The subtle speed of change in China

There’s nothing new about saying “China’s changing”. What isn’t changing? Life changes.

There’s nothing new about saying “China’s changing fast”. Every Sinophile for the last 25 years has been saying that, and they’re right.

But what gets me is that I’ve got this front-row seat to it all. And frankly, it’s a bit exciting.

Now, my generation – growing up in the technological revolution of the 80s-90s – undoubtedly experienced changes to the world faster than any generation before them, and this is likely to just compound for generations to come.

Even then though, you had a “generation” (y? z? which are we on now?) to deal with it. You had parents that didn’t understand all that Internet mumbo-jumbo. Wizkids. A divide of sorts.

To say things in China are “different” is somewhat akin to saying the Great Wall is “long”. But it’s not the difference of China that got me thinking the other day while I was walking my dog. It’s how fast the country is becoming the same, but not in that McDonald’s hegemony that cultural anthropologists are most concerned about.

Rather, the same in all the ways the country has been physically and emotionally unable to be until now.

  • I was in the park and saw a bunch of kids pull up on their bikes and (after sticking about ten locks on each tire) run off into the trees together – to conspire, play fort, do math homework, or whatever kids that age do.
  • Just shortly before the walk I was at a (typical Taiwanese-“American” style) coffee shop and grabbed a coke. It had a stay-on tab, which the Shanghaiist reported on last week.
  • Last weekend I was at friends playing poker and PlayStation, eating Doritos and drinking a reasonable Chinese Cabernet.
  • This morning I poured my coffee out of a freshly opened box of UHT milk, and the spout had been improved so as not to spill the first quarter of the box all over my microwave.
  • I’ve been watching the news about all the Carrefour/CNN/Olympic malarkey, and reading comments on this blog and others where Chinese have chimed in on what used to be topics us Westerners would preach to the choir about. And I’m not talking ultra-nationalist (read: ultra-brainless) reactionary comments – but thoughtful, debate-expanding and prospective shifting conversations.

These may seem like some rather random and discombobulated things, but each in its own way has made me realize that much of the issue in the West and the recent conflicts between Chinese and Western media, is because many of us (as in Westerners) don’t realize the level of change happening here. We can say “China is changing fast”, hell it’s the catch phrase of every China business book written in the last decade, but we don’t have the facilities to understand what that actually means.

We judge the terms “fast” and “change” by our own societal perspectives, and as nations that have endured a relatively minor amount of change in the past century, it’s a challenge to really understand what rapid changes in a country that has yet had a chance to just “settle in” and enjoy the rewards of being a large modern nation.

Whereas CNN, Cafferty, and his ilk, are struggling to understand that this isn’t our grandparents’ China with Maoist slogans everywhere. It’s not even the post-Nixon, ‘to be rich’-Deng China of our parents – when I look around me, I realize this isn’t even the China I came to just three and a half years ago.

We grasp at the landscape and attempt to use that as a measurer of sorts. We see the massive amounts of construction and think, “Wow, that building wasn’t there yesterday, things sure change fast here.” And we use our inherent mistrust of change to condemn it. We step back and say, “China, you’re coming up too fast now. Slow down. Watch the environment. Watch your [*hr*] issues.”

I say, watch those kids playing together in the trees. Not everything about China need be a warning.

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