There's a sophisticated supermarket around the corner from where I'm staying that's filled with things mostly far healthier and fresher than in an American market. But the presence of this market doesn't preclude numerous mom and pop vendors along the way. A pretty walkway placed slightly lower than the street where the cars go, follows a smudgy-brown river. It offers a calm, rural feeling sandwiched in between one major super crowded thoroughfare, and a very narrow street from the "old days" that leads to a smaller alleyway housing a noisy school, a huge live fish and dead meat market, small factories, and tiny shops wedged in, selling very cheap household goods. The streets and alleys of China are much more alive than the streets of America. The sounds, smells, the energy of motion are more vibrant too.
I hadn't been back in China for three years. I expected many changes; China has been barreling along in modernization and money. It's a far happier place than when I first arrived in Hangzhou in 1988. This was my 16th visit since then, always catching up with the lives of my former students turned friends. Many of them now drive cars to work in their own businesses. Hope, progress, enough food, and more money exist in Zhejiang Province where Hangzhou is located.
Unfortunately, as the economy grows, so do corruption, bribery, dishonesty and the need for connections. Huge gaps are splitting China. The majority of the country's poor are, in fact, poorer than before because the government no longer provides basic needs like housing, schooling and medical care. The rich, the super rich, the newly rich, the poor, the desperately poor – define the China of 2007.
I noticed a difference in the air in Hangzhou. In 2004, I felt incredible energy, mingled with a scent of desperation, as if all the good fortune might slip away as in a dream. But today, in 2007, I sense confidence in the air; the booming economy is not just a dream. There is a more relaxed atmosphere and time to enjoy what the people have accomplished.
China – on the move
The parents of my former students, now mostly retired (usually 60 for men and 55 for women), live in previously unheard-of luxury. They spend their days contentedly playing with their pampered grandchild, doing tai chi outdoors, and exercising on the metal equipment that colorfully lines the parks and apartment complexes. Sometimes they travel to parts of China or the world they never expected to see. These parents were the young adults of the tragic Cultural Revolution that shook China to its core. These are the parents who often starved, were relocated involuntarily to remote rural parts of China, and later did whatever they could to feed their children enough rice to survive.
I watched a child at breakfast whose parents kept offering her good healthy food. She took a miniscule bite of one thing and then refused more. So, mama offered her another tempting morsel. Little luck getting her to eat that. On to yet another possibility to tempt her. One friend, now 31, mused that his new son would never be able to believe there was a China of no food and no toys.
The one-child policy, implemented around 1979, has created many imbalances. The male population exceeds the females who were aborted, sold, or sent abroad for adoption. Now both parents and four grandparents dote on this one heir, producing a spoiled child, but also one who has the burden of being the only child who must succeed.
The modern Carrefour department store from France has arrived in Hangzhou, bringing a tantalizing array of new western foods in flashy packaging in the supermarket section. These products are quite expensive; Asian food is inexpensive. Some clerks literally scream out their bargains to attract customers to try a taste of their wares. The checkout clerks are agonizingly slow checking out customers, even though the scanners are modern.
The Internet room open to the public is the usual dingy, dark, smoke-filled place I remember from earlier years. Although using a computer is extremely cheap, the keys of my computer stick, mostly due to the grime.
The grass is green in Hangzhou's parks, with officials on duty to yell at people who dare to cross the line and actually walk on the green grass. West Lake seems more beautiful than ever, and is definitely cleaner.
I came from a country of flab to a country of short, thin people. Unfortunately, some of those cute little figures of young girls are often clad in skin tight jeans. Unlike the earlier days, cigarettes have become the accessory of choice for these girls. The older people are still somberly dressed, but multicolors adorn the rest. My colorful clothes cause stares, probably because I'm western, past the age when I should be wearing colors, and I'm more rotund than 99% of the Chinese population.
Being a pedestrian or a passenger in a car is particularly terrifying these days. There are many brightly painted pedestrian walkways, but cars don't pay them much mind. Pedestrians must tread very, very carefully. China has more cars than ever on the roads now. Imagine a place where millions of drivers have only recently earned a driver's license. However, lack of experience doesn't relate to lack of confidence. They zip in, out and around, taking wider turns than big buses do. A warning honk seems to precede cutting in front of or around another car or pedestrian. I saw some accidents, but remarkably fewer than I expected.
Seat belts in the front seat appear to be optional and for the fainthearted, except on highways where the seatbelt law is enforced. The back seat is a seatbelt-less zone where children freely wander from side to side. Yes, there are traffic laws, but they're considered merely suggestions, unless there's a policeman around. Double parking and U-turns abound.
Narrow alleyways through apartment complexes were never meant to accommodate cars, but they have no choice; prosperous residents now have cars, but no parking spaces. My friend parked on one side of a tiny alley; and another car parked along the other side of the skinny alley. I remarked that even though both cars were legally parked, no one else could get through. She summed up the Chinese approach quite simply, "We don't care".
With bright headlights glaring at night, lane lines considered irrelevant, cell phones almost always in hand, and an abundance of highly dangerous rotary intersections – China is literally on the move.
I returned at this time to Hangzhou to have a 65th birthday banquet with my Hangzhou friends. For those four hours, everything was perfect! Forty loving friends came to celebrate with me. They assured me I hadn't aged a bit in all the 19 years we had known one another. I happily gave out copies of my newly published book, Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird, much of it about my adventures in China. When giving my speech expressing my thanks to them for being a meaningful part of my life, I looked out upon them and the variety of flashing cameras, and I felt like a true star who had accomplished a great feat in building a solid bridge between these people and I across miles and cultures.
Birthday cake culture is somewhat different in China from the U.S. Mine was colorful and adorned with pieces of fresh fruit. I had the chance to eat four birthday cakes while I was in China. While each looked different, they tasted quite similar; vanilla cake and real cream instead of sugary frosting. A popular variation on birthday candles is one large plastic flower that ignites in a mighty flame and then pops open to reveal a circle of small lit candles. The flower then begins to play the familiar music to "Happy Birthday to you". The melody plays on and on and on and on. There's no way to turn it off.
My wonderful adventures in China ended, unfortunately, with a misadventure. Among the many changes in China, some things remain the same. China is very dark at night. I use a small flashlight going up unlit staircases in apartment buildings. However, I neglected to use a flashlight outdoors. It is quite common for sidewalks to change height. While walking to a friend's apartment, I fell on my knee when the sidewalk dipped several inches. My first thought was to put ice on it, but Chinese families don't usually have ice. Their freezers, if used at all, are only filled with ice cream bars. So, I put ice cream bars on my knee to keep down the swelling. No matter how many times I've been to China, it's never been boring or predictable.
You can more about the author's book at this link.