Tuesday, February 20, 2007

20 Years of Development and Creating the Future

I am a Skype lover. It’s the greatest invention ever. Not only is it incredibly convenient, but also cheap. The webcam video quality is also awesome. Recently, ive been using Skype to catch up with a few friends back in the States. Of course the conversation always revolves around what the hell I’m doing in China, are there police everywhere infringing on people’s rights, ect. ect. Even though people are well educated, they are still ignorant of a lot of things.

Every time I talk about China to friends who don’t necessarily understand China, I often attempt to describe China in the past 20 years and its relative relationship with western growth. People always talk about the problems in China, including: the chaos on the roads, the lack of rule and law enforcement, guanxi in business practices where knowing people is of the utmost importance, and the constant stare down white people get when they walk by Chinese people in cities other than Shanghai. People, however, never really try to look and find the root of these problems.... the reasons why they exist. When I talk to these friends, I always refer them to childhood stories of my living in China (i was born there and lived there until I was 6) and the vast differences between then and now (about 20 years worth of time).

[First, let me quantify my experiences. I was born into a decently wealthy family. My grandfather on my mom's side was a dean of a university (a big deal back then... and i guess, still a big deal.... but definitely a bigger deal back then). My mom was already a professor at the provincial university, getting income both as a professor and a translator (a big deal too) while my dad was in the army doing random stuff, and making a good salary relative to the times. We were wealthy enough to have an abundance of food and goods that others didn’t, as well as the ability to find nannies for me for all the time I lived in China. We definitely lived a privileged life and were able to use and buy all the new technologies coming onto the market.]

When I was born, the first photos that I still have now were taken in black in white (not for artistic reasons, btw) with circular and sharp edges. Only when I was about 3 years old did I have a color photograph (1985). Also, during that same time, consumer goods were first hitting the scene. My grandparents had a refrigerator and a double washer (one side for the washing, one side for the tumbling to get the water out). When I was 4-5, my family was well off enough to be the first families to get a color tv and a one system washer. Back then, there were very few cars on the road. There were buses, but barely any cars (especially ones for private use). You only rode in cars if your dad's company let u ride in it. I never had chances to ride in cars. When I did, I would get motion sickness (like my mom), and complain that I had a fever (youbingle). Other signs of the times includes my mom's grandmother had bound feet and was tiny. My grandmother's older sister even had bound feet. There was only 1 department store for the entire Harbin city (population 3 million). Finally, the first introduction of "pop" or "soda" in orange flavor was there. For the price of a good meal, you could get a taste of the orange soda (kinda like HiC Orange, called jianlibao).

After I left China after my 6th birthday, I had a few chances to come back to china. Only recently (soph year of college on), have I come back to china consistently every summer. Every time back, there are profound changes to the geography where once familiar. Everyone says that when they come back after being away for a while, that they cant even recognized their own neighborhood where they grew up. This btw, is true. I've hung out in and around my grandparent's house everytime I get back. one year there was suddenly huge bridge for a ring road built right next to her neighborhood. Also, the huge market (for things from electronics to meat) was destroyed and a huge mall and supermarket was put in its place (with McD's and KFC), all in a span of a year.

Within the past 16 years, China has come from a place where color TVs and soda was really rare to being one of the fastest growing economies in the world, consistently for the last decade. China is the world's 2nd largest consumer of oil (to the US) where in 1992, it was self-sufficient in oil. China has huge multinational companies who produce consumer goods for the world, huge markets to tap and great opportunities. Everyone seems to have a mobile phone. Everyone goes on the internet, IM each other on QQ and play World of Warcraft. Stores like Wal-Mart, Carrfore and such are everywhere. There are Mercedes, Lexus and Buicks on the roads. McDonalds, Pizza Hut and other restaurants are everywhere. Old buildings are torn down with huge apartment complexes taking the place. It’s crazy. Things are almost nothing like what they were just a few years ago.

What's most amazing is that all this transformation has taken place within such a short period of time. To note: it took the US almost 50-100 years to change what china has done in the past 17 years. [I estimate the introduction in the US: first color TV (1950s), Kitchen appliances (1930s), Cars (1900s), Photos (1920s)].

What does this mean?

