By James Jeffrey
He looked back at me seeming taken aback, his hair disheveled, his face scruffy and his eyes wild. Yet it was only my reflection in the mirror. The face of a man who’d spent more than a month in China as part of a University of Texas-Austin Maymester program.
China defies a pithy explanation. True, it is a country of 1.34 billion people. But beyond the statistics is a cauldron of seething humanity with their individual stories. Those in the program had been trying to explore some of those stories, but as my reflection suggested, I for one was far from figuring it all out. You don’t come to China, have a snoop around and come away with a neat solution.
After a few days in China, one student came up with the expression: “Hey man, it’s China,” that was used as we encountered surprises and conundrums, echoing the end of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” when a thwarted Jack Nicholson is told: “Forget it Jake—it’s Chinatown.”
Another student spoke of the “magic” of China where anything happens or goes, and he had a point. Despite being a communist country with an authoritarian government, as long as you avoid a few particulars—talk politics, Taiwan, Tibet—often it seems you can do what you like in China.
During a previous American road trip, an American soldier I met in a bar said referring to bureaucracy and governmental interference, “Welcome to the most un-free free country in the world.” In China it could be said, “Welcome to the most free un-free country in the world.”
We quickly learned that for drivers at traffic lights in China, green means go; amber means go even faster and red means look to the side and pretend you didn’t see red. In a Shanghai toy shop, after a few choice words, suddenly a secret door swung open and we were led into an Aladdin’s cave of counterfeit designer handbags, purses and deluxe watches that exploded from hidden drawers. And all the while, state-owned beer means you are guaranteed a cheap relaxing option at the end of a hard day’s work.
Beneath the slick skyscrapers, there is a ramshackle chaos to China that is hard not to like and often seems to speak to a deeply human desire to just do your own thing and be left to get on with it—much like the founding ideal of America, when it broke away from the overbearing interference of the British crown. There is obviously a dark side: massive corruption, gross human right’s violations, and environmental destruction. I won’t go into them, as there’s plenty enough to read with publications increasingly paying attention to China due to it’s rising global presence.
“The 19th century was Britain’s, the 20th century was America’s, the 21st century will be China’s,” said British journalist Rob Gifford during a presentation to our group. There is a frantic energy and momentum both on the city streets and out in the countryside, where billboards abound promoting snazzy property developments and the skyline is sketched with construction cranes at work.
That buzz permeates everywhere—like the old hutong streets of Beijing, where we discovered delicious Chinese food while surrounded by tables erupting with shouts as if a fight were breaking out. But upon looking round you’d see smiles and a toddler being bounced on a knee. Shanghai lived up to its reputation of being the ultimate cocktail blender: taking East and West, Old and New, and forging a glimpse into the future with it’s Pudong district and time traveling back to the 1930s with a trip to the Bund.
A few myths to bust: the Chinese aren’t all small; they’re getting taller. They aren’t all eating dogs; in fact there’s an ever-growing pet movement underway. They haven’t kowtowed to communist brain washing. Rather for now, while the economy booms, they’ll leave things be. But push the humble Chinese citizen too far and they do speak and lash out at authority.
Admittedly, there were a few things I didn’t like: the plain clothes police men around Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, with their robotic expressions; the ever-present Mao Zedong and his seeming deification by the party and many Chinese; the lack of historical integrity and true analysis by those in charge.
Ultimately, there is the sheer hypocrisy, for all to see, of a “communist” system that betrayed the workers for a business elite and is now finally doing something for those workers, as it’s so scared of the potential for backlash. But beneath all that, the most redeeming thing continually was the normal Chinese people, who despite many confusing Chinese characteristics, are more often than not, deep down, just like you and me.