Today’s much delayed addition to my blog comes to you as a result of a trip abroad WITHOUT KIDS. So, no parenting tips or woes this time, instead I raise my tea cup to you all (fingers fanned, ceremoniously, like a peacock) and say “nihao” from China. Why China I hear you ask? Well, as the theme for the 20th wedding anniversary is china, I used a small ‘c’ on July 1st this year and a bought my husband a witty mug, given my current unpaid status. My husband on the other hand, went for China with a capital C and bought us a 10 day tour from Beijing to Shanghai via the terracotta warriors. Now who feels like a mug?
Although we took the British weather with us, we had a very French start to the trip with a complimentary bottle of champagne from BA. Stewardess friend of mine, you know who you are, thank you, this was a lovely touch. Ironically, this aspirational, status filled product set the tone for the next 10 days, reflecting one aspect of our experience of the Chinese culture perfectly.
The Chinese are competitive, it’s the GREAT wall, remember. Everything is ranked and our Beijing and Shanghai tour guides both claim their city is the largest, with approximately 30 million residents in each city. In terms of population density though, life gets more interesting. Imagine a couple living in London. In Shanghai, in the same amount of space occupied by our British couple, there would be three people. Cosy, I wonder who’s the gooseberry. In Beijing there would be five and now we’re talking claustrophobic. Our house has five people in it, it is never quiet and you’re never alone, and it was designed to hold a lot more than two people. This intense social situation manifests itself in many ways.
Practically, the standard speed on the roads downtown is 10km per hour as business men demand the status of their own car to take them from office to office. This is my running pace and I’m a very amateurish runner. In the centre of London at 5pm the roads now look positively sparse to me; there is physical space between cars. In Beijing and Shanghai, one household in 5 can afford a car, so it’s no wonder that the underground systems in both cities are so well developed, extending some 30kms out from the city. Our brand new guide book for Beijing was not able to keep up with the rate at which new lines are being added. However, if you imagine half the population of the UK all trying to make it out of London in time for dinner, you get some idea of the length of the queues at rush hour.
The aspirational goals for transport in China have left the bicycle standing long ago. The unbelievably smooth Maglev train in Shanghai will take you to the airport, 30kms away in 8 minutes, reaching a speed of 431 km/hour (267 mph). The same distance by Heathrow express takes 15-20 minutes, on a juddery, swaying train that induces nausea after a long flight. As an aside, the tickets for the Maglev train at only £4 also do a lot better in the wash than Heathrow Express version.
Shanghai has gone from rice fields to metropolis within a hundred years, and this progress has resulted in every building shorter than a high rise block of flats being demolished to make way for yet more imposing blocks of flats. This is a harsh world for those numerous communities, built up over decades, who are forced to sell up and relocate their lives. I cannot imagine a similar policy working in London: Made in Chelsea doesn’t work if your accommodation bears more similarity to Tower Hamlets. So there are considerable social consequences to housing 30 million people in each city as well.
Everyone lives their life very publically. At least we can choose how much of our lives to expose on Facebook and rarely is that balance correct. In Shanghai as our guide pointed out, your life decisions are continuously in the spotlight. “50% of people follow the traditional expectations of looking after their parents in their old age, often by continuing to live in the same house. The other 50% are made to regret their less traditional decision as they are looked down upon by the former group”. Perhaps the ever pressing need to express some individuality goes some way to explaining the incidence of selfie sticks. I use the term incidence, more commonly associated with disease, deliberately. It is impossible to go anywhere where there is something worth seeing, and in China this includes large rocks with holes in, without a rash of selfie sticks around you, all wrapped around an iPhone. iPhones are the compulsory status symbol, despite their price and the fact that a living wage in China is one sixth that of the UK. Sure, selfie sticks are loathed in the west as well, but I wonder whether an escape to the countryside in Southern China is an opportunity finally to be yourself, with photographic proof of space to breath. Here, “small towns” are still the same size as London, but they have the population of Leicester, rather than Afghanistan. The pace of life here provides time, literally, to reflect.
