Sunday, December 18, 2011

Home for the Holidays

Cultural differences are powerful, as my trip to China taught me. Watching people hock giant loogies on the street isn't something we in the West often do, and we find it pretty uncouth. But after a week living in the dreadful air quality of Beijing, I kind of got it. 

Maybe I've just noticed it more since my recent trip, but air quality in Beijing seems to have been in the news a great deal lately. NPR's Morning Edition recently ran a story today about how keeping one's air clean is a luxury in this city of 23 million. Click here for the link. Another story, aired on Marketplace, cited a study showing a 60 percent increase in lung cancer in China over the past decade, at a cost of $100 billion a year, nearly 6 percent of the GDP. Try to imagine the understandable outrage if this were to happen in the United States.

The lack of protests of any sort was striking to me, and it felt very, very different. Yet my experience there with the Chinese as well as with tourists and expats I met and watched at many times amused me greatly, as it showed me that some things are universal:

Cab drivers. There are those who want you to be their best friend and more who act as though by taking you on as a fare they are letting you through past the velvet rope at the newest club in town. Still can't decide which is more annoying.

Annoying radio. Despite my complete lack of proficiency in any Chinese dialect, I know a car dealership ad when I hear one, especially on a Saturday morning. Why do they have to be so loud? Guess it works.

Come....on!!! Is the universal expression of frustration in traffic, or at least something that sounds like it.  This noise, naturally, is accompanied by a throwing up of hands and followed by a string of single-syllable words.

Teenagers.  A family from a European country (unclear to me which one, my limitation) is visiting the Great Wall of China on the same day I am there. Kids and mom come through the gate built around the 8th Century looking irritated/bored to tears. Dad stands at the top of gate and bellows something funny and good natured about how cool it is to be there. Mom sighs. Younger girls look embarassed but send him cute grins.  Oldest daughter, aged 15, rolls eyes and stomps on.  If you don't live with it, you've done it.

Young people. I loved seeing the twenty-somethings who work in the big city.  When I sat in a Starbucks across a courtyard from my hotel, I was near a subway station and enjoyed watching all of them head off to work in their cute boots and coats.  They dress much like members of their cohort in New York or Chicago, and they laughed and flirted with one another as they walked by. But in the meeting setting where they were working for me on behalf of the hotel, they were incredibly polite and respectful, looking to me as an elder for direction in a way American twenty-somethings typically do not. They seemed so very young. I found it very touching and wished I could tell them in their native tongue how much I appreciated their work.

Later I learned more. I knew that many had come from the countryside to help support their families, but heard anecdotally from a number of expats that most of them only get home once every twelve months, if at all, for Chinese New Year. It's estimated over 2 billion Chinese migrate during this holiday. The young people I saw were trying so very hard to do a good job, but it wasn't clear to me if there was real opportunity for them. 

I don't remember well how I felt in my twenties, but my own children are close to it and I can't imagine them being so far away, for so long, at such a tender age. I looked at these sweet kids, many who are no doubt living in the outer rings of the city and in meager circumstances, and thought about how surely lonely they must be, so far from those they love and all that is familiar. For at least some of us, youth and not knowing about how hard the world can be gives us the courage, even if false, to go forward.  China's brutal history does not offer much in the way of of support for this, but I hope the future rewards this generation's hope.