China is a massive country, far beyond what one person can possibly summarize or understand. Any one statement I could try to make about my impression of the country would be vague or incorrect. The best that I can do is describe how it feels to me. China somehow seems like the most modern country and the most backward country at the same time, which makes any visit to a new place that much more exciting. Beautiful, gleaming skyscrapers tower over streets where Maseratis speed past rickshaws and bicycles. A dysfunctional and unreliable ambulance system services some of the most modern hospitals in existence. The wealthy government has used its enormous cash reserves to throw the country into the future, and everything else is still catching up. The Chinese are so much like us, but also so different — and that is just the beginning of what my time abroad has taught me.
I came to China with a reasonable amount of background knowledge about the country and its culture. Prior to coming to Shanghai, I had studied abroad in Taipei for a summer. I am moderately proficient in Mandarin, and I spent a significant amount of my freshman year interacting with Chinese exchange students. So when I arrived in Shanghai this fall, I thought I was prepared for most of the things that could surprise me. I knew that people smoke in public places, that crossing the street is a life-threatening ordeal and that the air quality can and will shorten your life expectancy. I did not expect to learn much more beyond that. I was incredibly wrong.
What I find most striking about walking around China is the ridiculous pace of growth that happened almost overnight. That fact struck me even in Shanghai, which is already very developed, but more so when I traveled to smaller cities like Changsha, Guiyang and Chengdu — when it comes to China, the word “smaller” still means more populous than all but the largest cities in the Western Hemisphere. In these cities, I could not look anywhere without seeing several construction cranes. It is one thing to hear that the country maintains an average annual GDP growth rate of 8.5 percent but you do not really get a sense for what that means or what keeps that number up in terms of visible progress, until you get here. Construction is so universal and so constant that even in the three short months that I have been here, I have watched roads be destroyed, buildings be cleared out and skyscrapers rise up from the ground. Nothing ever feels finished and things are always changing. It’s amazing to stand under the construction of a new skyscraper and realize that I’m watching the construction of the future.
Even in my own attitude toward the country and its people, I would find myself gravitating toward extremes. One day, I would love everything about the nation — the kindness and diversity of the people, the strange ways it can feel like a freer nation than the United States, the incredible cleverness and ingenuity of the Chinese and the fascinating varieties of food that far outnumber what is available in my own country. But other days, I hate China and become extremely cynical. Why does the ambulance system not work? Why is that I cannot even walk to my job without somebody trying to lure me into a scam tea ceremony, where exorbitantly high prices are charged for a simple preparation and consumption of tea? Why does my friend need to argue with a fruit salesman for 10 minutes to lower the price of a bag of oranges by one yuan? How could people be so seemingly rude and inconsiderate? Both ways of thinking contradict each other, and both ways of thinking are wrong.
But that’s China. To understand it, you have to break through the extremes to see what is actually there. You have to try and see what is left at the end of the day, when your emotional ups and downs melt away, and what you see is a country of mind-numbing complexity. The scores of problems and inconveniences are outweighed only by the incredible potential, hopefulness and fierce pride of the Chinese people. They may try to haggle you out of your money, but they are the most loyal people I’ve interacted with in my life. The whole system seems crazy and disorganized to the foreign eye, but the Chinese are able to accomplish an incredible amount in record time, and they always do it in their own way.
Economic development also comes with costs, not just in terms of money, but in the effects it has on the people that live where the development is occurring. I spoke with a college student my own age who grew up in a small rural town in Hunan province. He told me how everything he had known as a child — his old home and elementary school — had been leveled to build apartment complexes. He told me he envied where I grew up, because a side effect of being a developed country is a much greater degree of infrastructural stability. This made me reflect on the little comforts in my life that I often take for granted. He told me that he could never return to the place he remembered as home, and that this gave him a sense of emotional loss, as he missed something that could never really be recovered. It left my friend feeling as if there was no way to go but forward, and I suspect that he is not alone.
Another consequence of development is environmental destruction. I came to China expecting to be horrified by hideous man-made structures etching deep scars on what was once a pristine natural landscape. I am a person who tends to have strong feelings of guilt, hopelessness and sadness when I reflect on how human activities affect the environment. China was the last place on the planet I expected to actually have these feelings reversed. Hiding in the hills of this vast city are some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. While sitting in airplanes, buses and trains as I travelled throughout the Chinese countryside, there are forests and mountains as far as the eye can see. I’ve done quite a bit of travelling in my time here and with each visit to a new place untouched by development, I am taken aback by the way the world used to look. Even here, in a nation synonymous with environmental problems, there are sprawling areas of natural beauty.
I see certain ideas in the spirit of the Chinese people that have given me an even deeper appreciation for their culture. Although the Chinese have many problems to confront, I have a great deal of faith that they will overcome these challenges and become one of the largest, most influential economies on the planet. I believe in China, and I believe that the lasting effects of China’s influence on the world can be positive. I believe that when China’s time comes, it can create a legacy of making the world a better place.