Where This Meets That
I looked out the middle row driver’s side window as I crossed the Jiangyin Suspension Bridge by van. The goliath crosses the Yangtze River, nearly a mile wide at this narrow point. Concrete towers 60-stories tall support main suspender cables a meter wide. It is an incredible and iconic feat of engineering and the sixth longest suspension bridge in the world today. But you must see it up close, or you might not see it at all.
As I recall the poor visibility up and down the river caused by industrial smog, I can’t help but to view this as a microcosm of China as a whole. Here in the States, we tend to lose China in a fog of controlled births, poisoned toys, and Cold War-style posturing. A closer look, however, reveals a marvel of growth and cultural dynamism.
An entire generation has grown since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. This generation has never known anything but the tremendous growth, progress, and increased cultural openness that China’s modern industrial revolution is providing. As a result, it would appear that there is no turning back for China.
I would be remiss to say that the industrial explosion that is so rapidly modernizing urban China reflects a nationwide phenomenon; rural mainland China lags well behind the more coastal industrial centers. This gap brings millions of Chinese in from the mainland each year to seek employment from the countless manufacturers in the coastal regions. Here, they share dormitories with others with similar plans to make enough money to get their start in working life or to make enough money to return home to the families they’ve left far away in less promising provinces.
They are hard-working people, spending perhaps 12 hours per day wrapping fine copper wires around tiny plastic cores or using razor knifes to precisely cut and remove thin strips of film from printed circuit boards. Mindless work that makes our lives here in the States immeasurably easier.
They are husbands, mothers, sisters, brothers, daughters, and sons. Their smiles are warm, their attitudes inviting. But all these traits are lost from afar. Lost in the legacy of a forbidden empire and the politics of a people unnerved that China holds $800B of their national debt (i.e., us) and whose growth shows no signs of slowing.
During this, my first, visit to China, I was amazed at how comfortable I felt immersed in the squall of the Chinese metropolis. I heeded the advice of those who’d traveled here frequently in the past, to keep my wallet in my front pocket and to avoid any seedier parts of town (good suggestions for Atlanta, too, by the way). However, I never felt the slightest bit more threatened than I have in any other mass of humanity.
You’ve probably heard about the traffic; it certainly lives up to its reputation. The image that sticks best in my memory came my first night in China as I rode from Shanghai to Wuxi: a man was working his way through traffic on his motorcycle after dark, and seated to his back, facing the rear, was a boy who couldn’t have been older than 3 gripping the seat between his legs with his left hand while his right gripped a sippy cup. Three or even four people riding a single motorcycle are a common sight, traffic signals are largely taken as suggestions instead of law, and horn blasts seem to signal every gearshift. Amidst this environment, however, I couldn’t help but recall the three silly traffic citations I’ve received stateside over the past nine months and somewhat romanticize the Chinese driving system as a result.
In fact, I was hard pressed to “know” that I was in a Communist country at all simply by being there. McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Starbucks, and even Dunkin’ Donuts are all fairly commonplace. Negotiating in the marketplace is as free market as it gets (and a heck of a good time!), and, as far as I could tell, employment was not state-conscribed in any way.
Then I would mention my children to a Chinese counterpart, and she would happily ask their names and ages and what they like to do. Not thinking, I would respond by asking if she has children, too. She would smile and answer, “Yes. One.”