This fall, my second Chinese home was Portland, Oregon’s sister city: Suzhou. Suzhou is an ancient, once beautiful city. Even though they’re sisters, the only thing I could initially find the two having in common is they are both places where people like to wear eye glass frames with no lenses, for fashion. Otherwise, Portland and Suzhou seem to be on opposite ends of a development teeter-totter.
Suzhou (“SUE-Joe”) is known within China as a clean and beautiful city full of gardens and canals – it’s even called the Venice of the East. As far as I have learned, this is all because some poet wrote about the town a few thousand years ago. Since then, everyone has been forced to memorize that poem in school, which led to lots of people in Jinan (my first Chinese home) telling me Suzhou is beautiful and I will love it, even if they have never been there and their information is a millennium old. Suzhou is now basically an industrial suburb of Shanghai.
While Suzhou is indeed less smoggy than Jinan, its mess of factories makes it a pretty dull place, without much notable culture or diversity. They have lots of shopping malls and lots of boring but decent housing complexes with modern amenities. (But I did discover one little counterculture-cool coffee shop in Suzhou, which I will eventually write about. And when I say counterculture about a coffee shop in the land of tea, I mean that it feels Chinese and not like a Starbucks knock-off.)
But little sister Portland, half a century ago, was more like Suzhou today – ugly and industrial – and in the last few decades transformed itself into the green, vegan City of Roses, and a supposed beacon of youth and awesomeness.
Portland and Suzhou definitely have more in common than meets the eye, just a few decades apart.
I couldn’t count how many times in the last year I thought about how China today reminds me of the US in the 1950s: Before civil rights for minorities. Before gay rights, or even widespread social acceptance of gay people. Before women’s lib. Before tattoos became commonplace – back when they were just a sign that you were definitely a criminal. Before littering was taboo, let alone illegal and before factory pollution was regulated. Before public buildings had to be accessible. Before a student would even consider pursuing a career her parents didn’t approve of. Before it was okay to be 30 and single. (Before it was okay to be 25 and single.)
I say “before,” because China is obviously in the middle of a lot of change, and some of these things have already started to change in some ways, in some places. My friends in Shanghai and Beijing would argue that those cities are already very different – better public transit, more open to the LGBT crowd and to foreigners (even most waiters speak some English), more residents who speak solid English and who are on Facebook (meaning they’re internet savvy and know their way around government censorship). Young people in Beijing and Shanghai are usually more used to tattoos, more independent from their families, and less worried about settling down and having kids the second they finish college. (Not that those are necessarily good things.) But saying those two cities represent all of China would be like saying New York and DC are just like the rest of the US. They are separate worlds within one country.
(Most of my cultural comments about China are about the inner provinces, not BJ and Shanghai My friend who would only want to be known as the Laowai Comics Guy explains the difference in this comic.)
While the government is still oppressive and the traditions still controlling, I think the internet is making change inevitable even in China. The communists try to control which parts of the web are available, but people are constantly outsmarting it. VPNs are becoming easier to access for most people (although I did have students who asked me how to get them, and whether it was true that the programs would let them access Facebook). And people are probably figuring out other tech voodoo I don’t know about. Censorship is unsustainable. I assume this because China is the most internet-obsessed place I’ve ever been. But remember the tech boom of the 90’s was a major part of Portland’s transition from grungy-gross to grungy-cool, so they could be on to something.
All in all, it was a fascinating year in China. The country is more different from home, and from everywhere else, than any other place else I’ve been. I love some things about it, especially the food, and how friendly and interested in foreigners people are.
But I’m ready for a change for 2016. This is why I’m breaking up with China:
I have the responsible reasons: If I’m going to settle down somewhere, I want it to be a place I can imagine building something, which is impossible to me in a culture as impenetrable as China’s. I have some friends who showed up in China, burrowed in deep, learned the language and decoded the culture, and love it. For me, Mandarin made me feel like banging my head against a wall on most days. I was intrigued, and I learned more than most people apparently expected me to, but that brick wall was always there. The pollution also gave me a rotating selection of headaches, stomach aches, sore throats, and black stuff to pick out of my nose. It really hard to be active outdoors there, at least in any kind of a city – it just isn’t part of the culture the way it is in the western US (I’m spoiled). And the censorship drove me crazy.
Then I have the reason that’s probably most important for me: China has no cheese, no dessert, no wine, hardly any craft beer, and no dancing.
I wouldn’t really like it better if all those things came to China – first of all because most Chinese people I know don’t seem to want them, and because the things that make China a challenge (for “laowai,” or outsiders) are what make it an interesting place to spend some time. What fun would China be if it was just like home in all little ways that are nice for foreigners but don’t help make Chinese people’s lives any better? The sister cities would be boring if they were the same.
So in the end, maybe I could live in China with the pollution, the censorship, and not ever fully understanding what’s going on – but I don’t want to do it without dancing. I won’t do it without good beer. I will not do it without cheese. And in the real, old-school China, those are the only ways to do it.