China Dispatch 1: Return to Abnormalcy
The Beijing to Shanghai bullet train takes 6 hours with stops. 750 Miles. New York to Chicago. (China now has 14,000 miles—and growing with each keystroke—of high-speed rail, 2/3 of the world’s total). At each city, the nimble, futuristic monster eases to a stop, absent even the faintest luggage-jolting whiplash. At each stop—there are 10, maybe—an attendant frantically yells at some nameless passengers to get the fuck back on the train. I hear but don’t see. Every stop, the same. Every stop, get the fuck back on the train.
I get off at Changzhou, a few clicks from Shanghai. Alighting, I see the scene unfold—the scene which from inside the train I could only hear. At each entrance a few men stand on the yellow warning strip, sucking urgently on cigs, straining out each rip like a parched infant.
Get back on the train!
One foot in, one foot out.
Rip, rip, toss.
The men slide in. The attendants follow. The train slings into motion.
Development outpacing culture.
The mad struggle to adapt old habits to new circumstances.
I was in Beijing for a few days, passing through after a trip to the village I used to work in in Yunnan, down in China’s less developed Southwest. I had not been back in two years. When I left two years ago, I left on a piece-of-shit-under-construction dirt road that was “almost done” for the entire time I lived there. Buses rode that road like boats in a storm. Now, that road is done. But no one uses it anymore. Because they built a highway right next to it. With tollbooths and speed cameras and signs threatening consequences should their instructions be transgressed.
When I left, two years ago, I paid in cash. Some big stores advertised the taking of credit cards, but their machines were invariably broken and the guy in charge of fixing them was invariably otherwise occupied. Now, they look at me like I’m handing out dying squirrels when I pay with paper RMB. It's been two years. No one uses cash anymore. There is no human interaction-transaction. One phone pays another.
I’m on the outskirts of the county seat, 30 minutes from Sanzhuang--the village where I used to teach. I’m ambling along a newly built walkway that leads to a trashless, clean reservoir. The path, concrete steps and a wooden overhang, beautifully carved and colored, evocative of imperial Chinese pagodas, starts at a monument to Mao's Long March and leads to the trashless reservoir. I’m walking with two former colleagues. They’re married, both in their mid-30’s. Their 10 year old daughter, perennially first in the class, skips ahead. At its peak, before the descent down to the reservoir begins, you can glimpse the small county seat—Heqing—in its entirety. It’s pre-twilight. a few strokes down on the brightness modulator. Lights are starting to come on. Flashing signs for Glory and Splendor Guesthouse and Bright Treasure Hotel cut sharply through the late afternoon glaze. Dark green mountains rise in every direction. A group of teens takes selfies against the city.
“It’s crazy. You know, all this stuff,” I motion to the reservoir and the walkway, “wasn’t even here when I left.”
“China is developing fast.”
“When I was six years old, we got our first light bulb.” Down the hill, Prosperous Home Inn advertises itself in bright neon green and purple.
“You can imagine what life was like for our parents.”
We walk and talk and reminisce as the sun gets lost behind the mountains. I ask their daughter to translate simple Chinese vocabulary words into English. Her parents smile. We drive Mr. Li’s car to the family’s apartment in the city. There are plenty of light bulbs. Wi-fi. A washer machine. A fully stocked fridge. No AC, but I can’t imagine it’s too far off.
It must be stressful to live in China. My mind summons the image of the powerless smokers, exhaling as bullet train doors slide shut. Your new credit card is in the mail when you see a phone scannable QR code where the cash drawer used to be at the fruit stand on the corner. You buy the fall collection only to find out its summer again. You put it all on black, only to find out they just invented blue.
Twenty-seven years ago, the Pudong section of Shanghai, now the site of two of the 10 tallest buildings on planet earth, was farmland.
Later, over shots of esophagus-torturing baijiu, my head still spins.
“Isn’t it, like, a lot? You’re used to one way of doing things, then another way comes along. You get used to that. Then another.”
Gulp. Unhideable look of disgust.
“I mean, for real though, it’s fast. Isn’t it fast?”
“Human beings are very good at adapting. It’s very exciting, anyway. Is it fast? Maybe it’s fast. We want it to be even faster.” He laughs.
No AC. No clean water. No Rolex.
I often wonder what would happen if you took, say, Ben Franklin or any semi-ancient character, and put him in a 2017 office building. I think, at first, he would shit himself. Then he would have a lot of questions. Then he would look for someone to tell about it. And by Wednesday he'd be pissed off about the spam in his inbox and the erratic internet connection and the lack of quality lunch options within walking distance.
If the world descended into all out war this afternoon, I would fucking hate it. But, I would deal with it and fight in it and try to make it go away.
It’s true. We adapt real quick.
Maybe in 5 years the bullet train will stop for half as long at each platform. The smokers might not have time for even one puff. They'll still ride the train. Maybe they'll find themselves on a plane. They'll still fly. They'll scratch and claw and suck air for the first four hours of the Shanghai to New York direct. But, they'll eat a snack pack, find a tolerable position, and fall asleep by hour six.
Sure, it takes longer for some. I still read paperbacks. Grandmas still call. Texas still wants to use special textbooks. My wallet is full of cash and my phone is insolvent. But we adapt. In the end, we adapt. And it's wild to see China, to see it in real time--to see how quickly things change. And more wild yet, to see how easily we change with them.