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Monday, 18 April 2011

The Real China

One is always reading about how China is in the midst of an unprecedented “boom”. They were talking about China ’s “roaring” economy even in 1997 and 1998, when I lived there. I recall a book called China as Number One. What a “boom”: consists of mystifies me, as most of the people I saw and met in China were living in various degrees of poverty, some quite severe.

During my stay, I went twice from Beijing to Xinjiang and back by train. Once I went to Urumqi, the capital. The other time I went all the way through to Kazakhstan. Poverty is acute in rural Xinjiang. Many houses were built of unmortared pumice blocks with rusty corrugated sheet metal on top, with heavy stones to hold it in place in high winds. The sheet metal cantilevered over the front to form a porch, supported by crooked tree trunks. Walls were patched with sheet metal, plywood, glass and cardboard. This is a region where temperatures can fall to -25 F.

Many people live in caves. Such a cave usually has a pumice block wall enclosing the front. I did not go into any caves, but I imagine they are rude and spartan inside.

The second time I went, my train failed in Qingshui, Gansu, about 1000 miles east of Urumqi, so I had to complete the trip by bus. About 800 miles of the way consisted of bumpy dirt roads passing through desolate adobe villages. In some places the road disappeared entirely, and the bus tore through the weeds. In one place, we got stuck in mud and everyone had to get out and push. We stopped for breakfast in Hami. Let me pass over a description of the toilets. The drinking water was warm and muddy. Food was something like peaches or watermelon. They sell hard-boiled eggs, but the shells are always broken, and I was too squeamish to accept them thus.

I recalled taking the bus down the I-80 through Wyoming. What a difference!

I met a college student in Beijing named An Chaogang. His parents, who had sent him to Beijing, lived in Changsha, Hunan. Just as he got his Associate’s degree, they ran out of money. He got a job as a waiter making $50 a month, no tips likely. He said he needed $80 a month, or he wouldn’t get enough to eat. I offered him money, but he wouldn’t take it, proud. He was still making $50 when I left China.

I met a beautiful girl of the same age, a maid-receptionist at my hotel, who spoke no English. I offered her free English lessons in my room every night, completely platonically. Then I moved to a cheaper place. So she came by metro to my new place. I couldn’t go to her, because she shared her room with three other maid-receptionists. I surmise that she was making no more than $50 a month, with room and board, such as it was. The last time I saw her she was planning to return to Dalian, Liaoning, her hometown. She said she couldn’t take the 14-hour day any longer. And here I had been making her come to me for lessons. How guilty I felt!

The woman who lived next door to me in one of my places owned her own noodle factory, so she was doing well by Chinese standards, at $300 a month. She could live alone in her $150 apartment. Mine was $210, as it was bigger.

In front of my building there were five vendors, Mao, Wang, Miss Li and two others. They sold chopped beef sandwiches, fried perch, peanut brittle, cigarettes and beer on the sidewalk. They slept on folding beds in sleeping bags under an overhang, but when the rain poured, they lay on the floor of the kitchen side by side, visible from outside. The girl slept elsewhere. I noticed that they worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. With booms like that, who needs recessions?

I met a young man in the merchant marine, Ma Hongguo, who spoke some English. He and I had mutual tutoring sessions. His wife had a Bachelor’s degree in Chinese literature, but was giving haircuts on the sidewalk for 25 cents a head. Hongguo lived in far south suburban Beijing in a very poor neighborhood. He had a two-room house he’d bought for $4000, one room in each of two little buildings encircled in a high brick wall with another tenant’s two-room house. His main room was a bedroom 6 by 12, which a bed filled halfway. He had some tiny stools. It was really uncomfortable. The privy was outside the wall. You could smell it from afar. I went with him to Xiajin , Shandong , his hometown. His parents lived in a rude brick house, with cobblestone floors. Their living room had rattan chairs, table and settee, with a shelf of 50 pocketbooks and a 12-inch black and white television set. Twin privies were out in front. This was good for China.

China had no coins and no pay phones. Someone would place a phone on a window sill on the sidewalk and sell calls for 4 cents apiece. On my hutong (alley), which was not very busy, there was a little old woman with a phone. She couldn’t possibly have made more than a $1 or $2 a day. I peeked in her room once, an alcove 6 by 6 with gray sheets. There was a shared privy a few feet from her door.

According to Chaogang, policemen earned $60 a month, and many did absolutely nothing but walk around.

There were street people sleeping in cardboard boxes in a pedestrian underpass near my place in zero weather in the dead of winter. During the day, I’d see then perched on boxes or discarded chairs, hugging themselves and trembling.

I went to the apartment of Su Hailong, a tea merchant about 25. It was a spiffy little place that a single in the US who didn’t make a lot of money would be glad to have. It was better than my place, and must have cost $300 a month or more. It was all very nice, till I found out that Hailong had 5 roommates. I guess there was enough space on the floor.

There are some middle-class people, but I didn’t meet very many. I met Yang Ming, a beautiful lady around 40 who helped me get an apartment in her building, where I could save some money. Her husband was a publisher of art books who had his office in Hong Kong. They had apartments in Hong Kong and Beijing. Their apartment was just like mine, $210 a month and dreary, but they had handsome throw rugs, a piano, paintings, statues, eiderdown comforters, a space heater and other amenities. Before she had married, she had made $600 cutting cassettes. She sang cabaret music.

Her friend, Yu Xiaohui, managed the building. She too had one of those $210 apartments, most of the rooms remaining dreary. But she and her sister, a teacher about 40, had one room decorated beautifully, with an armoire, a big couch with embroidered pillows, an oak table and a large color television. So basically, the two ladies lived in that single room, the other rooms being used for storage, etc.


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