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AFTER THE BOOK ENDED
CHINA – 2007
There’s a sophisticated supermarket around the corner from my hotel 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 vendor shops along the way. Even in the rich city of Hangzhou, China, the “old” city can be found just around the corner.
A pretty walkway 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 supercrowded 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, some factories, and tiny shops wedged in with very cheap household goods. The streets and alleys of China are much more alive than the streets of America. The sounds, the smells, the energy of motion are more vibrant.
On the subways of Shanghai, a little beggar girl stands in front of the passengers with a most pleading and pathetic face. My Taiwanese companion has figured out that the little beggar girl can make $400 a month walking the subway trains – more than an average worker makes. There may be more beggars now in China, but there still isn’t much sympathy for them.
I have not been back to China for three years. I expected many changes because China has been barreling along in modernization and money. It’s a far happier place than when I first arrived in 1988. Hope, progress, enough food, and more money for most exists in Zhejiang Province. Many of my friends now drive cars to work in their own businesses. Unfortunately, as the economy grows, so do corruption, bribery, dishonesty, and the need for connections. And huge gaps are splitting China. The majority of China’s poor are, in fact, poorer than ever 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 China of 2007.
I noticed a difference in the air in Hangzhou. In 2004, I felt incredible energy there mingled with a scent of desperation as if all the good fortune might slip away like a dream. But in 2007, I feel confidence in the air that the booming economy is not just a dream. There is a more relaxed atmosphere and time to enjoy what they have already accomplished.
My friends’ parents, now mostly retired (usually 60 for men and 55 for women) live in previously unthought-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 today whose parents kept offering her good food for her health. 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. And on to yet another possibility to tempt her. One friend, now 31, muses that his new son will never be able to understand 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 very spoiled child, but also one who has the burden of being the only child who must succeed.
My old enemy – cigarette smoke – continues to taunt me in China. It’s still ubiquitous, and even young Chinese girls now smoke in public. The need for guanxi, connections, remains alive and necessary in China for big and small favors. My Taiwanese friend, Virginia, who now often works in her company’s Shanghai office, proved that when she had to call her adopted brother, who was also part owner in the restaurant we went to, to insist we be seated in a more protected area from smokers. No non-smoking sections in restaurants yet. Ever??
The modern French Carrefour department store has arrived in Hangzhou, bringing a tantalizing array of new western foods in flashy packaging in the supermarket section. The western products are quite expensive, but the 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 stuck, 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 have come from the 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 in today’s China. 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 more rotund than 99% of the Chinese population.
I noticed a lot of people staring down at my feet. I wasn’t sure why because I had on my everyday sandals and a thin pair of socks. A friend I asked explained that socks are used only with closed shoes. Sandals are summer shoes meant to be worn sock-less. Than, another friend mistook my sandals for indoor slippers that are only worn indoors. Apparently, I’m out of step.
My birthday banquet was PERFECT! For those four hours, everything went wonderfully. Forty loving friends came to celebrate with me. My dramatic dress made me even more energized and everyone assured me I hadn’t aged at all in these 19 years. Our room in the restaurant was decorated with balloons and a large poster with the character for long life. The food was attractively served, and the mood was light and gay.
When giving my speech expressing my thanks to them for being a very meaningful part of my life, I looked out upon my friends and the variety of flashing cameras and I felt like a true star who had accomplished a great feat in building a solid bridge over the years between these people and me across miles and cultures.
Birthday cake culture is somewhat different in China from what we’re used to in the U.S. My birthday cake was very colorful and adorned with pieces of fresh fruit. I had the chance to eat four birthday cakes while I was in China, and while each one looked different, they all tasted quite similar with 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 am used to using a small flashlight going up unlit staircases in apartment buildings at night. However, I did not use a flashlight outdoors. It is quite common for sidewalks to change height, and while walking to a friend’s apartment, I fell on my knee when the sidewalk dipped several inches. I broke my kneecap. My first thought was to put ice on it to keep down the swelling, but Chinese families don’t usually have ice. Their freezers are mostly filled only with ice cream bars. So, I put ice cream bars on my knee right after the fall.
Because of my knee, I had to limit my activities the last week I was in China. When I returned home to California, I faced several more weeks of limited mobility. Fortunately, the break was a simple one that was not dislocated, so I hope to regain full use of my knee this summer.
