Beginning of the End: The Good, the Bad, and the Survival Tips

You know, I really did have grand ideas for this blog this semester, but time defeated me. I even started writing a few intriguing, penetrating cultural studies, but then other things popped up. Like a trip south to Guangzhou for my wife’s visa interview, numerous  errands related to that, and, well, you get the idea. And the truth is, I just don’t have time to write what I want. So let’s streamline this process. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what I’ll miss and won’t miss from China. In the past I posted regular lists under the heading “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” and that worked well enough, so I thought I’d just go ahead and rely on that format. This time, though, I’m putting a twist in it. Instead of “Ugly,” we’ll have “Your Friendly Survival Tip.” Why? First, because there are only so many different riffs a person can compose on pollution and hideous architecture before the whole aesthetic concept of “ugly” starts to seem pointless. Second, I see things all the time that a newbie in China really should know if he/she is to survive. So. . .here we go.

The Good (What I’ll Miss)

#1:  The food – Many, many moons ago I was in Shandong province, and I taught for a semester with a much older American man who had been in China for a LONG time. Someone asked him once, just before he left, what he would miss about China. He just said, “food.” I thought at the time that was awfully superficial, and maybe even insensitive, China being so rich with culture and history. Why would you not say something about the country’s glorious heritage, or the wonderfully relational way people act towards each other?!  The thing is, what you learn after years in a country rich with culture and history is that on a daily basis you never see the culture or history. Even when it’s there. There are certainly still ancient buildings, traditional tea houses, Peking opera theaters, and the like, and those are enchanting for a while, but eventually they stop being enchanting and become part of the landscape. And the virtues you begin by attributing to the local people at large you realize are actually diffused pretty widely across the society, and that the country is in fact filled with individuals who are as unlike as they are alike. Which is how it should be, of course. One of the things I’m happiest about is that I lived in China long enough to know how foolish it is to say “the Chinese” with reference to just about anything. People might have cultural traits in common, but never to the same degree across the board, and never with the same implications. What’s deceptively profound about saying you’ll miss the food is that a statement like that is precisely what a Chinese person would say if he or she lived overseas for a while. When’s the last time you met an ex-pat who said, “What I miss is my country’s glorious history and heritage” or “I miss the warm camaraderie of the farmers in my country”? You know what you will hear? “I sure wish I had a plate of dumplings right now” or “I would kill a baby penguin for a change to have a bowl of my mom’s noodles tonight.” Maybe not a baby penguin, exactly, but you understand the sentiment. So when I say I’m really going to miss the food here, I want you to understand that not as a superficial statement, but as a declaration that, just like a long-term resident of any country, it’s the little things that make you look back.

The Bad (What I Won’t Miss)

#1 The Pollution – There really is no way to properly express how polluted China is. I’ve bought several air-filter masks over the course of the last year, and within a week even the best of them–the kind with breathing valves and aluminum clips to seal over the nose–turn a nasty gray color. The air here beats everything into submission. White shoes become dark gray, buildings look like they’re several decades old even though they were built last year, and when you wash your hands, the water always turns gray or some other drab color. In fact, if you were to describe how this part of China looks and feels, “drab” wouldn’t be a bad word. I’ll never forget a trip I took once from Tianjin to Beijing when I was listening to an album by the spooky electronic duo The Knife. I had listened to it a few times and was intrigued, but it was awfully bleak music, so it was hard to identify with. But then I stuck it on when I was taking the train through the countryside during winter, and all of a sudden the music made sense. Hebei and the countryside around Tianjin and Beijing really does look like it’s recently been bombed, and in the winter it’s the closest thing to a post-apocalyptic landscape that you’re likely to see before the actual event. It’s horrific. It looks the way frigid Swedish electro sounds. And it goes on forever. Scott and I used to make long-ish distance bike trips (50+ km.) outside of Tianjin, and every time we went it got a little worse. The last time we set out, we rode along what used to be the Grand Canal centuries ago, and which a few years earlier had featured some halfway decent clusters of trees (not really forests so much as planned orchards). This time, though, the entire stretch of trees had been clear-cut, leaving a miles-long beige strip of dirt running from the inter-city expressway to. . .well, coneivably another province. We didn’t bike far enough to find out. And in case you’re wondering, the recent “airpocalypse” you probably read about (or experienced) was every bit as bad as it sounded. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Everyone I knew had headaches or sore throats, even if they only went outside for a few minutes. Unreal.

