Friday, June 11, 2010

I went to China and all I got was a suitcase full of clothes

50% of my house (mother, father, dog, me) is preoccupied with China. (I am not, dog is not). Its often China this, China that. Foreign policy, territory, look at what the Chinese are doing now. My parents went to China last year and came back super impressed with the technological progress. I heard about Shanghai's elevated roads for weeks. I remembered that, a few years ago, when an Indian Express reporter had gone to China, she had written that you never see an extra person hanging about in China. They are all doing something that means something. And they stand in lines. You know, everything that is not India.

So, with all these things in mind, I decided to join a friend in Beijing and Shanghai. I had a list of things I wanted to see: The Great Wall, Forbidden City, Military Museum; everything that sounded deadly, and to be honest, scary. Even my Express editor had made a face when I'd mentioned I was going to China..."why there?" So you can imagine, I was expecting some form of a sterile clean hospital masquerading as a country.

Hello, shock -- I didn't expect you! The Chinese are noisy, pushy, smelly (noodles and cigarettes), juvenile, talkative and obsessed with ice cream!

As I travelled through the streets of Beijing and Shanghai, the question that was swirling in my mind the whole time was: "how would I describe China in an article?" And the same answer kept coming back to me again and again. I felt that the urban populations -- because I never ventured out of these two cities -- are encouraged to be, and also trapped in, a state of perpetual adolescence. Perhaps its the consumer culture that is literally exploding from every corner because of new-to-China capitalism. Perhaps its the fact that its a Communist country that needs its people distracted enough to not challenge government. Perhaps it is the fact that the state encourages these mass good that spill onto the streets. Perhaps its the fact that most of urban China consists of young, single, trendy people with no siblings; so therefore very independent lives which cash to spend and not much family to spend it on. (In fact, imagine a generation of people who have no idea what it is to grow up with a brother or sister. They have at the most, two first cousins.) They are riding the wave that the Chinese government is providing them: fast jobs, flashy cities, deep pockets, and the joy of being an only child. Perhaps its all of the above!

And what do I mean by perpetual adolescence: fasination with cartoons (especially wearing cartoon themed clothes), ice cream nearing a national obsession, most grown women wearing only "cute" clothes (its as if the concept of 'sexy' has not yet arrived in China) and finally, a meekness and an inability to think for yourself.

To clarify, I don't mean that there are no independent, mature, wordly men and women in China. There are. But allow me to highlight some simple stories that might show you what I mean by stunted personalities. Of course, there is no doubt that this is a direct result of a communist regime where rules and rules are rules -- and they are not meant to be broken. We took a boat ride in Shanghai. By the time we reached the top of the boat, all the chairs were taken. Predictably, we asked the waiter if we could have another chair. He said no, only these chairs were available. I looked inside; a few rooms had spare chairs. Can we bring them out, I asked. No. Getting angry, I said I didn't want to stand through the boat ride and went off downstairs, with my friend Ankur, to find the captain. Finally the captain gave us 3 folding chairs from a stack of folding chairs downstairs. We came upstairs, sat on them. Another Chinese couple looked at us curiously, and inquired about getting chairs as well. The waiter said no, they listened. Finally, an hour later, when we were leaving the boat, the couple noticed the stack of folding chairs on the way out. The man went beserk. I hadn't really seen that. I thought about it -- in India, the enterprising waiter would have made a big production about getting a chair to earn a tip. Not in China. A rule is a rule is a rule. The same thing happened with us at the Shanghai Museum. Purchases were paid for on one card, but we wanted separate bags. "One bag per purchase," the cashier kept repeating till we explained to him that giving out an extra plastic bag really isn't a big deal. I won't bore you with more stories, but you get the drift.

At the same time, there is a growing concern about these nuclear families. Outside the MOCA (Shanghai Musuem of Contemporary Art), after a lazy lunch at the fabulous garden restaurant, Barbarossa, we came across tens of people in the garden sitting with posters with lists on them. They were in Chinese, so I couldn't make out what was going on. A few of the signs had pictures and for a fleeting second I wondered if this was a protest about missing people. But on second glance, the pictures were more facebook-y than anything, and I realised this was a marriage market! Reading the year of birth on the posters, it seems the parents of countless 29-33 year olds had given up on letting their children find a suitable mate and taken to the streets (or gardens!) There were even more people browsing through the posters, mostly older couples, ostensibly looking for a mate for their child. Coming from a country built on matrimonial ads and the rest, it wasn't new -- but the desperate form it took spoke volumes about what the undercurrent regarding the single child is.

Its not just the parents. Young Chinese are definitely thinking about this policy too. For better or for worse, Psingh and I were stuck in the middle of a 5 hour diatribe on the subject (in Chinese) on a local train from Beijing to Shanghai. Firstly, we were told only a chair car was available. 13 hours? Seemed a bit much, but mentally picturing a Shatabdi, we decided to wing it. I won't bother going into how we almost missed the train -- literally running on the platform with our bags as the trains signal went off.... getting into whatever bogey was in front of me... trudging through the local compartments that were teeming with people -- because me and my friends always ending up chasing trains, planes and buses. But when we did get on, it turned out to be 3rd class equivalent of China's train system... complete with seat sharing, smoking indoors and the stench of alcohol. And surprise! The lights were not switched off at night (how much was I missing the Indian Railways at night!) and people are "expected" to talk. And they did! After the initial staring at us, laughing at us, and half the compartment watching Ugly Betty with us on my laptop, they finally forgot us. Unfortunately, we were caught in the middle of a hectic conversation which, as much as we tried, we could not end. Betty, a young Chinese girl who spoke some English, translated a bit for me -- and yes, the single child policy was being hotly contested. Perhaps liberal living will ultimately give way to liberal thinking; it must surely be interlinked at some level. This -- without a free media.

