so poor -  he might never have held a camera.” How is it that I share the same streets as someone who has never held a camera? If Britain is weighed down by the layers of mindless and unnecessary bureaucracy, then China is crippled by the gaping chasm between rich and poor. I say that anyone can make it here, but let’s be clear, I can only speak for Westerners. 

This woman ran after me on Tiananmen Square to be photographed with her and her baby

There is no doubt that Beijing is at the centre of the world today. The vibrations of its streets, the noise, the masses, even the air, are the marks of a city that works hard, really hard. And if I had my time again, this is where I would be, learning Mandarin, learning first to survive then to prosper in what must be one of the densest urban jungles.


amelia1703 said...
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amelia1703 said...
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