My first experience in Mainland China was an awe inspiring cab ride from Xiamen airport to my hotel, and I mean awe in it’s archaic sense: the power to inspire dread. It’s not that I hadn’t been warned. But I had exactly one option to get from point a to point b, and that option was an impossibly dilapitated vehicle, painted a brilliant shade of mauve, with matching seat covers, that loudly proclaimed to the world that it was a taxi, in big block letters 2 feet high painted on it’s hood. i admired it’s positive affirmation of it’s profession, even if it looked a little under qualified for the job.
I climbed in, gave the driver my printed sheet of directions (thanks to my friend Pavan Lee at Microsoft. Pavan, your translations have already saved my butt a number of times) and before I had a chance to settle back in my mauve chariot, we had screamed away from the taxi stand and had entered the melee that is Xiamen traffic.
This experience had been described to me, but the description did no justice to the reality. I know my attempt will likewise fall far short, but I’ll give it a shot anyway. First, it was night and pouring rain, so visibility was minimal. There were roads, lane markers and traffic lights, but other than to lend justification to the job of some traffic control bureacrat somewhere, they seemed to serve no other purpose. The traffic lights were a complete puzzle to me, with blinking red, green and blue lights spread in random patterns, with no indicators of what they might mean. The cab weaved back and forth across the entire width of the road, often running down the lane marker itself, cutting in front of vehicles, then being cut off in turn, always accompanied by blast of horn. Bikes appeared out of nowhere, often carrying two passengers and assorted baggage, all wrapped in plastic in a futile attempt to stay dry. And the bikes came from every direction, then took off in every direction. It seems that riding a bike in China makes you invincible, because these riders were obviously not concerned for their safety. It was one gigantic game of chicken, involving everyone in Xiamen, and the loser would be the first to back down. It’s probably a blessing that my senses were dulled from the flight in, otherwise I would have been cowering on the floor. But apparently, it could have been worse. I was chatting with Chris Sherman, and on his ride in from the airport, he got caught in a traffic jam that was irritating the hell of out everyone, and they were making their displeasure known. Obviously, something was obstructing traffic ahead, and drivers were hitting new heights of aggressiveness, trying to get past the blockage. Finally, Chris’s taxi pulled even with the obstruction and he got a chance to see what it was. It was an old man, who had the unmitigated gall to get in the way of a car, which hit him and left him sitting injured in the middle of the road, bleeding profusely from his head. No one was offering assistance to the old man, who just sat and rocked back and forth, holding his head. The biggest concern of all drivers was navigating past the unplanned delay.
I recount this experience, because with some time to reflect on it, I realize my cab ride (hopefully not Chris’s) was somehow symbolic of China itself. It’s an ancient vehicle, going at breakneck pace to an undetermined but vitally important destination, with no apparent plan or directions to guide it. It doesn’t so much matter where you end up, as long as you get there quickly.
I’ve been struggling to put into words my impressions of this place. This is a culture of immense complexity and contradiction that defies the attempts of the western mind to define it. My brain is a linear thing, that tends to value unambiguity and clarity. In China, my brain is on overload. Everywhere I turn, there is contradiction and schizophrenic bipolarity. There is an explosion of stimuli and activity, of signals that are often diametrically opposed, of monumental ambition and dense cultural (and governmental) restriction.
Here are just a few of the contradictions I’ve noted in the last 48 hours.
Inside my hotel, which is a beautiful 5 star Sheraton, all glass, polished wood and gleaming tile, the service is deferential and gracious to the point of near embarassement. I walked out of the fitness club yesterday and suddenly the girl at the front desk bolted upright and started running after me. I thought I must have forgotten to do something or had left something behind. I stopped as she shot past me and lunged for the elevator button. She was just sending me on my way back to my room. But should I step foot out the front door, and not pay complete attention on the busy street in front of the hotel, I would be run over without a second thought. There is no consideration for pedestrians here.
Just down the street from my hotel is a huge shopping complex, complete with a WalMart’s, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. Western brands like Levi’s, LaCoste and Esprit are prominently displayed. It’s a temple built to consumerism at it’s extreme, with prices comparable to what I would find back in Canada. In Canada, the average yearly salary is probably around $45,000. In China, in the cities it’s about $1000 and in the country, $300. The gap between the rich and the poor in China is widening every day.
From my hotel, I can’t access sites like Wikipedia, yet Xiamen is a hot bed of domain registration and unabashed online entrepreneurialism that definitely crosses into some pretty grey territory.
Monolithic structures are being erected everywhere, as the government continues a full scale campaign to scrub China’s dirty underbelly and erect a new, gleaming showpiece of affluence and modernism. But the showpieces are being built to cater to an peculiarly eastern view of western ideals, big, glitzy and screamingly commercial. It’s as if somebody Feng Shuied (Feng Shui is officially illegal here, by the way) Las Vegas. And in the process, many reminders of one of the world’s oldest civilizations are being erased.
That’s just a few. Literally, cultural contradictions are everywhere here. But perhaps it’s not a problem. China has lived with complexity for thousands of years. For the Chinese, it’s business as usual. It’s only the western mind that tries to impose clarity where none may be required. China is a vast, dense and vibrant organism, a society of immense ambition and near unlimited resource. For now, they picture the affluent west as the ideal to be obtained at all costs, but in a peculiarly skewed eastern way. But I sense that as China stirs and finds it’s global potential, it will rewrite the definition of success, eliminating the Anglo-American bias that marked the last two centuries.
There are a number of challenges that China has to face. I can’t help feeling that this culture is straddling the tracks, caught between two rushing locomotives that surely must collide. The results will either be catastrophic, or cataclysmic. One thing is for sure. Now that this dragon has been unleashed, there’s no turning back. The world will be a different place.