One week into my new adventure as a high school English teacher in China has opened my eyes to some amazing discoveries. I had some pre-conceived notions about what to expect that have been annihilated by reality.
Just for starters, I thought I would be arriving in a country that was so far behind the U.S. in cosmopolitan sophistication, but that was shattered immediately. Truthfully, I expected most people to still be wearing bland, Mao-inspired pajamas that were standard issue for so many decades. My one and only trip to China before this was in 1987 to Guangzhou. Back then, I marveled at the gazillion bicycles navigating at break-neck speed down the main boulevard. Everyone was wearing the drab dark blue or black loose-fitting pajama outfits. Granted, that was almost 4o years ago. I knew some progress must have occurred over that time; however, I was not prepared for the sharp-dressing, label-wearing, sophisticated men and women who now populate Taicang, China.
It is professed to be one of the more progressive and newly constructed cities, and I can attest to the fact that there are a myriad of new buildings going up all around the outskirts of town. My Chinese colleague who has been assigned to assist me in getting settled here in Taicang explains that the changes have really skyrocketed in the last ten years. I would equate their style in fashion to equal that of upscale New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, and Rome.
I was additionally taken aback by the cleanliness of the city. There is definitely no graffiti to be seen anywhere. Litter is ethereal as human street sweepers come along regularly with their home-made leaf brooms to sweep up any stray debris. The city is spotless, almost too clean, if you can imagine such a thing. It so clean that it makes the city look “unlived in” and devoid of life. Yet, it teems with life.
Even in the freezing temperatures (it was zero degrees on the day I arrived), people are out and about swathed in their Chanel silk neck scarves, leather boots, and fur jackets.
Another eye-opener is the ability for the students to speak their minds and express ideas that I thought would have been taboo. One student said she hated Communism --- out loud --- while administrators and foreign visitors were in the classroom! She was expressing her opinion as it related the theme from the novel Animal Farm which is an allegory of the start of Communism in Russia. No one flinched or seemed uncomfortable by her remark. Hmmmm, does this mean China is coming out of its dark ages of absolute governmentsl control?
The answer to that is yes, AND no. While it was refreshing to see this particular student feel free enough to voice an opinion that defies the very government in power, that same government still has ways of controlling information and freedoms. I am frustrated by my inability to access Facebook, Netflix, online videos of various TV shows, and even basic Yahoo-featured news videos. My colleague is trying to buy an apartment in Beijing, but she is plagued by a wall of red tape that makes it virtually impossible. The phrase Catch 22 seems to apply to the way China runs the country. There are rules, regulations, forms, and hurdles to overcome that would make a trip to one of our notorious American DMVs look like a vacation in the tropics.
Well, these are some of the first impressions I have experienced in week one of my China adventure. Next week, we will discuss those toilets!