China has had to quickly adjust to the changing world that is going by way too fast. That, combined with the previous economic system (socialism, state runned economy) and the way of life (ie, the need to save money), has aided in these things that are wrong. For example, in the US, there is no doubt in anyone's mind that no person would ever traverse an interstate highway and walk across it. No one will ride their bike on the side of the highway or carry their harvest on a horse pulled carriage there. This, however, is commonplace on China's interstates and highways. Because of this, it is important for Chinese to be aware of each other on the road (how many bad accidents have u seen in China) where there are people streaming in and out of traffic, not to mention bikes every where. If I was cut off in the US, I would be scared, annoyed and angry. In china, its common place and just part of life and what people have just come to accept.
Guanxi is soo important in Chinese society because it used to be an economy where the competition for labor didn’t exist. (i learned this in my international politics class). Since there is was not a lot of people providing services back when I lived in China, you could only get things done if you knew someone who knew someone. That means a system of favors was set up so that people would help each other out to both parties' benefit. This seems foreign to us in the US since we could just look in the yellow pages, call a store and pay whatever price they offered. In china, 15 years ago, it didn’t matter how much money you had, the person wouldn’t even talk to you if u didnt go through guanxi to get to him. Things are getting better now in china though. You can get things done with only money (ie. white people's ability to survive), but it still helps a lot if you go through connections. (lets not forget, in the US there's something called "networking").

Why do people in Beijing stare at Americans where they're at the great wall? A lot of people in Beijing are tourists from other places in china. They probably have never seen anyone but Chinese and think white people are just part of the show: Tiananmen square, Mao's mausoleum and that redhead. No matter what people say, Chinese people do not have a lot of interaction with foreigners (laowai). They are very curious and it is definitely not rude to stare. After growing up in a country where everyone immigrated there... and going to school in NYC really alters things. It's commonplace to meet people from everywhere, ever race and background u can imagine. No body stares because no one cares. However, if you go to the middle of nowhere (ie. Iowa, where I've lived before), go into a diner........ lets see how much people stare at u (imagine my mom and I walking into a salon in a western movie and everything stops. yea. that happened).

What is ultimately seems like is that China is evolving too quickly into the global world and it can’t properly adjust to the demands of modern life. There are many things that seem commonplace for the established western world, but will only change with time in China.

So mike, what the hell are u saying? Why did u write all of this?

Well, everything above this was actually background of what I observed in the past few days. It tries to set up what I thought was cool/interesting.

There seems to be a constant problem in modern families today, no matter American, European or Chinese. Instead of talking to one another, people watch TV during dinner. However, one real relief of this situation is that families go out to a restaurant (ie. once a week) and have a nice interaction there to make up for their deficiencies at home. (Are u still with me). Of course there's the preverbal chuck and cheese where the kids go play or the sports bar where there's a reason your there (to watch a football game while eating wings [o lion's head, how I love thee]) but most dining out means people talking and interacting with other people they're with.

Now. With all of its glory and evolution, China has created a system where interaction while eating out was a thing of the past. Now, at decently nice restaurants in southern china (i haven’t seen it in the north yet), the dining floor is surrounded with flat screen TVs playing different shows, movies. For the different restaurants I went to, the nicest and the biggest ones and atleast 20 monitors situated around the dinner area. This is amazing. Instead of eating, making small talk, and interacting with who you’re with, people can just eat and stare at the TV. It feels like home all over again. haha. When I saw a couple, supposedly out on a date, just sitting there watching TV instead of talking, I thought it was really amazing. It is not like Chinese people talk that much anyways when they're eating. Children are taught that talking while eating is impolite. Now having TVs is just another way to aid the silence of dinner.

Not only has China evolved so fast that it can’t "correctly" catch up to what they're supposed to be doing, ie. the people jaywalking across highways, but it has entered a stage where it slowly leaps over and sets the future. (We're too ignorant of how things are supposed to be done that we completely “screw” everything up and change the whole paradigm). I don’t know if this new TV thing at restaurants will catch on... but it seems interesting none the less... It will give Chinese people another reason not to talk to each other. Maybe the west will follow suit and watch TV at nice restaurants now.

It’s just another step in the past 20 years of development.

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