I find a new China every time I arrive. Yet my very first experience almost 18 years ago continues to shape my perceptions. It helps me measure what was gained and what was lost during the most sweeping transformation any country has ever experienced.
Seattle Times business reporter Kristi Heim has lived and worked in China over the past two decades. She earned a master’s degree in Chinese studies from the University of Washington, learned Chinese in Beijing and worked for the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong. Look for Heim’s reports from Beijing during the Olympic Games.
When the aging Russian prop plane with broken seatbelts touched down in the middle of China, I breathed a sigh of relief that we hadn’t crashed during the shaky two-hour tour of fish farms and rice paddies all the way from Shanghai. Daylight was fading on Wuhan, the sprawling industrial city on the Yangtze River where revolutionaries staged an uprising in 1911, leading to the overthrow of China’s last dynasty.I’d come to teach English at a college owned by Wuhan’s iron and steel company. Besides the stories my Chinese grandmother told me about growing up in Shanghai, I didn’t know much about China. But I felt a primordial pull from the place — it was huge, complicated and connected to my DNA.
As the school van drove through almost total darkness, every so often we passed what looked like a small, open-air store with dozens of people hovering around the entrance, swatting mosquitoes and craning their necks to see something inside.
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After passing several of these strange clusters, I finally saw what was attracting the crowds. It was a television.
In 1990, here was a world yet to be captivated by capitalism. Televisions were still a novelty. Deng Xiaoping had not made his famous trip south to speed up economic reform, and Wuhan was still in the grip of the welfare state. A government-owned enterprise handed out paychecks to more than 200,000 people, controlling everything from medical care to entertainment. My own salary was 450 RMB a month (about $60), supplemented by ration tickets for rice and bread.
Yet compared to the tin-roofed hovels we passed along the road, my furnished apartment in a six-story building for foreign teachers seemed like the height of luxury: a full bathroom with hot water, a living room with carpeting and a television. I drifted off to sleep under a pink silk comforter and a mosquito net.
At the crack of dawn, I woke to the ear-splitting blast of a loudspeaker playing patriotic music and military-style fitness drills throughout the entire campus. I found out later that to stop this daily annoyance, some people had tried to dismantle the speaker near our building without success. Louder than any alarm, it was the government controlling even our sleep.
These days I find a new China every time I arrive. Yet that very first experience almost 18 years ago continues to shape my perceptions. It helps me measure what was gained and what was lost during the most sweeping transformation any country has ever experienced.
STEPPING INTO Chinese life felt like going back in time to a gritty, turn-of-the-century industrial age. Wuhan’s Russian-built housing blocks featured square boxes with small windows, cement walls and floors, and a tiny balcony to hang laundry. The absence of birds and pets was striking, and parks had more cement than greenery.
Under the planned economy, people lived from an iron rice bowl, knowing they wouldn’t be fired or promoted. As a result, state-run newspapers did a booming business; it was common to find people reading throughout the day at their desks in offices, stores and schools. They dutifully got married, waited to be assigned an apartment and had a child. Nobody ever asked them what they wanted, nor did they ask themselves.
On the surface, life seemed constrained, colorless and bleak. But the effort to impose control and conformity had not managed to kill the rich spirit and deep resilience underneath. I began to see how people cultivated their inner lives with calligraphy, painting, poetry, tai chi and music.
At a welcoming party for teachers, I awkwardly entered a room full of people seated on folding chairs in a large circle. As we went around the room, each person was asked to perform for the group. They all had a talent to share — singing, dancing, reciting poetry. When my turn came, I sat there dumbly. What talent had I cultivated besides the ability to make small talk?
People told me stories about going hungry in the late 1950s during the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous policy by Chairman Mao Zedong that forced people to produce steel in backyard furnaces while crops rotted in the fields. Tens of millions starved to death. During the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, people with skills and education became political targets and were consigned to hard labor as punishment. By the time I arrived, 15 years after the death of Mao, people still had to ask permission from a party secretary to make decisions about such intimate things as getting married and having children.
How could I compare their lives to mine?
THE WUHAN Iron and Steel Corp. practically owned Red Steel Town, the section of Wuhan where it operated dozens of schools, a radio station, hospitals, apartments, restaurants and entertainment venues called “workers palaces.”
Every day on the way to work, I passed people with startled expressions who had clearly never seen a foreigner before, at least not one riding on a bicycle in their own neighborhood.
I learned to ride in bicycle traffic that formed a solid mass of moving metal, sometimes entire families perched on a single bike. I swerved to avoid crowds running to pile onto buses and shoving from the back to fit everyone on board. It’s a good thing no one owns a car, I thought. If this country ever got its act together, it would be dangerous.
