Will the “real” China please come forward?

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Recent moments and conversations have made me question whether my Chinese experience has been complete. Nanjing, the city where I reside, is essentially a globalized metropolis with most of the comforts and conveniences of back home complete with Subway Sandwich shops, grocery stores where I can buy Starbucks ice cream, and a new fancy French style bakery chain selling bagels right in my neighborhood. Admittedly, I have fallen prey to these new ventures and as a result am apt to forget on some days that I even live in China. Also becoming more prevalent in Nanjing as well as other wealthy Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are the shocking and ostentatious displays of wealth. It hit me hard in February after returning from a vacation in the third world surroundings of Laos to the glitzy streets of these Chinese cities where fancy BMW convertibles and Hummers roar by at high speeds. Gucci, Versace, Louis Vuitton and Coach stores take up entire city blocks while beautifully dressed women hurry by in their Manolo Blahnik heels chatting on their iPhone 5s.
 
A nice evening in downtown Nanjing
 
Hustle and bustle in front of one of the Apple stores in Shanghai
 
Our local Louis Vuitton store in Nanjing
I think before and even after living for some time in China, I have had a romantic notion in my head of how China should really be. Somehow, a China developing at breakneck speed with its people fully embracing and emulating trends and lifestyles of the West, is not how I imagined it. Now that I have been entrenched in this modern, affluent side of China, I at times overlook that there is another, very different China out there that I have witnessed only briefly on previous trips but have mostly been missing. So when my friend Cyrus asked if I would like to travel to Guizhou, a far away, poor province in Southern China that I had never even heard of, to visit a new women’s hospital, I accepted.  I hoped that the trip would be an adventure (it was), would be a crash immersion session in Chinese (it was), and that I would see a unique part of China vastly different from my wealthy corner of Nanjing (I did).
 
A rural town in Guizhou Province
An isolated province tucked in south central China, Guizhou is rich in natural resources. Where we traveled in the western part of the province, karst mountains and jagged formations made up the surrounding landscape both in the cities and the countryside. The mountains provided a beautiful backdrop until seeing them being excavated for coal mining or the building of new city developments. Thanks to its coal supply, Guizhou also exports electricity to richer nearby provinces such as Guandong, home province of wealthy, booming cities Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Indeed, Guizhou is quite poor and underdeveloped in contrast to Chinese provinces on the East coast and those provinces to which it supplies energy.
 
The view of Liupanshui
Our trip to Guizhou brought us to Liupanshui, a secluded city 270 km from the nearest airport in Guiyang, Guizhou. Looking out to a hazy, smoggy sky from my hotel room, I took in the surrounding view of the city. Only built in 1978, the city’s skyline donned ugly, drab, plain looking buildings on my left view and half demolished buildings and rubble amidst semi-quarried hills on the right. On the streets, dirty children ran loose and had the large dirt piles and rubble as their playgrounds. Yet, integrated among these third world living conditions were also the occasional marks of progress and indications of the city trying to slowly fight its way into a higher economic niveau. Newly paved sidewalks were lined with freshly planted shrubs and baby trees to provide a more pleasant, residential feel. Classy, apartment buildings with balconies and manicured gardened courtyards surrounded the women’s hospital we attended. The hospital itself had state of the art surgery wards equipped with the latest technologies.
Also, in contrast to Nanjing and other more developed and wealthier Chinese cities, there were refreshingly very little outside commercial interests and influences in Liupanshui- thanks probably to the fact that it is so secluded. Where were the large, garish shopping malls? The Starbucks, McDonalds and fancy English language schools called Baby MBA that will promise to get your 4 year old into Harvard? The billboards advertising the perfect diamond engagement ring? All of these signs of modernity and “progress” seemed to be missing from the streets of Liupanshui. Perhaps in due time those type of places will slowly start to creep into Liupanshui as well. Cyrus spotted a KFC and we noticed a few people with iPhone 5s- both telltale signs that changes are indeed a coming. But for now, Liupanshui seems relatively untouched by large, outside, foreign influences.
But with all of its apparent steps in progress and its slow acquisition of new riches, who in Liupanshui and the surrounding Guizhou countryside will be able to benefit from them? Will the average Jane or Joe be able to afford the top medical services provided at the women’s hospital we visited? Cyrus offered that many families, including poorer ones, will toil, work hard and save for years so that their expectant mothers can have the best care for when their one child, therefore their sole future hope, is born. Even well into the countryside, miles away from Liupanshui, we saw road signs and posters for the hospital, indicating that it was indeed trying to cater to the poorer rural folks.
In spite of people perhaps saving for their offspring’s future, it seems it may be difficult for many residents in rural Guizhou and even in urban Guizhou settings to afford decent medical care, education, housing and transportation. Data reveals how hard it might be for many Guizhou residents to make ends meet compared to their counterparts in wealthier, urban, developed provinces in China. In 2011, for example, Guizhou ranked LAST in China for its per capita GDP of 10,258 RMB (1,502 USD). Comparatively, in Jiangsu Province, the province in China with the highest per capita GDP and where I live, the per capita GDP was 52,448 yuan (US$7,945).
 
Sunday market day
Data aside, scenes driving through the countryside on the 270 km stretch between Liupanshui and Guiyang also exposed a whole other China where people still live simpler lives, living off the land and its resources. Caught in the early afternoon traffic of Sunday market day, we witnessed farmers selling their own produce on the street; middle-aged sun-wrinkled men herding fat pink pigs into a truck to be taken to market; freshly killed meat being sold by the butcher on the side of the road; and even large chunks of Guizhou coal being sold in a family’s store front. Transformed to Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, I witnessed in the far off distance farmers plowing with oxen in their fields. Family grave plots on the hills next to the highway revealed communities who found their homes on the same land of their ancestors several generations back. These communities have clung to and carried on the long standing traditions and methods of livelihood of their ancestors.

 
Got coal?

 

Returning from my weekend trip to Guizhou to the modern comforts of my home in Nanjing, I congratulated myself for finally witnessing the “real” China. But what an unfair judgement to bestow on either Guizhou or Nanjing! While it’s true I briefly witnessed firsthand the gap in income and lifestyles between rural and urban Chinese communities; wealthy east Coast provinces and an isolated, poor, undeveloped province, this does not mean that either side represents the “real” China. In order to fully understand the “real” China today, I’ve learned that it encompasses all of these sides- rich and poor; glitzy and rugged; urban and rural; developed too quickly and left behind in the dust of 100 hundred years ago. I have tasted both and found desirable aspects of both.  The real challenge lies ahead for China and how it can continue to build its economy so that more people can reap its rewards; how it can develop and progress without depleting its resources and without destroying its rural landscapes as well as the livelihood and age old traditions of its inhabitants.
 

Two contrasting images of vehicles. Two very different faces of China.

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