THE STREETS OF CHINA
Being a pedestrian or a passenger in a car is particularly terrifying these days in China. There are many new 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. And imagine a place where millions of drivers have only recently earned a driver’s license. However, a lack of experience doesn’t relate to a 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 few considering the lack of any road etiquette.
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 as the prosperous residents now have cars, but no parking spaces to park them in. As 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 always glaring at night, lane lines that are considered irrelevant, cell phones almost always in hand, and an abundance of highly dangerous rotary intersections, China is very literally on the move.
UPDATES ON FRIENDS
My book, Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird, ended in 2005. I was able to see many of my Chinese friends during my 2007 visit. Here is a brief update to 2007 on the lives of some of the people you met in the book.
The lives of BILL and RUSSELL haven’t changed much since 2005. They are still in the same jobs and live in the same apartments. Each has one son. Russell hasn’t traveled outside China again, but Bill has recently had a chance to visit some cities in the U.S. with his job. Before that, his job had taken him to Japan, Indonesia, and Scandinavia. In the U.S., the only city that really looked comparable to a big, bustling, skyscraper-filled Asian city to him was New York. However, his impressions were quickly formed because he only had a day or two at each stop. In general, he was glad to get to the U.S. after all these years, but was not too impressed with it.
DEBBIE was the one who made all the arrangements for my birthday banquet. As always, she remains my trusty helper. She is reasonably happy with her job although she’s already looking forward at least a decade to quiet days of retirement and travel. She, her husband, and teenage daughter still live in their very small, but centrally-located apartment in Hangzhou. But Debbie likes going out to see the new apartment buildings being built several miles outside Hangzhou. That’s where she hopes to move eventually because of the serene garden surroundings. Although she originally opposed such a large, and to her, impractical expense, she now enjoys going out for rides in the big, new car they recently bought for $30,000. She’s slowly learning how to drive. Even though her husband’s business is doing well and their income is steadily rising, her years of having to be frugal and worried about money have become a permanent part of her personality.
I wasn’t able to see DIANA or JULIET on this visit, but their mother came to my banquet. Diana still lives in England with her English husband, and Juliet lives in Germany with her three children – two from her English husband and the third from her German husband. She’s doing okay as a divorced mom of three who has become a born-again Christian. Both Diana and Juliet and her children return at least once a year to visit their parents in Hangzhou.
ELIZABETH takes great delight in her pretty, bright, sensitive 16-year-old daughter, my eldest granddaughter. This visit with my granddaughter was particularly special to me because, after studying English for three years in the Foreign Language Institute, she could finally converse easily in English. Elizabeth’s love of teaching has turned into tolerating teaching because the self-centered only children have now replaced the highly motivated and respectful students of the earlier generation. Elizabeth can see in her own daughter’s life at the boarding school she attends that children raised as only children, as all her daughter’s classmates were, have not learned the group mentality and problem solving skills necessary for relationships. Elizabeth’s husband has tried his hand at many small businesses, but all have failed. Not every businessman in China is a success story. So, the family gets by mostly on Elizabeth’s modest teaching income. Her laughter is still easy and frequent, not too different from when we met in 1988.
JERRY has been living in Frankfurt, Germany, for the last 10 years, so it was a great treat to be together in Hangzhou where he was visiting his mother and brother. He returns to Hangzhou regularly because Chinese factories supply his business in Germany with arts and crafts. He has become a hybrid of Germany and China over the years and is quite horrified at the level of rampant bribery and dishonesty he sees growing everywhere in China. Although he works hard for his business, his wife, and his son, he does not have high expectations of becoming wealthy. He speaks lovingly of his vegetable and flower gardens in his yard in Germany that surround the three-story duplex where they live. Although Germany remains cool to immigrants, the Chinese community in Frankfurt has been growing quite significantly. Although Jerry doesn’t feel he will easily fit into what China is becoming, he and his wife plan to return to China after their son is grown.
After an interminable seven years of living in two countries, MAX and his wife and daughter were permanently reunited as a family in September, 2006 in Las Vegas. Max continues to make an excellent living as a poker dealer at a famous casino, so he was able to keep two homes he bought for investment plus buy a very large, luxurious home for the family to live in. Max’s daughter, who is my nine-year-old granddaughter, was well prepared for life in the U.S. because she was sent to an international school in Macau where she learned English from the age of three. She had no trouble adapting to school in Las Vegas and quickly became a star pupil with all A’s. Although Max has already lived in the U.S. over seven years, he has gained an understanding of American culture, but remains solidly outside it while living the American dream.