By the way, Betty also asked Psingh and me if we were sisters and then told us that she couldn't tell us apart! Nice racial profiling here, Betts :)

But my own racial profiling aside, I have to say I was so impressed with Shanghai that I kinda want to live there for a bit! Its a newer New York in terms of infrastructure, and time will tell in terms of energy. Right now the World Expo is going on and the city is basking in the glory. Signs are everywhere, the road adorned with flowers, English hotlines have been set up for clueless tourists like me and restaurants are full. In comparison, Beijing is like a sleepy old town, the hotbed of monuments and government. I'd be inclined to make a Delhi-Bombay comparison, but I assure you, these cities a couple of many decades into the future!

That brings us into this whole planning debate, which can get messy. It also takes me back to my living room. Is the Chinese model better? But what about democracy? Can you really plan out entire sections of the city, neat and clean, and then allow people to settle there? Or must it always through extensive debate and protests and have each vote counted. I know that a lot of the older people I have met who have gone to China (even people I met at the airport) feel disillusioned at the fact that India is no where close to looking - and functioning - as developed as China. After visiting China, Kamal Nath's "India China in the same breath" statements seem hollow. That I've met people who have travelled to the interiors and said that development is taking place everywhere makes me wonder if China will ever move towards democracy the way it is moving a few centuries ahead. After all, Google, Facebook, Youtube and other staples of our online lives were missing, and I have heard about email accounts being closed overnight.

In the end, my test to myself is: would I rather be born a girl in India or one in China? Riding the wave of urbanization here, or riding it there.

I choose India -- as long as I can make it to China's banging cities every once in a while. As yes, fill those suitcases!

PS - I had a whole of adventures in China that I'll write about soon-ish! Keep coming back!


SV said...

Love it!
And I am thankful that someone else picked up on the fact that wearing cartoon t-shirts and owning 'Hello kitty' pencil cases at ages > 12 is whack!
Well done M - you make me proud!

egg style said...

Fascinating observation, China's adolescence trap. After all, there's a theory that India being a democracy is bound to come out ahead eventually since participatory democracy demands higher-order consensual thinking on the part of its participants. Greater maturity, if you will. Unless, of course, 'participatory democracy' is contorted to effectively mean an electoral dictatorship of the majority, a tendency in India that makes a mockery of all the high-falutin claims that jingoists periodically make to advertise an affinity with modern values.

No less fascinating is the ice-cream obsession you notice in China. Unilever's global chief, on a trip to that country, once decided to make ice-cream the arrowhead of the company's big marketing thrust after witnessing an amazing sight in a public square: a parent buys his kid a cone, the kid dislikes the flavour and dumps it; the parent buys another, and the kid dumps this one too; and when the parent strikes lucky the third flavour round, he is more than overjoyed to shell out a wad of cash for three scoops (the vendor-parent team even celebrates the success with the Chinese equivalent of a high-five)!

Lacto-resistance is high in China, and such brat behaviour is restricted to the well-off. Still, "skim, then penetrate" is the likely Unilever strategy (first whisk off the creamy layer of the rich, then go for the mass market). This is a company that makes consumer behaviour management its long term business, and by your telling, it looks as if they know exactly what they're doing there.

Should anyone complain? Marketing is marketing. There's this superb book on Unilever called 'To The Desert and Back' (2003) that suggests that company strategists actually chow down stuff like TE Lawrence's understanding of Jordanian landscapes (yes, Lawrence of "Lawrence of my-labia" fame from 'Sex and the City 2') to work out alt-culture stuff like how to get Chinese youth slurp happy!

mahima said...

I like that you talk about Unilever and Sex and the City in the same sentence!

IR said...

democracy does not come in the way of development , lack of accountability and planning does.

in india if the govt wants to do something which is not popular and may i say stupid , they go ahead with it , like BRT.

you are bing kind , we live in the dark ages in comparirion to china , they have super fast trains that can do delhi-mumbai in 3-4 hrs , imagine how something like that can change india , slove our problems of over crowded cities ,

we are still happy with "garib rath" , this inspite of the fact , we inherited a better rail system from the british.

i am not toosure for how long can they sustain there present model of governance , there are already cases of labour unrest , maybe this is where we have an edge
did you go to the india stall at the expo ?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Victor from California here,
I enjoyed reading your account.
I spent a month in China 3 years ago, traveling far into the rural interior as well as to several big cities ---Beijing, Xian,Shanghai,Chongching,Wuhan, Guilin,Hong Kong and many points in between -- and I saw lots and lots of poverty in small farming communities: earthen floors, no electricity,no healthcare, subsistence diet and so on.
Local village or provincial Communist officials control and often exploit for themselves, directly or indirectly, most of the resources. The fast development in the cities does little to improve rural life.
One billion 300 million people.
75% still live in rural areas where the wealth and promise generated on the coast does not reach.
This dissatisfied and restive population is the reason the Communist party remains so oppressive. The history of China is rife with peasant rebellion toppling dynasties.
If even a fourth of the peasantry arose as one, the Communist Party would be finished.
Population pressures, as in India, are a big social factor.

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