So my disclaimer, of course, is that I am not a China expert. I have only been here one month and I have only seen a few square miles of an enormous country. I really have no grasp on China as a whole. All I can tell you are my impressions based on my limited experience, and I could be totally off-base. Of course this is all subject to revision based on new information! Ok, disclaimer stated. I just didn't want you to take my word for anything other than that this is a record of my experience, and that that experience is limited. Of course, one of the interesting things about keeping this record is to see how my perspective evolves during the time I spend here. It'll be interesting to look back on this a year from now.
So, to begin, Kunming is a large and fairly modern city, and these things do exist in China (I'll get some photos of downtown someday so you can see). The street you see out my window is representative of a relatively major street in Kunming. The pavement is good, the buildings are fairly modern, and there are lots of relatively clean stores lining the blocks. However, this is still restricted to the main thouroughfares in the business and shopping districts. Even in the nicest, busiest sections of town, if you step off the main drag onto a side street (or especially an alleyway), you are presented with a completely different experience. Here you will find the small merchants, little eateries and street vendors. You will regularly see storekeepers cooking their lunch on a hotplate they've placed on the sidewalk or brushing their teeth while squatting on the curb. Many of the buildings are old and ramshackle, and it's far more hurly-burly and "homey" than the shopping and business streets. My vision of how the modernization is taking hold is that it's similar to an infection. It's starting in a central area and spreading along the main arteries, only slowly making its way into the smaller veins and capillaries.
The most interesting thing about the modernization of China is the fantastic rate at which it has happened and is continuing to progress. Of course, I've spent the last year studying 20th century China so I was familiar with the phases of the post-Mao China and the progress of economic (and sometimes political) liberalization here, but seeing it first-hand is something else. I frequently visit at dinner with Kevin and Erica Smith, an Australian couple who have been here 8 years (and did 15 years in Papua, New Guinea!). My friend Sam Mitchell, who got me my job, has also been here for 8 years, and his wife Lu Yuan is a native who grew up during the Cultural Revolution. From these folks I've gotten some great insight into the changes that have happened even just here in our local environment over just the past 8 years. It has gone from a state-run, tightly controlled place where power and water were never really reliable and luxuries were difficult to come by to a fairly liberalized place where I don't really have to worry much about Party spies and I can buy Oreos downstairs.
What this leads to, and what is most striking about what I've seen so far, is this incredible generation gap. Everyone under 25 has grown up in a radically different country than those before them. Those older were used to Party control, lack of amenities, and often scarce potential for upward mobility. Life was about duty, work and survival. The modernization of China has been so recent that it has not changed the way of life for the older generation. The older pople here still wear their clothes until they fall to pieces. The older men still often wear the Mao jackets and caps, the women still do not wear fashionable clothing or makeup. There are a million little things. When I see the college students walking around, it's as if they live in a different world... they seem like Americans! The clothes, the attitudes, and, really, it seems, some sense of entitlement to a better life. 8 years ago the students weren't allowed to have a boyfriend or girlfriend until their fourth year of college, now (as the Smiths assure me) they're all sleeping together. Nobody is paying the kind of attention to the behavior of the citizens that used to be the rule. It's as if I'm seeing the next China emerging before my very eyes... the young people live in a completely different China than their parents. What will China become when these children are the majority of the adult population? I also can't help but wonder what their reaction would be if the Communists decided to knuckle down again, get back to maintaining a rigidly controlled state? That was always something that everyone halfway expected to happen (as it's happened in the past), but it seems so unlikely now the way things are going. Is China past the point of no return? Of course not. But I think we're all safe until at least 2008.
Of course, this makes me wonder if this is analogous to the cultural shift that took place in the U.S. in the fifties and sixties. I can't imagine that it was this dramatic, but it seems like a reasonable question to ask (and one which I also have a similarly limited ability to address). it does seem as if you could draw some parallels, although the main dissimilarity would be the governmental factor, Kent State notwithstanding. I just mean the liberalization of ideas aboout acceptable behaviors and an increase in the perception of individual freedoms.
Anyway, that's a bit about that. I don't know what I'm talking about and that always makes me nervous, but here you have it. It's just a journal, I'm allowed to talk out my ass, right?
That's all for today. Take care!