Beijing, Monday, December 15, 2008
I came to China expecting to find what the Western media has been harping on for ages: a stifling political climate, even more stifling pollution and indescribable poverty. But though I looked hard for proof of what I"d read, I finally had to conclude that Beijing is not that scary. Of course, China has human rights and pollution problems, but life here isn"t just a series of catastrophes.
I am awed by Beijing"s skyscrapers that hold their noses up too high to see the pickup-sticks mess of hutongs and razed areas that barely come up to their second levels.
Beijing is gray, but there is an eerily colorful combination of old-fashioned neon lights that start to glow as the day dies and the garish, outdated Olympic propaganda banners. On the sidewalks, a few elderly men and women wearing simple button-down Cultural Revolution jackets brush shoulders with clumps of teenagers with spiky blue hair, piercings and designer (or counterfeit) jeans. Vendors sell open-fire popcorn beneath colorful, curvy, glassy architecture.
All of this is part of a new Beijing, and to see it grow and change every day is exciting for me, not frightening.
My Chinese host family and I talk about sensitive issues (Tibet, Taiwan, the dairy scandal) at dinner in our 12th-floor apartment. The living room looks out over the western side of the city; my host parents" room is partitioned off from the living room. My Chinese sister"s room is plastered all over with David Beckham posters. My bedroom is all white except for my bed, which has a big pink spread covered in pictures of the anim篓娄 heroine "Princess Rose."
My house is nothing like the courtyard homes with no plumbing or heat in which some of my classmates live; nor is it one of the shoddy, teetering high-rises to which so many former courtyard-home dwellers have been relocated. It is neither the worst place to live in Beijing nor the best.
A few weeks after I moved in, I listened to my Chinese host family"s description of the dairy scandal. When my Chinese mother described the scandal over noodles and stewed asparagus, she did not directly blame the government; rather, she said that the small farmers hadn"t been paid enough by the companies buying their milk, and so they had tainted their products with melamine to make more money. "Everything else," she said, "came from that."
Recently, the economic crisis usurped the dairy scandal. The view is that this isn"t America"s fault or the government"s fault; it"s a misfortune that must be faced while going about life normally. In middle-class China, a layoff means it"s time for a new job. A stock market crash means it"s time to reinvest. Besides, recessions and depressions are part of life, and Chinese people have all seen worse. "What goes up must come down," my Chinese mother reminded me.
On a drive to Hebei province with my host family one day, the pollution rendered visibility so bad that traffic was stopped for hours, and the highway became a ghostly, never-ending parking lot. But what fascinated me wasn"t the gauzy sky. On one side of the highway were ancient, forgotten graves crumbling among the tall, slender trees of a newly planted orchard.
Across the road, willows shook their seaweed tresses over a trickling, dirty river. Everyone got out of their cars and walked around, chatting with strangers or surreptitiously snapping pictures of the 6-foot-tall foreigner in their midst (me). There was more to see than unclean air.
Part of what makes me hopeful in China is that people make the best of situations. A dairy scandal with disastrous health repercussions is also an opportunity to rethink the way farmers work, or to reassess a family"s diet so that it"s not only safer but also healthier. A bulldozed historical district can become a new arts center. My Chinese family isn"t passive or apathetic, but optimistic. Everything else comes from that.
Annie Osborn, a junior at Boston Latin School, is studying with School Year Abroad in Beijing.