There were no conveniences like supermarkets, disposable chopsticks or Styrofoam containers. I coveted the rare plastic bag and used it over and over for months. People carried their lunch to work in steel boxes tied to the backs of their bicycles. At lunchtime the boxes were stacked to the ceiling and heated in a giant steamer. But the coal burned for power left soot thick enough to blacken the creases in my arms.
Shopping at the state-run department store became a strategic battle of wills. “Do you have a flashlight?” I would ask in imperfect but passable Chinese. The sales clerks, if they bothered to look up at all, would glare and answer “Muduhhhh! which meant “Don’t have it!” in the local dialect. I would then search the glass cases for the item and point to it. If they were feeling in the mood, they might actually bring it out and sell it to me. If not, I would try the routine with another clerk.
South of the Yangtze, China’s building planners didn’t think heat was necessary. In the winter, I wore a down jacket indoors. I read about China’s malfunctioning hot-water heaters and blankets that electrocuted people but decided to take my chances.
For my first big tourist excursion, I visited Wuhan’s Yellow Crane Tower, a famous landmark overlooking the city. While I saw a cheesy replica of a building demolished many times over, the Chinese teacher assigned as my guide had stayed up all night translating a poem written about it in the sixth century.
Such sincerity and lack of pretension was both comical and endearing. Men found nothing awkward about waltzing with each other in the park. Women walked around in shorts with knee-high nylons. People wore jackets with nonsensical English sayings like “Colonies of Sparkle.” Cool had not arrived in China.
Chinese newspapers provided astonishing revelations in state-approved stories whose point was to call out the “sheer fabrication” of other stories, mostly by foreign media. Beijing students did not hang anti-government posters on campus; a professor and three students at Beijing University were not arrested; there are no human-rights problems in Tibet.
Chinese TV brought us news of record farm yields and dramas about revolutionary heroes. The listings for July 1991 featured the program Good Person Yan Qianju, “the story of a man who never refused to offer help when he is asked, and who, when he contracted cancer, continues working.”
The workers in Wuhan were not always so obedient. In 1989, when students demonstrated in support of democracy in Tiananmen Square, people in Wuhan showed their solidarity by staging a march that paralyzed traffic across the Yangtze River bridge connecting north and south China. A few months into my stay, a student gave me a photo taken of the bridge that day, slipping it into my hands like a precious and dangerous artifact.
Students paid for their defiance with a year of mandatory military training on all college campuses. One day I went out to photograph a group in army fatigues performing drills with rifles. I was unsure how they might react. Tentative at first, they couldn’t resist trying out a few words of English and finally asked to take a picture together.
At the apartments for foreign teachers, our Chinese neighbors included a retired professor who used to host a group of students at his apartment for English club. In the Cultural Revolution, the meetings were stopped and his books were burned. Technically, Chinese people needed permission to have foreigners visit their homes. He told us he missed speaking the language and was too old to care about the repercussions. It took some time for people to open up, but when they did, talking felt almost conspiratorial.
Our official monitor, a thin-lipped young woman who treated smiles with suspicion, guarded the entrance to the foreign teachers building and required every Chinese visitor to register. Subverting her authority became a source of great satisfaction. Because the government tightly restricted passports for travel abroad, and the cost of a plane ticket was a luxury few people could afford, visiting professionals like us provided a rare chance for unguarded conversations. My students hungered for information and contact with the outside world, and I was eager to feed them.
Young people were testing the waters, imagining how to live differently from their parents. It was a time when everything was about to change, but nothing had changed quite yet.
DESPITE THE pervasive attempts to control them, exchanges with Chinese people flourished. At the end of the year, the results included three marriages between American teachers and local Chinese.
A Chinese teacher named Caroline, who was in her 30s without any marriage prospects, would bring over a magazine called Alaska Man, which she scrutinized for potential mates who placed ads looking for Asian wives. Each time she visited, she brought a live fish to fry and another letter from an American suitor.
Within China, most people did not have any illusions about becoming rich. What they did have was time for each other. Strangers on trains shared their dried watermelon seeds and struck up conversations with me that would attract throngs of passengers from other compartments. Friends of friends would drop everything to show me their home towns.
I lived richly, encouraged by the welcoming curiosity of ordinary people everywhere. “Where are you from?” was the first question they asked. “America,” translated in Chinese as the “beautiful country,” never failed to elicit an expression of wonder and awe.
The Americans and Chinese in Wuhan struck up lasting friendships. Chinese students taught us songs by the rebellious Chinese rock star Cui Jian, and we introduced Bob Dylan to an audience raised on John Denver. They took us hiking up a mountain in the middle of the night to watch the sunrise. Together we all did our part to keep the local Chinese-German brewery in business.
“Happy times spent with you are always unforgettable,” an exceptionally bright student named Prometheus wrote in a Christmas card. “So luck!”
Prometheus’ real name was “Song” after a mountain in central China. But the one he chose for himself was as large and unique as his personality. After graduation, his talents and creativity languished in a government-assigned job as a wheel mechanic at a tractor factory.
