Coming back to China for the summer is – to borrow a term that my boarding school friends used to describe the same feeling – a “magic realism” experience. Tingles of unfamiliarity have bitten me harder than I expected, and it took a while to realize the asymmetrical speed and scope of modern development in China that has turned me into an inside outsider. The substantial and speedy changes in physical surroundings are accompanied by an unequally-paced adaptation in customs, values and ideas.
I was born and raised in China. I spoke the language without an accent, knew how to haggle and how to cut the line, and would pick up arguments with locals naturally and effortlessly. Yet as I continue to spend time away from China and study here in the United States, I can never quite be part of it all as there are certain oddities to my surroundings that are perfectly normal and quotidian to everyone else, yet so unfamiliar and outrageous to me.
I once took my camera during a stroll around Beijing; when I went through the pictures later, I found anachronistic humor in almost all of them. The most notable example is a picture of an old woman selling packs of cigarettes, arranged neatly on an old and shabby wooden shelf. On the bottom of the shelf she wrote: “Payments can be made through WeChat,” a very modern messaging app. Other similar ones appear as well; vendors in snack shacks, street stalls and shops that look like they come straight out of the pre-reform era movies all have QR codes, which one can scan and make a payment through WeChat.
Those who have travelled to China recently would certainly be familiar with WeChat, an all-in-one communication application that is a combination of Grubhub, iMessage, Venmo, Whatsapp, Facebook, Ticketmaster and more. Being part of the extreme minority of those who did not have WeChat at the time, I gasped at the speed at which the Chinese accept new mobile technology. Such seamless adoption of new and modern technology is evident every time I come back home.
Even then, the landscape around my homes is also changing continuously since just a few months after my previous visit back home, something from my memory will be gone. The bookstore at the corner of my old high school, the little park where I rushed to every day after class when I was little, the village on the city’s outskirt where we used to stop and pick up natural honey are all gone and replaced so quickly and relentlessly by yet another Starbucks or Pizza Express or shopping mall, leaving me mesmerized, confused and sad.
History and antiquity have little weight; the lifespan of memories is shortened because one has to rush to accept what is presented right in front of them, which in the next two weeks might be quickly demolished and replaced with something else. And yet the less concrete – customs, values, ideas – are all much more stubborn to stay.
To cite the most symbolic: squatting. The term “Chinese squat” has a racially discriminatory tone to it, and everywhere else in the world it is perceived as a bizarre and probably low-class and impolite gesture. It is strange in two ways: it is stereotypically “Old China,” and it is relaxed, contrasting hugely from the rest of the society, physically modern and perpetually restless. Images like Nongminggong, or peasants doing low-skilled heavy labor work in cities, squatting and calling families with their shiny iPhone 6s, or girls holding Louis Vuitton bags squatting at the corner of shopping malls to take a short break from walking are, again, anachronistic combinations that are incongruent with the rest of the city landscape.
That points me to the source of my awkwardness in trying to be an insider; I am more or less the result of Western modernity, yet the rest of the society is a mixture of the extremely old and the extremely new. Things do not happen so quickly in the United States or France; construction projects take years to be approved and completed, technology is embraced but is also matched with the movement to not use it extensively and history is well-respected and preserved.
During my years abroad in the United States and a summer spent in France, I cannot recall seeing some building getting torn down and rebuilt within weeks, or a phone app being the multifunctional operating system that nobody can live without. The adaption in lifestyle and ideologies is also moderately paced — slow enough to be seamless and undisrupted, yet fast enough for me to perceive change that is synchronized with the shifting of physical landscape.
Back in China, however, the speed and the scope of visible, tangible and physical change, juxtaposed with the equally astonishing stability and inertia of old habits and customs, creates a vacuum in the society, in which people like me can never quite be absorbed to the rest of the crowd. To a certain extent, China does not feel like home anymore; it is a show in which I am no longer a participant. My role is just to watch and observe, sometimes timidly inserting myself onto the stage, only to be excluded out of the performance seconds later.
Zoe Sun is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. At Home in Four Oceans appears every other Monday.