Miles from Home

China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development


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“Officials do not like to be lined up and told how they are not meeting the leadership’s goals,” he said. “They found it difficult to accept this.”  — Academic researcher Wang Jinnan on why China’s provincial politicians abandoned programs promoting environmental responsibility.

“Face” is a bizarre concept.  Guide books harp on the cultural importance of face in Asian countries.  In reality, face is practiced in every culture.  No one wants to be seen in a bad light, looking foolish, or feeling inferior to others.  It’s self-promotion.  It’s instinctual.    Businessmen in America like to buy fancy cars, wear expensive suits, shower, shave, etc.  In most ways, face in China works in the same manner.  In some, it is strikingly different.

For all the nose-picking, public flossing of teeth, and loogie spitting, Chinese people actually do fret over public perception– an identity pegged to the Almighty dollar.  The pursuit of wealth is blatantly exhibited, and blindingly narrow-minded.  The hypnosis here has people jogging down the street on the way to the office.  There is money to be made; and thus, there is nothing else to do, nothing one could possibly afford the time to think about in this booming bordello of business.

In the span of two generations, the Chinese are going through what took the U.S. two hundred years:  rapid industrialization, urbanization, and economic growth at whatever the cost.  And there, on the corner, in the settling spue of fumes and acidic atmospheric fallout, sits my old buddy Mr. Environment.  Clothes tattered, holding out a business card, he’s looking for a chance– not garnering a second glance from passers-by.

In Taipei, whenever I would moan about the awful smog and soot, which literally stuck to your face like snowflakes, the Taiwanese would insist it was China’s fault.  Smog from all the dirty, unregulated coal plants hitched a ride in the jetstream and fell off in the valley basin of Taipei.  The problem is that this isn’t relegated to Taipei, to Taiwan, or to China’s metropolis-laden East coast.  This week’s NY Times feature reports China’s smog is falling on California– if one connects the dots, on the entire world.  And China doesn’t care.

Here’s an example of a very common mindset:  my new landlady.  She is an English teacher at an economics university.  One would figure such an educated person would hold rational views of the world.  Riiiiight.  She tells me that she has a knack for finding foreigners who will marry Chinese women, and pegs me.  I remind her of a past tenant who recently moved to Beijing with his Chinese wife and bought an apartment.  His father had just sold a business in the States and gave his son some cash towards the home.  “Small money,” she insisted.  “Very small money.”

“Oh,” I replied, feigning a look of polite interest.   She scribbles down $500,000USD on a piece of looseleaf floating around the table.  Number conversions are generally difficult between even well educated Chinese and Westerners due to a different measuring method, mostly counting by the ten-thousands.   “Wow, lucky guy.  Must be nice,” I concede.

“Oh no.  No, no, no.  Very cheap.  It is just small money,” she retorts half disgusted by my impression of the facts.  She insists apartments are cheap in Beijing relative to how much money foreigners have and make.  This is a widely held misconception here:  All foreigners are rich.  It makes sense, as many foreign visitors to China are business people with large amounts of capital looking to invest.  It also stems from the globalization of culture, half blocked by China, which specifically portrays America as Laguna Beach.

She goes on to tell me of her friend– “who was not very smart and not a very good student”– just got her master’s and is now making $180,000USD/year in the States.  This, to her, proved that half a million dollars was pocket change.   Here is where I took it upon myslef to prod the issue a bit, not impolitely, but just in an effort to plant a seed.  I took the pen and told her that most Americans make around $27,000 each or about $50,000 per household.

“What!!!” she exclaimed, and not in an asking manner, but in a way to show that I was an idiot and that she was clearly smarter than me.  She showed the number to her husband, a nice guy who obviously left his pants in the closet of the relationship years ago.  He giggled.  She mocked me.  And I sat there smiling, being ridiculed.  “That is for coffee and tea!” she chortled.  “Maybe that is just for coffee and tea.”

Maybe China needs to wake up and smell the coffee and tea.  Not everyone is rich.  Not everyone will be.  Not everything has a pricetag.  And not everything goes away when you ignore it.  With 750,000 people dying a year from pollution-related diseases, maybe the best place to invest is in healthcare.


Written by Miles

August 27, 2007 at 10:02 am

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