Good-bye to China

Final Thoughts

Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 2:24 am

 

In a few hours, we will be boarding our flight in Shanghai for the nonstop flight to Chicago. We are eager to be home, but not yet ready to leave China. Here are some final impressions.

The images we will retain (like these two pictures) span the unimaginable scale of everything, and the precision of small meticulous details. Cities, buildings, spaces, and projects of all kinds are huge, remarkable, and almost beyond imagining. Architectural detail, finish, landscaping, historic sites are often exquisitely crafted and well maintained. In between it all is an unrelenting tide of people going about their daily business, selling everything possible, and moving from commerce to home to work in a fluid stream of cars, buses, scooters, bikes and pedestrians. No American who hasn’t experienced Asia can imagine the constant press of people, everywhere.

A number of people in China speak a little English.  Some people speak English quite well.  Most people do not.  We learned to get by with our non-existent Chinese by pointing, getting names and directions in Chinese to give to the cab driver, and mastering a few key words. People were invariably willing to work through the communication lags. Above all, we found the Chinese people to be almost unflappable. To coexist with over a billion people requires a willingness to take things as they come. We never saw road rage, never heard angry words on the street with all the bumping and jostling, rarely saw an accident.  People accept that they share a dense existence and work with it.

Our time in China was bounded by the urban experience. We had no chance to visit the countryside, and the beauty and poverty that reigns there.  Not that there isn’t plenty of poverty in the cities, but it tends to be glossed over by the mask created by the government, putting a good face on the surface in the areas where visitors tend to go. The government’s ability to control perceived reality is astonishing, and to question it is difficult. It is very easy to slip into admiration for what they have done, and to forget to ask what the hidden costs may have been.

The gap between rich and poor is big and growing. Many people live in cramped quarters on very modest means. A block or two away will be a Bentley dealership, or a gated apartment building, or a private club. The clerk or the guard or the waitress will inhabit one world while at work, and another when they go home. We wonder if the contrast may someday become too great to bear. The Chinese worry about this too.

In Beijing and Shanghai, we found the growing might of the Chinese art world (I have yet to write the blog on Shanghai art galleries and what we saw). In Nanjing, we had a very short visit with a group of painters. From what they said in our few hours together, it would be crucial to talk with them—and other artists—at length about art and life.

In five weeks we got a taste, a sense, a glimpse of China.  Much of what we absorbed was on a sensory level. It would take ages to achieve a deeper understanding.  First impressions always lie in the places where we can find common ground. The underlying differences only broke the surface in tiny, tantalizing ways. 

Before I went, I had vague ideas that China would be quaint, difficult, scary, impenetrable. I found it to be futuristic, easy, safe, and generous.  We ignore this country at our peril.