The “single child family” policy – not law – may have been the only practical solution to the these issues. In the countryside, the need for men to work as farmers means that families can have as many children as they like. In the city, a second child just means higher taxes. I cannot help but think that practically, although certainly not emotionally, this situation is not so different to our London-centric view at home. How many young families with their first child in London berate the extortionate cost of a two bedroom flat and eventually leave the singletons to their wine bars and Tinder in favour of the cotswolds when a second pregnancy forces the issue?
As our Guilin guide points out, there have been consequences of the single child policy. In the first instance, “Parents prefer boys, to continue the family name, therefore, we have 30 million more boys than girls now”. We couldn’t help thinking that there was at least one step missing from that chain of logic. I shudder to think of the impact of this on the already fragile gender equality in the future. The other consequence of this imbalance was the response from the government to raise the legal age at which men can marry from 20 to 22. Coincidentally, on the day we returned from China, the single child policy was abolished. That is of little help to those 30 million unmarried men of the future, all tasked with looking after their elderly relatives single handed. For many, a life in the army is an attractive proposition, providing an education as well as military training. This is particularly valuable for those rural dwellers unable to reach a university through either geographic or educational reasons. However, here again, status is everything, as our Shanghai guide stated, “your country boy is not getting into the army without good connections.”
To power the growth of a nation of this size, with a GDP that has increased exponentially for over a decade, requires energy; a LOT of energy. China burns two thirds of the world’s coal and this is reflected in pollution levels reaching dangerous levels in the mega cities of Beijing and Shanghai. The World Health Organisation recently published information showing that every year 2.2 million people die of cancer in China. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-04/cancer-rates-in-china-rising/6068954 That’s the population of Las Vegas. Whilst I could make a good argument for wiping the materialistic and flashy Las Vegas from the face of the earth, that’s a lot of people dying each year in one country. Some of this could be prevented by changing the laws on smoking, but much of it, particularly the paediatric cases, is attributed to pollution. We asked our guide how the government is dealing with this problem, what was the investment in renewable fuels like? With a knowing smile, we were informed that natural gas was the solution, the only issue being how to pipe it from vast reserves in western China. We didn’t press the issue further, but felt that perhaps this wasn’t a perfect solution.
As a citizen of this planet, China is going to have to find a way of reducing its reliance on fossil fuels. However, this too provides an interesting thought experiment as to how much China values its role as a member of this planet’s community. The striking foreign-ness of China is its seclusion from the social connections that could link it to the rest of the world. Aside from the insatiable consumption of Apple’s products, China’s communist doors are firmly closed to Western tools of daily life such as Google and Facebook. As our Guilin guide put it, “We don’t know how China is perceived in the west. We can only learn more about ourselves when we view our country from a different perspective”. That perspective is firmly disallowed currently.
WeChat replaces Facebook in China and somewhere on WeChat is a photo of two English tourists in the back of a buick, posted by a Shanghai guide amazed at the height of his western tourists. With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, I’m not worried about lack of exposure of our plane weary faces, but no-one outside China can see that post (probably thankfully in this case). With Mark Zuckerberg’s recent visit to China with his wife, Priscilla Chan, there are rumours that Facebook will eventually come to China, possibly next year. I hope this achieves very meaningful social connections across China’s borders, rather than just an explosion of selfies posed with authentic chinese takeaway for dinner.
China is a vast country that cannot be explored or understood in only 10 days. I hope we return one day, with our children to explore again. Perhaps by the time we return, our children will be visiting friends they have met on social media, living in cities that do not threaten their health. It doesn’t feel like too much to hope for. I hope that the guides will then talk to us about the value of international connections, and the variety of innovative solutions to their population crisis. I hope the emphasis on selfie will have shifted to an emphasis on social connections between cultures that can only enrich the lives of the people on both sides.
PS For those of you dying to know how our kids survived without us: one of their grandmothers looked after them for 4 days, during which time she became so frustrated with our boys, that she smacked Connor on two successive days. Our status as best parents in the world, in the eyes of our kids now, is brighter and higher than the Shanghai skyline.