For the past week, I’ve been staying at my grand parent’s house in Harbin. I was born in this border city many years ago and lived here until I was 6 – after which I moved to the US. I come back intermittently every so often to visit friends & family – especially my relatives on my mom’s side.
Since moving to Shenzhen almost 2 years ago, I have went to Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou and other cities in China many times. I have even been to Bangkok twice. I have yet come back to Harbin, until now.
Harbin is the typical “2nd tier” or “3rd tier” city that all business people talk about. It is the 10th biggest city in China, famous for its winter Ice Festival and ready to grow like its counterparts.
Personally, going from the most modern city in China (Shenzhen), to a less-developed city (Harbin) in which its population is synonymous for eating with their shirts off, drinking a lot of beer during lunch, being “rednecks”, loving to fight and being generally uncivilized and barbaric when compared to the rest of the China. This is the place I call my “hometown”.
In the past couple of years, however, there has been a growth in construction immediately outside where my grandparents live. A medium sized mall has been built with a KFC, McDs and Carrefour about .5km away. The “Paris apartments” now tower the skyline with five 30+ floor buildings within view of our 2nd floor balcony. Even a highway, overpasses and parks have been connected nearby as well. Walking around the city in the past few days, I’ve been unable to recognize many neighborhoods in which my family used to live. The amount of construction in the past 3-4 years has been tremendous – a constant cycle of demolition and construction.
What I’ve seen as the best part, or the most interesting part of Harbin is that it still has some of the same charm, innocent & traditionally Chinese life it has had in the past. I see this very keenly from my grandparent’s house.
My grandparents’ house is nestled in a small community of about 30 6-8 story buildings within the grounds of a university. I can honestly say that very little has changed in this area. The same old people are walking around in the morning and outside playing cards or mahjong in the afternoon. Every morning at 4:30am, scores of old people go out to parks, tracks and local gathering places to practice qigong, exercise and do the same routine they’ve done for such a long time. The same fruit & veggie markets are still selling the same cheap produce right outside the gates. Even the day-care kindergarten that I went to when I was 4 years old – more than 20 years ago – is still in the same place still taking care of small kids. Starbucks still has not opened its first coffee shop in Harbin.
Wages have also been lacking. The average monthly wage of my cousin’s wife, a social worker in Harbin, is 1000 RMB. She’s 40. My cousin is now working as a driver for the 271 bus route. His previous job was a taxi driver. They can live and get by due to the low living standard.
The people here in Harbin seem to be much more content with living life. They might not have the income of the people in Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai. They might not have the starbucks-drinking, bar-hopping, constant traveling life of the people in the 1st tier cities. They don’t have these luxuries. They do, however, have the constant relaxation of enjoying life, not taking things too seriously and having a slower pace to life. They don’t need the stress and constant desire filled consumerism existence that comes with it. Coming from a place like Shenzhen, this is something new and really special.
Not to mention, I really like the densely blue skies and the long-sleeves summer climate as well.