On the way back to the U.S., I stopped in Shanghai, where a new KFC had just opened. As I sat down to eat, a line formed behind every chair in the restaurant. How deep was the fascination with all things American.
At home in California, I drank water from the tap and strolled the aisles of the supermarket in a trance. I told stories about China to American friends, but held their interest only until the latest movies or sports took over. Reverse culture shock set in, and the isolation of American life — the self-imposed partitions of cars, offices and houses — plunged me into sadness.
WHEN I RETURNED to China five years later, I felt the stirrings of a massive shift. The steel produced by the Wuhan Iron and Steel Corp. was transforming the country, from the new bridges and railways to office towers sprouting from farmland. The statue of Chairman Mao at the factory gate symbolized a fading past as China’s oldest steel mill shed tens of thousands of jobs in the 1990s.
Finding new opportunities, my friends were on the move. Prometheus studied at night to become a certified public accountant and traded stocks for a Chinese brokerage during the day. Caroline took a job as a vegetable carver at a fancy hotel in Shenzhen. The new freedom of choice was exhilarating.
Riding my bicycle around Beijing, I noticed something happening along the busy boulevard near the university where I had come to study. Small computer shops were popping up everywhere. One called SparkIce offered its Chinese customers rare Western imports — Internet access and freshly brewed coffee.
That year I met a remarkable family in Beijing. A teacher and engineer with a son in middle school, they had never really known a foreign person before. When a mutual friend introduced me, it was like getting their very own American. They took me everywhere, and we talked freely about all kinds of things. I rode across town nearly every weekend to visit them, eating incredible home-cooked meals, practicing Chinese and tutoring the boy, Jay, in English. He hoped to pass the entrance exam to get into a Chinese university, the ticket to a viable future in China. Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson were his heroes, and he constantly badgered me for lyrics to pop songs.
For Chinese New Year, we experienced old and new. The holiday centered on food: bowls of handmade dumplings, whole steamed fish and sticky rice balls filled with black sesame paste. We visited their elderly aunt living in a traditional courtyard house, a beautiful cluster of single-story rooms. The bathroom was a 10-minute walk down an alley to a building with holes in the ground and no partitions for privacy. A couple of days later, a brother-in-law with a newly purchased Beijing Jeep drove us to the mountains near the Great Wall to light strings of firecrackers.
If he got into college, Jay decided, he would study computers.
IT USED TO BE easy to bring gifts to China. In the beginning, a bottle of American shampoo, a postcard with photos of blond children or a tape of Kenny G did the trick. Later a Chicago Bulls T-shirt, face-whitening cream and Alaskan fish oil became popular. Lately, I have trouble finding anything China doesn’t already make or sell.
It’s hard to know at what point the scales tipped and many people found the enjoyment of these new options outweighed by the burden of attaining them.
Friends complain about the constant stress of their fast-paced urban lives, staying ahead, earning money and consuming and experiencing an overabundance of new things. Over the past year, the stock market craze engulfed my Beijing family and they began trading stocks, mostly based on Internet rumors. They seemed to have no conception that stock prices could go down. In one week they lost the equivalent of a year’s study abroad for Jay.
The family’s courtyard house was demolished, along with many others in the area. Nearby, the quiet lakeside where we used to take long walks has become a lively spot called Houhai, where tourists and upwardly mobile Chinese sit on outdoor couches and enjoy chic restaurants, hip surroundings and blaring techno music.
Jay graduated from a vocational school, but in the now fiercely competitive environment of Beijing he has struggled to land a good job. When I asked his parents if they were still thinking of sending him overseas to study, they said no. Everything he needs to know, he can learn in China.
Chinese New Year consists mostly of watching television. It doesn’t mean as much to them now because their family eats well all year long.
The admiration of America seems long gone. The generation that talked about being allies in World War II has been replaced by a generation that remembers the U.S. bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the ongoing war in Iraq.
After my first year of living in China, I felt deeply connected to the people and the place — enough to draw me back again and again. Now as life in many Chinese cities takes on the hues and expectations of modernity, it feels paradoxically more distant to me. I heard someone say that China is like a new country every five years.
But some things have stayed the same. The air is still full of soot, workers are still laboring away in factories, and traffic is still jammed, but mostly with private cars. The government still has an unhealthy obsession with controlling public thought and expression.
It’s a time of confusion and ambivalence. People are extremely proud of what China has achieved, but they struggle to define what they want to be besides rich. As the Beijing Olympics begin, I wonder what impression the world will take away. Certainly gleaming buildings and state-of-the-art stadiums will showcase the economic miracle of the past 20 years. But what was traded for all the trappings of wealth and success? Maybe a piece of its soul.
Kristi Heim is a Seattle Times business reporter. She can be reached at 206-464-2718 or email@example.com. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.