The truly remarkable thing is why I’ve tolerated it for so long. I can remember commenting wryly in the past, with my circle of friends, about how polluted it was. We never acted horrified or concerned. We mostly just laughed about it, with the unspoken caveat that we couldn’t wait to horrify people at home with our stories. It really wasn’t until this last year that saying, “Yep, it sure is polluted today!” became a statement of concern. I don’t know why it took me so long. I mean really, how ridiculous is it to say, “Yep, it sure is polluted today!” with a grin? That’s just like saying, “Yep, there sure is a lot of strychnine in the water supply today!” or “Yep, there sure is a lot of salmonella in this hamburger!” I have no idea why I used to be like that. It’s always been bad, although I think in recent years it’s gotten worse.

People have had enough, too. Any Chinese people with money are trying to get their kids into schools overseas, and one big reason is because of the pollution. Nobody wants their kids growing up in a place whose air feels like it’s been piped in from a coal refinery, especially when anyone with an ounce of common sense knows it’s not going to get any better. Don’t believe the green-technology hype. If 90% of your nation’s waterways are so polluted they’re completely unusable, it really doesn’t matter what kind of technology you develop. Re-building nature isn’t nearly as effective as people like to think, and it also generally doesn’t happen. After all, there’s just no money in rebuilding nature. Not in the short-term, anyway. Shutting factories down and redoing them with a view towards a healthy, life-giving environment would take many years, and no politician on the planet is willing to risk having the national economy slow to a halt just for something silly like sustainable existence. (That includes American politicians, too, by the way; let’s be fair.) But there’s significant tension in China over this fact. I’ve been in China off and on since 2001, and I can tell you right now that people are a lot less optimistic than they used to be. The dominant attitude is beginning to be: “When do we get to reap some of the benefits of all this development?” Real-estate prices are still sky-high, food prices rise precipitately every year, and there still are no reliable health care options for most people. Economic figures are only convincing for so long, and then a person looks outside and says, “That’s great that we have such robust economic growth, but I’m still breathing poison and it’s getting worse, not better. I really don’t think it’s worth it.” It’s not for me, but then that’s why it’s good I’m leaving now, not later.

Your Friendly Survival Tip #1: Ask Multiple People for Directions

I remembered this when we were asking for directions in Guangzhou. I asked a police officer, who assured me the street I was looking for was on the other side of the city. I asked another person in a magazine store who assured me it was just a few hundred yards away. Marie and I walked a few hundred yards, asked someone else, and that person had no idea. We finally bought a map, had someone in a convenience store point out the place we needed to go, had another person write down the exact name in Chinese, got in a cab, and finally got there. Remember, people, that about 90% of Chinese people will tell you where to go even if they have no idea what they’re talking about, because saying “I don’t know” in China can look bad. Always, always, ALWAYS ask at least three people, no matter how sure they seem.



3 Responses to Beginning of the End: The Good, the Bad, and the Survival Tips

  1. Glen says:

    I’ve lived in Beijing for 6 years and totally agree with you about the pollution. I think the reason that it “started getting to us” over the past year is because this past winter was truly horrid. It was the worst one yet. I finally developed breathing problems and also saw the departure of many “lifer” expats who found that they just couldn’t stand it anymore. It’s one thing to have a bad polluted day but normal days most others. Northern China has now become a place where we get clear skies once in a blue moon. That’s just not normal. Especially when you do have choices. Sad.

  2. Jay says:

    I think the ‘always-give-an-answer-even-if-you-don’t-know’ is common to shame societies, where not giving an answer is shameful. In guilt societies giving a knowingly wrong answer makes one guilty of uncivil behavior.

  3. Well, one of the reasons I chose to come back to Tianjin (apart from more obvious reasons) was the food! So I can definitely jive with that idea.

    Even in China, you really have to find a place where the food does something for you. Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Harbin – for me, while there was some offerings that were good, the majority of the food wasn’t to my taste. But Tianjin food (or at least… the cooks from Shandong who have all moved to Tianjin) rocks!

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