I first came to China in 1994 as a student at Beijing Normal University as a part of the College of William & Mary’s study abroad program.
It was an eye-opening experience for me. On our second day in country we were served fried scorpions at lunch. Even more surprising to me is that 14 out of 16 of the students in our group ate them. I refused. (I then ordered a bowl of chicken soup only to find as I stirred it an eye ball popped to the surface – and this is how I kept my girlish figure while in China, by surviving on white rice with soy sauce and peanuts and garlic stir fried broccoli.) I had my first experience with a squatting toilet – something again I refused to use. I even held “it” one day during a 12 hour bus trip from Changsha to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, steadfast in my determination as each rest stop only presented “traditional” facilities. A delayed flight and Mother Nature eventually forced my hand and it turned out not to be so bad.
We stayed in the international dorm – each of us assigned a Japanese roommate to encourage our Chinese language acquisition even first thing in the morning and just before bed. I had a room on the fifth floor of the dorm – no elevator of course. We had only one telephone per floor located at one end. Hot water in our showers was available from 5 PM. It was supposed to last until eight, but if you waited too long you were generally in for major disappointment – and a very brisk bathe. We also had two hot plates per floor for cooking. I used it perhaps twice in six months – not a surprise at all as my good friends know that is only a little less than I use my kitchen now.
I rented a shelf in a mini fridge of an enterprising Korean student. There I kept my few prized refrigerated items like cheese and Tang. Each of us was issued a large thermos. Most evenings I would make my way down the five flights and to a small brick building across from the dorm where there stood a very large coal furnace constantly heating water. I would pop off the corked top of the thermos and fill it with scalding water and then carry it back up to my room. I would leave the top off overnight to cool the water and then in the morning fill my smaller bottles with the water, mix in the Tang, and then switch the new bottles for the cool ones in the rented fridge.
I had an old bicycle that two thoughtful classmates acquired for me. As I understand it they staked out an area in the massive student bicycle parking area and monitored activity. They identified a weather-beaten green one that, according to them, had been left neglected for weeks. So they liberated it and gave it to me. I did not ask too many more questions. I took it to an on-campus bicycle repair shop to get it into riding shape and I joined the (hundreds) of thousands of Beijing cyclists that took to the roads daily.
I rode to class each morning, with my glass bottle of drinkable yogurt in my basket (the bottles were returned to the dorm café to get a few jiao back), and across town to the little Uygur village behind the Minority University where I would go to the last shed where I bought the most fabulous tudou qiu (potato balls) with a soy sauce and cilantro dipping sauce. Once while riding to my English teaching job of two Korean boys who lived in the Asian Games Village, all the spokes on my wheel dropped off one by one in a spectacular fashion. I simply coasted a few hundred feet to a roadside bicycle repair guy, who for a handful of kuai had me on the road again in no time.
Twenty years later I find myself once again living in China. Although I am in a different city I feel as though my life has circled back around. Amongst the modernity there are glimmers of the past and I experience the occasional sense of déjà vu that transports me back to the China I first knew.
Shanghai is so incredibly modern and glitzy now (as is Beijing and other major Chinese cities) that I imagine few students here would know what to do with the giant furnace I once had to use. And only one phone per hall would be cause for most students these days to walk out in protest.
There are so many things that have changed. No longer are bicycles the chief transportation method. Gone are the bicycle lanes that rivaled those for cars and parking areas where they sat by the thousands awaiting their riders. There are still some intrepid cyclists, but they have been mostly replaced with fancy cars, mopeds, and even electric bicycles.
Train travel too is not what it used to be. The trains now, at least those I have had the pleasure of taking lately, are ultramodern and sleek. Comfortable reclining chairs with tray tables in clean and efficiently serviced non-smoking compartments. This is so far removed from the two day train ride in hard class chairs that my friends and I took between Beijing and Qingdao. On the return trip I remember an old man in front of us smoking beneath the no-smoking sign. When my friend and I asked him to put out the cigarette and pointed out the sign he took a deep draw and turned and blew all the smoke in our faces. The hard seats were just that – hard benches with unforgiving straight backs. Bleary-eyed and desperate for sleep I asked for and received the newspaper another man had finished. I took it and spread it down in the aisle and it was there where I went to sleep for a few hours. I was awoken in the morning at 6 am by the snack cart coming through – I was surrounded by apple cores and banana peels and other debris. And the time we took the two day hard sleeper from Beijing to Chongqing. We were the top of three bunks, maybe a foot and a half from our sleeper, i.e. hard fake leather slab, and the ceiling. A small electric fan by my head kept shorting out and when I tapped it sparks flew and it made a few more revolutions. THAT is train travel my friends, the kind that you never forget.
Advertising is also a bit different. Gone are the unimaginative roadside billboards extolling government policies like this one:
And instead they have been replaced by sleek advertisements for just about everything including luxury goods, international brands, and world-class performances on stage at first-class theaters. Even commercials that remind the Chinese to be good citizens of the world, such as this one, which might surprise many people outside of China:
And probably one of the most surprising things of all is the number of signs everywhere directing Chinese to behave in public. No smoking. No spitting. No littering. No this. No that. People get into lines. I can hardly believe it myself. Gone are the days at a fast food restaurant where those who were served first were those who fought their way to the counter best. Or like when I stood in line at the Forbidden City in Beijing and many people behind me chose to pay those in the front of the line to buy their tickets too. There are still those would-be line jumpers but these days the Chinese around them will usually give them a good scolding and maybe even rough them up.
But there are still glimpses of the past. Off the main glitzy streets, I mean just one block off, you can find clothes still hanging out to dry from apartment windows – even twenty or thirty stories up. Also many women still wear pantyhose in inappropriate lengths – knee highs with thigh high skirts or even thigh highs with short shorts. This really takes me back. People still squat down on their haunches on the street – today I passed a young woman doing this on West Nanjing Road, old Shanghai’s premier street. She was reading text on her smart phone.
The parks on mornings and weekends are still full of groups of old and young doing tai chi or ballroom dance. Nowadays you can also find the occasional belly dancing or hip hop group, sometimes right next to one another, their music and routines in side-by-side competition.
I am especially tickled to see that correct English spelling and translation remains elusive. Despite the rise in the number of Chinese who speak English fluently, you can still find some fun signs about town.
The country is modernizing so quickly and leaving traditions behind; there are times when I do not feel I am living in China, but rather somewhere else. Somewhere with some Chinese characteristics but not quite China. Sort of like Singapore, but not exactly. It can be a challenge to live here – as an international student or a foreign diplomat – but it offers every visitor and expat, at the very least, some interesting experiences and never ceases to surprise. More than twenty years on and I am still trying to find my place in China.