Language, linguistics and travel. A blog that tries to bring them all together.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Changes in China

I've been in China for two whole days now and all I can say is that it's knocking me for a loop. I came to here fourteen years ago and spent four months criss-crossing the country until finally exiting via the Khunjerab Pass into Pakistan. China in those days was not exactly foreigner friendly. We had a special currency all of our own called the Foreign Exchange Certificate (FEC) to pay for the few overpriced hotels we could stay at, exorbitantly expensive train tickets and foreigner price entrance tickets to all the country's major and minor attractions. It was officially illegal for us to possess the local currency, renminbi, but it was impossible to exist without it as most Chinese people had never heard of FEC and refused to accept them. The trick was to change dollars for FEC then sell them on the black market for a slight profit. With the government officially ripping us off, the local people couldn't resist getting in on the act; we invariably paid ten to twenty times the local rate for just about everything.

Just getting from the border to Nanning was an exercise in how China had changed. I used to figure how long a bus journey would take by dividing the distance by 25 kilometers per hour and was generally very accurate. The buses were wheezing, overcrowded antiques and the roads questionable at best. This time I was whisked to the bus station by a three wheeled motorcycle taxi to board a luxury air-conditioned bus that left within three minutes of my arrival. It wasn't even close to full. As we pulled out of the station, a hostess in a purple and white uniform with a red satin sash came down the aisle and offered us each a complimentary bottle of mineral water. Once we hit the highway, she made the circuit once again, this time making sure we all had a seat belts securely fastened. Seat belts on a half-empty bus in China?! It was as incongruous as an picture of Mao Tse Tung in a three piece suit and tie. Even the road was a surprise; a smooth four lane highway that began and ended at a toll booth and came complete with sparklingly new crash barriers. There was hardly any traffic but even that drove sedately, making sure it stayed in its lane and obeyed the speed limit. Outside the sealed window a fog enshrouded scenery of karst hills and delicate linear fields whipped by the window. On the bus's television set a Chinese woman belted out songs in English then Mr. Bean fumbled with office equipment. It was all so startling prosaic. It took only two hours to cover the 200 kilometers to Nanning's southern bus station which, like the journey itself, was as modern and efficient as a digital watch.

Eschewing a taxi, I decided to ask at the information booth where I could find a bus to the train station in the center of town and was told by a giggling girl in a uniform to take bus number 213. The bus was like any found in America or Japan: hard plastic seats, a bar down the center with hand grips and a succession of quick halts at glass covered shelters. Anyone examining my face would probably have mistaken me for a rube from the country the way I gawped at the modern high rises and ample, well laid out open spaces. Above all it was the cleanliness that amazed me. There were trash cans on the street! And people were using them!! I felt like I'd arrived in the wrong country.

I still expected the hotel arrangements to echo the past but even that proved false. I spotted a hotel offering rooms for 80 yuan a night as we neared the station . "Right," I thought, "I'll try that one. They'll probably turn me away, telling me it's only for Chinese people, but there's no harm in trying." I got the place; a single room with a bathroom and a view across to a housing complex. I found out later that within the last year almost all hotels have been opened to foreigners.

A walk around downtown Nanning was equally as startling. The central district is dominated by a crisp, clean, modern shopping plaza that hosts so many McDonald's restaurants I'm beginning to wonder if I should eat at one to make sure my experience in China is complete. What is most amazing of all is that I haven't been ripped off once. To my great surprise the prices, even for a pack of cigarettes, are marked and even if they aren't I'm charged the same price as everyone else: a corn cob from a street vendor costs one yuan for me (about 12 cents) as it does for everyone else, an ice cream cost half that.

I'm slowly coming to the realization that China has become rich, not per se in the international sense but as more of an internal idea. By European or American standards these people are not making much money, but that seems to be offset by the amount of merchandise they can buy that is now made in China. In the shopping plaza a well heeled clothing store is selling a decent shirt for 15 yuan (a little under two bucks), a high end place is selling a better variety for 90 yuan. Because of the relatively low costs of manufacturing within China itself and the fact that it's enormous population makes it a world unto itself, the Chinese feel they have become well off by local standards. I'm also starting to wonder if there has been a government program to change the actual character or the people. I have a television in my room with all of the 45 channels broadcasting in Chinese. Intermittently I catch a public service message that is an indication of the direction this country is taking. In one of them, a handsome, well built man is jogging through the center of a city. Suddenly he spots a piece of trash on the ground. With an appreciative audience looking on, he flips up the can with his feet, in the style of world class soccer players, and propels it towards a trash can. It enters one opening but with reckless abandon exits through another. Enter: a sporty Chinese lass in form fitting sweats. She slows to a trot, bends down to pick up the can and puts it where it belongs, in the trash; just like everyone else should do. The gathered crowd smiles approvingly, then the two goodlooking atheletes exchange knowing looks and jog off camera.

It would be absurd for me to judge modern China by one bus ride and a single city. All I've read of China lately has suggested that the countryside is not doing quite so well. Even in Nanning a suggestion of the old ways lurks behind every modern building in the guise of decaying housing projects and hand to mouth existences. An older profession is also making a comeback. On the road leading from my hotel to the train station, ladies in painted faces and skimpy dresses call out to all male pedestrians, inviting them to step inside their grungy, open front boudoirs for some momentary pleasures.


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