We were on a brand new highway heading toward downtown Xi'an, China, my hometown. I was there to attend a college reunion. My brother was giving...

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We were on a brand new highway heading toward downtown Xi’an, China, my hometown. I was there to attend a college reunion.

My brother was giving me a ride in his new Chinese car. What’s the name of this road? I asked. “No name,” he answered matter-of-factly, without the slightest hint of anything out of the ordinary.

No name?! The road was obviously open to traffic. Cars and trucks were rushing along. People clearly knew which part of town it was leading to. Yet, it had no name, no number, not yet.

What a perfect metaphor for China, I thought: traveling at high speed, without a clear definition of the road or the journey.

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There are a lot of things in China like that stretch of highway. They are so new or so different that they are either yet to be named or their names are yet to be created.

For instance, a man delivered the newspaper at my mother’s house in the newly developed residential area in the city’s eastern suburbs. But, you could not simply call him a newspaper deliveryman, because he also collected old newspapers from the residents and took the papers to a recycling center. What would you call him?

In the still-expanding neighborhood of houses and condos, one also saw signs of retail businesses outside a home or a garage: a grain store; a school-supply counter; an Internet bar; an electric appliances repair shop, etc. What was going on? Well, the government there was so pro-business that people could buy a home and run a retail business in it, too. What would you call that?

The car industry and private-car ownership in China are still pretty young. Yet, many young women are already employed as car models — those posing with cars at auto shows. In the local daily one morning, the banner announced an upcoming provincewide “car models competition.” There were certainly no new words in “car models competition.” But they were combined into a new phrase I hadn’t even heard in the United States!

A musician friend of mine is now director of artistic planning at a state performing-arts group. Never active in politics, he is now a member of the Communist Party. Kind of “forced” to join, he told me, because one had to be a party member to be a director. An artist and an administrator with a Communist Party membership, my friend is also the proud owner of two cars and an expensive home. What would you call him?

Not only are things new and different in China, they are also contradictory. All are hard to put a name to or understand.

For instance, one impression in the U.S. is that the Chinese do not consume much and their savings rate is too high. But, when you are there, you see consumption, in high spirit: Restaurants are always full; shopping centers are always crowded; streets are always jammed with cars and taxis; and, everybody seems to be busy buying new homes, fitting them up or moving into them, if not talking about buying them.

Another perception about the Chinese is that they are now only about making money and creating a material life. But, one would be surprised to learn that “red tourism” is all the rage in China. Former sites of Mao Zedong and the communist revolution, including Yenan, the base of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s after the Long March, have seen busloads of tourists that are usually associated with the tomb of the First Emperor Qin or the Great Wall.

Many also have heard about the rampant corruption among Communist Party officials. Yet, the same party has also accomplished a first in China’s history, something no other party or emperor, corrupt or clean, ever could: the elimination of all agricultural taxes. Effective in 2006, the move was part of a policy to boost the “three farms” — namely, farmers, farming and farming areas, a priority of the current government under Hu Jintao, the party leader.

So, how do you describe or name China’s development today?

I put the question to an economist friend at a government think tank in Beijing. “Primary stage of socialism or primary stage of capitalism,” he answered, tongue in cheek.

I don’t think anyone can accurately put a name to China’s development of many sides, shapes and colors. But, who says one can only travel on a road when it has a name? Just get on it, drive and worry about the name later. Why not? My brother and I did.

Wendy Liu of Mercer Island is the author of “Connecting Washington and China — The Story of the Washington State China Relations Council.” She can be reached at lyw8@aol.com