China: The Parallax View

If I had to sum up China in one word, it would be dirty. After two years of living here, I'm in a position to offer a much more "close-up" perspective than when I first stepped off the plane and into my exciting new world.

Pollution is a well-documented problem here, backed up by copious amounts of data, statistics and graphs. Any resident in Tianjin only has to look up into the sky to see the constant haze that hovers over the city. Weary cyclists dragging carts of coal trundle through the street as they feed the fuel demands of the burgeoning economy. Factories continually belch smoke into the air, creating an almost Dickensian scene. According to the World Bank, China has 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities and estimates suggest that 300,000 people a year die prematurely from respiratory diseases.

The public lavatories are simply some of the most disgusting you will ever encounter. 5,000 years of history have failed to yield a flush toilet. Instead, an individual is greeted by a ceramic hole, and for privacy a waist high partition. If you're lucky you might get a cubicle and a Western style toilet, and if lady luck is really smiling down on you, a door with a working lock. The stench is nauseating due to antiquated sewage systems--and because cleaning is performed not with the use of disinfectants but with a mop and water and the belief that spreading it across the floor somehow helps.

But the government is wising up, realizing that with the 2008 Olympics around the corner, it can't lose face to hordes of foreigners accustomed to advanced plumbing. Reuters reported in July 2005 that Beijing is gearing up for the Olympics by upgrading 1,263 public lavatories. The news will--literally--be a breath of fresh air to many people.

Recently, Mark Magnier of the Los Angeles Times wrote an excellent article titled "China elbowing its way to improved etiquette" that discussed the lack of manners prevailing in China and the government's attempt to improve them... all in time for the Olympics. He revealed that even the turgid propaganda rag China Daily was unhappy with unruly crowd behavior at a world snooker tournament in Beijing, declaring "Bad behavior left unchecked at one sports event can grow like a cancer and destroy an entire Olympics."

I can confirm that spitting, nose-picking, barging, elbowing, urinating in the street, poor or non-existent basic hygiene and other assorted acts are commonplace. It's very difficult to provide statistics on the number of times I've seen such events, but people simply do not often wash their hands when leaving a bathroom. A smile often reveals a selection of yellow teeth and gaps. A vacation in Inner Mongolia allowed me on one memorable day to be awoken by a "dawn chorus" of twenty men outside my yurt (domed tent) dredging up phlegm from their throats and spitting with reckless abandon.

Spitting is not solely reserved for areas outside. Students within the confines of a school I worked for would routinely spit on a burgundy-colored carpet, displaying wanton disregard, arrogance and a lack of hygiene. Admittedly the carpet was distasteful in color, but that didn't warrant a layer of spittle upon it.

Piles of rubbish are left to fester in the street awaiting collection at nightfall, and when the summer temperature rises as high as 104°F (40°C), little imagination is required to appreciate the smell of this putrid mass.

However, things are always improving. On the streets of Tianjin, strange green objects have been appearing. These turned out to be large garbage cans and as you've probably already guessed, it's all in the name of face-saving for the Olympics. Tianjin will host part of the soccer competition during the games, and is very keen to look the part of an ideal Chinese society.

As more Chinese come into contact with the West and its culture, some positive aspects are beginning to take hold. Our plumbing for a start, but also little things like perfume, aftershave, toothpaste, and deodorant will become standard and not luxuries.

All this talk of squalor and filth gives the impression that life is awful here. However, because life is full of contradictions, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Chinese may be a bit coarse, but it's not as if other people around the world don't have their rude moments. Most people are friendly and lack aggression, and Tianjin is reportedly one of the safest places to live in China. Statistically, I wouldn't trust the local government, but it's the feeling as you walk the streets or mingle with the people that is the greater indicator.

People may look over my shoulder to stare at the text messages on my cell phone (they would never understand the words) or peer into my shopping trolley to see what the "foreigner" is buying, or laugh at my hairy arms--but rather than become irritated by this lack of social decorum, I tend to take it with a pinch of salt and find it charmingly childlike at times.

Strangely, I am happier here than I ever was in England or my previous choice, Germany. It's absurd that I'm living in a country that rigorously controls the Internet, imprisons dissidents, and curtails liberties, yet I feel more personal freedom, which is undoubtedly due to the fact that I am a foreigner.

The Chinese are still a little wary of our presence; sometimes suspicious, sometimes timid, sometimes just plain curious. But apart from having to register with the local police station and prove that I have a valid passport, visa and an apartment, I am left alone--so I feel free. However, I would be the first to agree that it's an illusion that would be violently shattered if I were to step out of line and upset the government.

If I work for a company, I see no benefits, no insurance and certainly no chance of a pension. My "tax" is deducted at source, which means it goes into the pocket of the manager and not to the government. It's all about power, corruption and lies. But since I'm out of the loop and not part of the system, I receive more money than the average Chinese worker.

A Chinese graduate fresh out of university might get around 1500 RMB per month (US$185), but a foreign teacher will make 5-6 times more, while a foreign businessman will be earning 20 times more and higher. Considering that a large bottle of beer, a taxi ride across town or the latest DVD all cost around 8 RMB each (US$1) it gives us much greater spending power and more opportunities to enjoy life.

Happiness is also derived from the sensation of change and progression constantly occurring. It's this kind of energy and momentum that is appealing. Things are moving forward here, and I would never dream of leaving a country where there's so much to see and so much potential for growth.

My next step on a personal level is to become more acquainted with the language and culture. While having many foreign friends is wonderful, it's a challenge to become better integrated with the natives and feel less of an outsider or observer and more of a participant.

When or if that occurs, it will provide another fresh perspective that I'm going to share with you.

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Posted 10-18-2005 2:01 PM by AntonyPeyton
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