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Hey, who moved my epiphany?!


Well, this might sound a little odd, but I'm already getting antsy. Of course I had no idea what China would be like when I came, and I was trying to have no expectations. If I'd had any expectations, I thought, they would most certainly be wrong. Which is true... even if you try to become informed, it seems that anything you might read about China that's over a couple of years old is already hoplessly out of date. You know the picture of my street that I put on my website, the nice busy street with the bike lanes and the bridge over it and the stores and all, which looks like it could be anywhere in America? until recently that was a dirt road traveled by horsecart and lined with mud brick buildings. And the rest of Kunming is like that as well. The people who have been here for a few years affectionately refer to Kunming of 5 years or so ago as "Old Kunming." Evidently it was all torn down and replaced with "New Kunming" in an astonishingly short amount of time.

Which brings me to my point. I may have tried not to have specific expectations of China, but I guess I still had my own agenda, things I wanted to see and learn. And living on a busy street in a busy city and taking the bus to work in traffic everyday was not top #1 on the list of things I really needed to know about. :-) At the core, what I wanted was to experience a different kind of life, and so far this is surprisingly un-different. Yes, of course it is different, there are a lot of Chinese folks running around doing things differently from Americans and speaking this funny language, and there are really a lot of things I appreciate and which I am happy to experience. But, truly, I guess I was hoping for something a WEE bit more foreign. It makes me think I should have signed up for a job in a small village or something where all this progress hasn't quite reached yet.

Now, I understand some things. Of course, to my I-can-go-home-to-my-comfy-America-anytime eyes, I'm sad when I see these really amazing old mud-and-clay buildings getting demolished and being replaced by characterless modern edfices. Sniffle, sniffle, there goes quaint old China. But really, I understand it's pretty crappy to live or work in those old buildings. They're always damp, dirty, cold, unsanitary, and these new places are really a dramatic improvement over the previous places. People have nicer, cleaner places to live and work, with electricity and decent plumbing, no rats or bugs -- and I get much healthier places to eat and shop! According to the old-timers, people constantly used to be getting sick from the unhealthy conditions. Since the demolishing and paving and so on the illness quotient around here has dropped fantastically. That's real improvement in real people's lives, so as I shed a tear for mud brick quaintness I give a nod to people's quality of life going up. I guess the question would also be, why do new things have to be so gol'durn ugly?!

Beyond just the buildings, it's the way of life. People are becoming accustomed to wanting more. They want money, nice clothes, nice cars, fancy houses, all the modern conveniences... I have had a number of discussions with my Chinese friends about China's modernization; what is good about it and what is bad. I don't automatically think rushing to be a western-style country is necessarily a great thing. Being a weirdo pinko commie sympathizer, I sometimes bemoan a lot of things about the capitalist world (while still recognizing its many benefits, which mostly relate directly to my comfort level). I suppose what I'm looking for is meaning in life, and I think in a lot of ways a labor economy helps destroy a sense of meaning for people, ridding the world of people's relationship to each other and to their production (or whatever Marx said that I can't remember now), and it always seems like culture has a difficult time surviving the transition. But whatever, China is rushing headlong into this world of deals and profit and commercialism, and it makes me a little sad, because I feel like something is lost. I don't *want* China to become more like the western world. But so far, it seems to be the most efficient way to improve the living standard, though it appears to me that there is a cost.

But there are so many things I don't know which could change my views. I haven't been here long enough, or know enough Chinese language, to get a sense of the social web. I know individual Chinese, and I see what people do on the street everyday. But I have no sense of what goes on behind the scenes. I don't know people's relationship to each other, to the government, to the rest of China. I have no sense of how China works and feels as a whole. It is impossible for me at this point to understand at all the complexity of the social fabric... and I understand that this means I have no idea at all what this modernization means to China. I can only know what I think it might mean from my cultural vantage.

But, aside from whether it's good or bad for China, I still am not feeling like I'm getting the experience I wanted. But I'm making plans (as usual). We have a one-month holiday for New Year's next February, and I think I am going to go live in a small village for at least a couple of weeks just to get out of the city for a bit and spend time in the countryside. Yeah, it's not the same as being a villager, but it's as close as I'm going to come this trip, and I will likely learn a thing or two. Then, for next summer I had already wanted to go to Mongolia, and I've recently started trying to find out how I can hook up with a nomadic family and stay with them a while in their camp, and help out with the, uh, nomadding and stuff. Then maybe on up to Siberia for a bit before heading back to the States.

So, the malcontent is at work again. However, to be honest with myself, I did really go about this trip in a smart way. This is all hindsight, now that I've gotten here and have seen what's it's about and how things work. It's easy now to say "I shoulda done such-and-such." But I only have to remember how completely unknown, and kind of scary, China was to me last spring when I was planning this whole thing, and I understand that I did a good job to set myself up for a smooth transition into the unknown. I wanted to give myself a stable entry into this part of the world, and I did. I have a good job, a comfortable place to live, decent pay... hmm, all the things that drive me buggy when I'm at home! Ha ha ha! Oh me, oh my. Where will it end?

After a couple of weeks of not feeling like I had anything to say, I now have so many things I'd like to tell you all. I could write another entire piece on food, I saw a Beijing play, there is a lot of news about teaching, and I have also learned how to do a fancy traditional Chinese tea. But, instead of that interesting stuff, you got this, and this is enough for now. So I will bid you adieu... until next time!

-Alex

alex@malcontent.info
www.china.malcontent.info