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Yang-Yang Dispatch

The price is right…but at what cost to Chinese culture?
July 26, 2000

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Abeja standing in the middle of one of Beijing's most popular shopping districts.
For the past few days, Abeja, Kavitha, and Jasmine have been crazy with excitement about finally going home to America and have been poking themselves to make sure that it's really happening. After so many months, the World Trek is finally coming to a close. Meanwhile, as I help the trekkers pack up their stuff, I'm getting ready to stay behind and settle into my new home here in Beijing. A few months ago, when I was deciding where to go after college, I had a lot of doubt about whether or not moving back to Beijing would be the right choice for me. But, now that I have been here for five weeks, I am so happy to be back and feel I couldn't have made a better choice. I have been amazed at how much I feel at home here, despite not being able to read very much Chinese and despite the occasional awkward cultural misunderstandings. I'm finding the China I am falling in love with is quite different from what I was expecting.

Back at school in New York, I still had a very out-of-date image in my head of what life in China would be like. I imagined moving into the small room at my grandparents' place in the Beijing hutong (alleyways). They share one faucet with three other families, that use a black tank on the roof to warm water for showers, that only had a public squatting toilet, and that of course, had no air conditioning. I was preparing myself for the days when families were lucky to have a television AND a refrigerator. I imagined waking up every morning to have a bowl of sweetened soymilk with fried churros dipped in it. And I wondered how I would handle the crowded city buses to get myself to work every day.

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McDonald's seems to be on every street in Beijing now
I certainly was in for a surprise! Now that I'm here, what I see around me instead are cell phones, taxis, air conditioners, computers, and souvenirs from trips abroad. Is this the same China that I had left behind as a little girl? I don't remember China looking anything like this when I left 14 years ago, or even two years ago during my last visit. In fact, when the trekkers and I were coming out of the new West Railway Station in Beijing, I couldn't even recognize the street where my grandparents live. I was looking for a small, quiet alley lined with ditches and dirt piles. And there facing me, where I remember their street to be, was a wide, major boulevard leading up to the train station. It had newly paved streets and sidewalks, was lined with street lamps, was divided by a railing in the middle, and had a newly built TV tower at the other end of the block. It literally wasn't until we had reached the gate of my grandparents' complex that I finally assured myself we were at the right place.

Your Turn!!!

Do you think the changes in China will make life easier or more difficult for the people?

I think life will be more comfortable for people, but other situations will start becoming difficult like buying new things to keep up with the neighbors, and family relationships will change. Lauren - Los Angeles, CA

Share your thoughts
and see what others wrote!

New apartment buildings, shopping centers, office buildings, hotels, highways, and discos have popped up all over the place. Here in Beijing, there are very few streets that look as they did when I first left. The Chinese cities that I remember are changing right before my eyes with all the construction and development. For years under Mao's rule, the Chinese economy was kept in a backward state and very little economic growth occurred. Since then, a lot of economic opportunities have opened up and many people have benefited from the economic boom of the past decade. The more fortunate have experienced significant increases in their standards of living. They now have cars, travel abroad, send their kids to private schools, buy American-imported Colgate toothpaste, and heat up their leftovers in the microwave. New socioeconomic classes have been created, pushing a new group of newly rich to the top of the social ladder.


Socioeconomic - Relating to social and economic issues and status
Disparity - Not being equal
Accumulate - To gather

But, just because some Chinese people have become very wealthy doesn't mean that the poor have disappeared and that China has become a developed nation overnight. Most Chinese remain very poor, especially in the rural areas. Many peasants come to the cities illegally, hoping to make a decent living by working as laborers or vendors. I have seen them sleeping on newspapers spread out on the ground outside of train stations and roaming the streets of big cities, looking for a way to make a few yuan. When we went to visit a section of the Great Wall just outside of Beijing, there were locals who hiked all the way up to the Great Wall with heavy baskets filled with drinks and snacks just in the hopes of selling a bottle of water to tourists for a few yuan.

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Even Mondays are busy shopping days along this outdoor market.
How is China handling this newly created income disparity, and what are the Chinese people doing with this wealth that they never had before? Like I said, those who can afford to do so are certainly enjoying higher standards of living. But, what you have to understand is that their improved living standards means having a lot of the things that Americans consider to be basic necessities of everyday life. My grandparents, for example, for the first time in their lives, have now moved into an air-conditioned apartment with a flushable toilet, a hot-water shower, and a private kitchen. Beyond simply being able to accumulate more material possessions, now even service, respect, and a smile can all be bought for a price. Street vendors who couldn't be bothered to look down at their watches to give me the time of day suddenly become super nice and helpful (informing me of the possibility of afternoon rains) the moment I become a paying customer and buy a snack from their stands.

Relevant Links

The National Council for Science and the Environment's report on economic growth in China

I have rather mixed feelings about China's improved economic status. On the one hand, I am glad to see that China is finally coming out of its past poverty, but on the other hand, it really is sad to see that a lot of people's relations with one another now revolve around money. Money and its widespread influences can be felt everywhere. It's become a motivator, a goal, an obsession, a pastime, a tool, and a part of everyday life. The previously unimaginable has now become possible. For a price, it seems that almost anything can be bought. You're tired of taking the city buses? Buy a car and hire a chauffeur. You want to look more beautiful? Get plastic surgery. Your son didn't get into college? Don't worry, pay for him to attend a university abroad instead. And even if you haven't got the money now, you are always free to dream of becoming a da kuan (Beijing slang for a very wealthy person) one day and having what everyone else has.

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Look at all that you can now buy - new washers, computers, and McDonald's ice cream cones!
The past decade's economic progress has happened at an incredibly fast pace. When social and economic change happens this fast, people don't always have the time to think about what's happening along the way. It becomes very easy to become wasteful, to be forgetful of others, to want to put on high airs, and to want to disassociate yourself from your poor past. China has gotten the first part down that you can now buy things with your new wealth, but it'll still take some time before the Chinese people fully understand the new responsibilities that come with economic growth. I think it has been a very long and painful struggle for China and for the Chinese people, as I'm sure it will be for me, adjusting to life here once again. I have faith, though, in us to build a better tomorrow using the new resources that are now available, like an awareness of the outside world, international support, social change, and of course, money.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Kavitha - Learning the Way of the Peaceful Warrior - Mastering the Art of Kung-fu
Jasmine - "One Man's Insects are Another Man's Steak"
Yang-Yang - Finding the Confucian in You!
Abeja - Here we are in China! No wait, I mean Istanbul! No, no, this must be Tehran!

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