Digital Dave's Ruminations

This is the place...

...where Digital Dave occasionally shares his thoughts on China, Photography, and other various and random subject-matter.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Greetings from the Consumer’s Republic of China

That’s right, the Consumer’s Republic of China, because the Chinese people are consuming like never before. It’s been a marvelous experience to watch China’s social and economic climate morph so dramatically over the course of the past four years. On our first visit in 2002, Beijing was a city that was obviously modernizing at a blazing pace but was still largely stuck in the funk of its previous Socialist/Communist/Maoist incarnation. It felt like it was still the 1950s in most parts of Beijing; maybe the ‘80s in the newer and revitalized sections of town. There was a very distinct sense in ’02 that we were experiencing perhaps the last vestiges of the world’s one remaining old-school communist enclave and, quite frankly, that lent the experience a certain element of adventure and even cachet.

Four years and five visits later, that somehow dangerous edge is now mostly gone; vanished into the whirlwind of the world’s fastest-growing (capitalist) economy. Beijing isn’t so gritty anymore. The sidewalks of Wangfujing Road are now cleaner than those in America. The sprawling three-block-long, multi-storied department stores feature all of the world’s top fashion houses and electronics retailers and, perhaps most amazingly, charge essentially the same prices as in Europe and America. Many commodities are of course substantially cheaper in China than elsewhere in the world because they are manufactured here where the cost of labor is inexpensive. A new Volkswagen Jetta, for example, that was built in VW’s Shanghai factory can be purchased in China for the equivalent of about $9,000 and everything from clothes to housewares can be bought relatively cheaply. But the Chinese are also using their increased purchasing-power to buy the more more expensive goods imported from the West that are now within their reach as well as pricey, higher-quality products made at home.

So, can the average Beijinger afford a $300 pair of Diesel jeans? Don’t know, but there were certainly plenty of locals browsing in the Diesel store and some were leaving with merchandise. That’s a quantum leap in the economy of scale of life in China versus even a year ago.

It’s not, however, just the economy and aesthetic of Beijing that’s changed so dramatically, it’s also the attitude. Beijingers are embracing consumerism with a zeal and enthusiasm that only a populace that has been for so long economically (and politically) oppressed could possibly muster. Consumer culture has become, particularly among the young, as much a lifestyle as a prerogative, leaving so many old-timers looking a bit lost and bewildered. It’s hard to imagine what those older citizens must think about all the NBA logo-ed basketball clothes the kids are wearing, not to mention the enormous, 40-foot-tall sculpted basketball player that clings to side of a four-story Wangfujing district sports-apparel shop. In fact, basketball is only one of the more obvious icons of Beijing’s new attitude; everything Western is in fashion, from Disney to Dell (the latter ought to completely open the floodgates), and to appreciate the significance of that, one need only to consider that merely 20 years ago, the Chinese were still being indoctrinated to believe that all things Western (read: American) were evil.

This may all be old news for those of you who have been receiving my dispatches from China over the years, but the phenomenal pace of growth and change here really can’t be overstated and it is a major part of the essence of today’s China. People from around the world who attend the 2008 Beijing Olympics will undoubtedly be impressed with the city and its world-class culture and amenities; most will never have known a Beijing other than the modern and clean metropolis that they will experience.

As most of you already know, Katrinka’s ongoing archaeology project is located in a part of China that is the very antithesis of shiny & new Beijing. Henan is one of China’s most rural provinces and it’s also (un-intuitively) China’s most densely populated province. In our little neck of Henan, the air is thick with a noxious mixture of smoke and particulate matter comprised of a veritable smorgasbord of pollutants; on most days visibility is a matter of yards, not miles. The sun, when visible, appears in the sky as a thin, pale, distinctly-defined coronal disc, the rest of its ambient light diffused and swallowed up by the veil of thick, grey, mist that lurks over everything like dirty old threadbare curtains. Welcome back to the heartland of China, the real China. Yes, welcome once again to the fair city of Yanshi, and the dog-eared but oddly endearing Yanshi Binguan (hotel). Oh, and let’s not forget the archaeological excavation site and field station that we share with a family of village farmers, two mangy dogs, a cat, several dozen chickens, a confused rooster (he crows every time I use what passes for the bathroom, which, in turn, gets the dogs barking and the cat meowing, creating a din that only an aspirin salesman could love), hungry mosquitos, at least one lizard, and countless exoctic insects that are mostly unidentifiable to us.

In spite of our not-exactly-utopian conditions, it’s been wonderful to be back in this city where we’ve made many friends and acquaintances over the years and which is by now familiar to us to the extent that we occasionally have the utterly bizarre experience of giving local cab drivers directions around town. The city’s hoard of cabbies are especially happy to see us wealthy lao wai (literally, ‘old outsiders’, a semi-respectful term for foreigners) again; in fact, they seem to be relaying to one another our every move via their car radios in hopes that we may desire their services to run errands around town or, for an even bigger payday, need to pick something up in big city of Luoyang, some 20 miles down the road. While heading out to dinner recently, one particularly deranged cabbie insisted that I sing into his radio for the entertainment and amusement of all his colleagues listening in their cabs. Who was I to argue? Fortunately, I don’t think they understood the English lyrics to the very carefully considered Frank Zappa song that I elected to sing for them. Probably for the best…

As always, it’s all in good and playful fun with the cabbies and just about everyone else around here. It’s really quite remarkable how well we’re generally treated by everyone and it’s kind of amazing to contemplate that, among others, there’s an old, street-corner fruit vendor in this random, third-world backwater halfway around the world from where we live that recognizes us and is happy to see us. At the risk of overt sentimentalism and flagrant cliché, it is rather heartwarming.

Still and all, even after so many visits, it remains difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about China that is so enchanting and compelling. Obviously, being in this country during a time of great social and economic change, as it emerges from the death-throes of the great social experiment known as Chinese Communism and shakes off the dust of it’s recent past while finding a new direction for itself in the world, is an incredibly valuable experience. As well, China’s amazing juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern and its unique aesthetic is certainly of interest to anyone who has ever wondered what such an exotic and historic culture as this might look like beyond what we know from old paintings and our local Chinatowns. And certainly China’s exquisite natural beauty - its gorgeous limestone mountains and cavernous river-gorges, not to mention the majestic peaks of the Tibetan Plateau, the ‘Rooftop of the World’ - rival the most spectacular landscapes anywhere on the planet. But, ultimately, why should a country that is still largely a rural (more than 800 million people live in the countryside, 100 million of them in cave-dwellings), filthy, third-world, breeding-ground for exotic diseases (it’s not unusual to see kids poop right on the sidewalk), where carbon monoxide masquerades as ‘air’, hold such an addictive fascination?

Perhaps it has something to do with how such a vast number of people, packed so closely together, manage to live their lives so harmoniously on a day to day basis. This is a place where there is little or no expectation of personal privacy, and yet despite so much social and political upheaval throughout their long history, the Chinese seem to have attained an almost Zen-like ability to live together in a symbiotic and palpably loving fashion, with little of the tension and hostility that seems so ordinary in the West. Maybe, as life becomes more and more complex for the Chinese, and the competition among themselves for money and resources becomes fiercer, they will come to know some of that daily grind. I hope not. But for now, this culture exudes the very essence of the word community, and that seems to be the fundamental difference between China and America, where these days it too-often feels like it’s every man for himself.

I’ll have some photos from this visit posted on my website soon; I will send you all a notification and the website link when the photos are online.

Wishing you all well,

- Dave

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