When I first moved to China in 2001, not too many things felt like home. The television in my Chengdu apartment received seven channels, and three were CCTV-5, the sports station. There was no internet in my building, and no way get it. I ended up making a daily trip to the smoky internet cafe to get my local news, and watching Korean soap operas dubbed into Chinese.
Fast-forward to 2007. I live in Beijing, and not only have wireless in my apartment, but even have a land line with a US number. Calling home is as easy as calling a Chinese number. At my office I receive The New Yorker magazine, (which I read only after finishing the latest issue of China Expat). It’s true that it tends to be a week out of date, but that’s a pretty minor price to pay.
The point is that it is amazing to think back at how much has changed for expatriates living here. I arrived in the fall of 2001 having just witnessed the September 11th attacks from my roof in New York. On the one hand it made my move (which I had planned before 9-11, but postponed as a result) easier because it was a bit of an escape from the sad reality at the time. But there was another side.
Every morning when I woke up my first reaction was to check the news to make sure there hadn’t been another attack. It was a very tense period, and it took a long time before I was able to open my web browser without expecting to read about something terrible (to be honest the feeling never completely disappeared).
I grew to like most of my life which was completely different from what I was used to. It’s true that information was somewhat choppy coming in, but experiencing China for the first time–and the area of Chengdu I was living in at that time was a real China experience–is something special. For the first six months I ate only Sichuan food everyday before I started occasionally hopping on the bus heading down to Grandma’s Kitchen. It was my only western outlet at the time, the only place to get real comfort food. Today the city is virtually teeming with options.
If I said I wish I were still living the same way now, I would be lying. There were crazy things that used to go on there that I’ll never forget, like the way people used to celebrate Christmas (basically there was a big parade of 15-25 year olds who had inflatable baseball bats and hit each other on the head. This is true and it was 100% crazier then it sounds.) Experiencing these oddities and being separated from American culture was something that changed me in a fundamental way. But I also like the fact that I can now listen to Meet the Press while I’m on the subway.
Things certainly have changed. This week I’ve had food from Korea, Japan, China, and western stuff as well. Even as I am typing my colleague is trying to pry me away for a curry for lunch. It’s a far cry from my normal routine of rotating among Sichuan barbecue, Sichuan fried noodles, and hotpot.
Again, I can’t say that I completely miss the monotony and the daily difficulties, but at the same time I would be sad if my current life in China were my only experience in the country. In a sense my own China journey reflects the general attitude toward development throughout the country: It’s a shame that so much of the tradition is disappearing, but I don’t exactly want to give up my Ipod either.
Post a comment to voice your opinion on a story.
Found an interesting China article we missed? Email it to Josh @ ChinaExpat.com (no spaces)