When Stewart landed in Pudong on the outskirts of Shanghai, he was knackered. Almost twelve hours on an aeroplane will do that to you. It was early March 2006 and it was cold, very cold. Stewart, like many other people has the travelling bug. On completing his degree several years ago, he began to look for a job, but after a few months when nothing materialised he began to look for alternatives. Teaching overseas seemed like a good idea, combining a decent paying job and some travelling in a nice yearly package. But why China I asked? Stewart explained that he had “always had a fascination with the Far East and wanted to really experience other cultures”. “The pay was also much better in China” he added. More and more people are choosing to teach English overseas and China is becoming a more favoured destination.
Stewart’s first cultural introduction came upon hearing a strange hocking sound from behind him. Upon turning around was presented with the sight of an old woman “gobbing” into a bin. But what struck him above anything else was the enormous scale of the place. Looking out of one of the airport windows it seemed like there was no life beyond the airport, just an empty, endless, industrial landscape. Built on huge concrete pillars, the motorway leaving the airport seemed to rise up into the sky. He gets a connecting flight to Xi’an airport where he meets his contact and makes the hour’s drive to the centre of Xi’an. It was on this drive through the impoverished villages on the way to Xi’an that Stewart thought to himself “Oh no, what have I let myself in for”. The initial meet and greet did not go well. He arrived in Xi’an tired, hungry and very overwhelmed. He needed a good nights sleep.
The next morning, he awoke to find the sun illuminating the city and he began to realise that the Chinese concept of architecture and design was a lot different than that of the West. “It was an incredible sight”, he explains. There are skyscrapers as far as the eye can see. He has a walk around the city and goes for something to eat. He has a sandwich from a shop that he describes as “a lower floor flat that seems to have been converted into a business”. It seems that it is very easy to open a business, with seemingly no health and safety, environmental health or permits to get in the way. “One of the biggest things that you find out about China” he explains “is that anyone can open up a business”. He picks up his new car and soon realises that on China’s roads, there are no rules, but for some bizarre reason it works. This chaotic organisation almost sums up what China is like. Hectic but functional. He drives to his new school in Yang Liang, which is a suburb of Xi’an and about an hour and half drive from the city centre. This is where Stewart spends the majority of his time when he is in China.
Stewart tells me about the differences in culture. “It’s amazing how quickly you integrate into it”, he says. “But this partly because the Chinese are amazing at looking after people” he remarks. “Especially when it comes to looking after people that can benefit them in some way”, he adds. This intrigues me a lot. I ask him if he was almost viewed as an investment. He agrees saying “they look after their investments”. This corporate minded opinion is something that you can’t get away from in China. Corporate China, it’s industry, it’s international trade and business is everywhere. It’s financial muscle can be seen everywhere. “It’s filled with the corporate, business environment”, he says.
I decide to ask Stewart about the freedom of speech issue that constantly surrounds China. I ask him if he has negative experiences. “I never experienced anything personally. I never felt like big brother was watching”. However he did experience the notorious Chinese firewall when browsing the Internet in one of the many Net Bars that fill the country. A seemingly harmless Karate site was blocked, probably for containing an undesirable key word. “The presence of authority is very overt in China”, he tells me. The overt presence and showing of power is a big thing in China. “It’s not a historical thing” he says, “It’s always been a big thing in Chinese culture”.
We talk for a while longer and the more I think about it, the more China seems like a contradiction. A riddle surrounded by myth and intrigue. It is a Communist country, yet it is a Capitalist country. It is a country with huge third world population that lives within the borders of the world’s richest superpower. It is a state controlled, censored society, with a poor human rights record that is having the biggest and fastest cultural reinvention witnessed in living memory. This inherent contradiction is why people might feel uneasy about China. Perhaps some people simply do not know what to make of this ever-expanding enigma. Maybe China even scares people. China is changing. It is changing almost faster than we can define it. As it changes we have to be willing to let go of our prejudices and stereotypes. China is already much different than people imagine. It’s been six years since Stewart lived in China and wonder how much it has changed in that short time.