I went to Hangzhou a little earlier so that I could have an afternoon with PAULINE. She, her husband, and her father-in-law, had just completed a whirlwind trip to Europe and arranged a stopover in China so that they could see their families before returning to New Zealand. The shy, rather fearful teenager has matured into an attractive, confident woman who has now seen other parts of the world. She graduated from a university in Christchurch, and is now an accountant. She misses her family, but likes living in New Zealand’s pristine beauty. It is easy to see the love that has grown between Pauline and her husband. Pauline’s journeys – geographical, emotional, and cultural, have been exciting for me to watch. I look forward to her future.
PEARL is entering her fourth decade with excitement, relishing the new financial opportunities she sees all around her. She is at one time a tour guide, small shop owner, has just purchased her third apartment, and hopes she’ll be able to buy more. Buying real estate with mortgages is relatively new in China and allows her to meet monthly payments without having to invest a large lump sum of money. She admits it’s a little scary to owe money, but she is sure she’ll make money. In fact, she wishes she had more money to be able to invest in North Korea, which is the present last frontier expected to go from rags to riches in the next 20 years like China has. PEARL describes her life as colorful and interesting. She adores tourguiding, now to greater distances such as Russia and Tibet, loves zipping around from errand to errand in her car, enjoys being able to afford music and dance lessons for her ten-year-old daughter, occasionally gives her husband a break minding their small store, and looks forward to becoming richer and richer along with China.
ROBERT’s persistence was what impressed me most when I first met him at the tourism school. His English level was rock bottom, but he didn’t give up trying to understand me or be understood. He is still a freelance trainer for hotel staff, but now teaches workshops for hotel managers all around China, has written two popular books and sells a set of CD’s used in training. He is in demand as a noted authority on hotel management and has recently opened up an office with ten full time employees to line up training sessions. In his training CD’s, he bubbles over with enthusiasm and storytelling. It’s obvious he loves being an innovative trainer. His lovely wife has become the business manager. His son still looks just like his dad and is a happy kid growing up in a world of loving parents, grandparents, and money.
Of all my Hangzhou friends, it is probably THOMAS who has become the wealthiest. Even as a young student, Thomas had style and sophistication. He knew early on that he wanted to be a businessman and his own boss, but he struggled for many years to find a niche. He was doing well when I last saw him, but in the last three years he has gained all five entities that show success in China – wife, son, house, car, wealth. He understands the Chinese system well, knowing how to use it to his advantage. Although rich, he realizes that life is not all about money. He hopes he’ll have the ability to flow with changes and to know how to stop when he’s made enough money. He has come far from the pensive boy he was at the tourism school where he pushed himself to learn more English so he could talk philosophy with me. In 2007, he is the perfectly contented self-made man.
As has become very common for Taiwanese companies, the company in Taiwan that VIRGINIA works for has opened a Shanghai office. So, she now has an apartment and lives part time in the new Pudong area of Shanghai. Although her parents were from China, Virginia was born and raised in Taiwan. She finds many differences between Taiwan and China and enjoys being in both worlds. Her husband was able to retire early from his government job in Taiwan, so he will sometimes be able to join her in Shanghai. Their son will enter a top university in Taiwan this coming fall. Her life is extremely busy, including quite a lot of travel throughout the world on business, but she handles it well and is happier turning 50 than I’ve ever seen her before.
CHINA - 2010
I was able to visit several Chinese friends again during the spring of 2010. My updates from that visit, as well as updates on specific friends I entitled "The Tiananmen Generation - 20 Years Later" appear in my Senior Hummingbird blog.
In May of 2014, I shipped hundreds of letters from my former Chinese students that I had saved over 26 years of correspondence. Their precious letters during China's rapid-paced changes from 1988 to the present, photos I took of them during my early days in China, some of my letters to them that they saved, a copy of my book, "Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird," and a digital Chinese translation of the book, are now, and forever, at the Hoover Institution in Stanford University. And so, our unique story continues for future generations of researchers and historians to share. For more information about the Archive, go to