It’s been almost 15 years since I first visited China in 1995.
Having just returned from my second visit just a few weeks ago, I can now agree with the experts; China has indeed changed at a blistering rate.
My trip to Beijing in 1995 coincided with the capital’s first attempt at landing the Olympic Games. This was only evident, however, by a series of banners along the main road from the airport welcoming IOC officials. Otherwise, the place was such a backwards eddy of incompetence and hermit-kingdom mentality that my travel partners and I continually laughed at the notion of such a place actually hosting the Olympics.
As you probably know by now, China figured out what changes needed to be made for their second pitch and now they are indeed hosting the games in 2008.
The manic rush to upgrade Beijing to Olympic standards and showcase it as a model city of the 21st century has resulted in drastic changes that were immediately evident not only in the capital, but also when I visited the northern city of Shenyang. The Olympics, however, are only a passing catalyst. China is currently experiencing a booming economy that has had a much greater impact on the country at large than the Olympics ever will.
On the next page and over the next couple of days, Gadling will share with you some of the massive changes wrought by the double headed dragon of Olympics/Capitalism and how, as a result, China and its populace is far different from the spitting, gawking, bicycle riding, village-mentality I witnessed nearly 15 years ago.
If there was a theme song to China in 1995, it would have to be the elongated spit. Not the simple, pa-too of someone expelling excessive saliva on to the street. No, the Chinese would start with a deep, visceral hack that sought, over an excruciating long moment, to strip the lungs and throat of every bit of phlegm and nasty matter trapped within. Sometimes the hack was repeated four or five times until an acceptable amount of gooeyness was collected into the mouth, at which point the abnormally large loogie was projected downwards where it landed with a sickening splat.
It didn’t matter where someone was standing. Spitting occurred indoors, on buses, standing in line–pretty much everywhere. The very worst condition for spitting, however, was an overnight sleeper train. The cheaper, second-class carriages were like rolling dormitories lined with approximately 40 bunk beds and about the same amount of people all hacking up goobs and spitting them on the floor. In the morning, it looked as though it had rained, with massive drops of spit every few inches. Yuck.
Over the last decade, the government has cracked down on the spitting problem, even going so far as hiring undercover goober police who fined those that spat in public. The efforts have paid off and I am happy to report that I encountered only one spitting episode during my time in China last month. It disgusted me, but it was also strangely nostalgic.
Traveling through China in 1995 I was pretty sure that I was a freak of nature. People would stop what they were doing and come over and stare at me. And I don’t mean quick, secretive glances. No, the Chinese would literally drop their jaws, freeze in their tracks, and stare unabashedly without looking away.
If I was looking at something it was even worse. People would crowd around me to see what the foreign devil was gazing at in the store window. Or, if I was reading my guide book, they’d push in close to look over my shoulders and stare at the pages. My favorite activity was to stand in the open area between two train carriages and wave at farmers in the countryside as we blew past them. The looks on their shocked faces were always hysterical. Even simply buying something on the street corner attracted a crowd. That’s my travel partner Rob in the above photograph surrounded by a gaggle of gawkers who appeared out of nowhere to watch the foreigners do something really exciting, like buy food.
This special attention I received was because China saw very few foreign tourists in the 1990s; the presence of a white foreigner was as though a Martian had just landed. And let me tell you, it was very bizarre being that Martian. For the first time in my life, I felt what it was like to be a celebrity. It was fun at first, and then quickly became an enormous annoyance. I now understand why celebrities become so rude to the constant mass of strangers treating them like animals in a zoo.
Naturally, I was extremely curious if Westerners would continue to draw the same attention in 2007. They did not. Frankly, I was somewhat disappointed to discover that I had become just another pedestrian on the street that didn’t warrant even the most casual of glances. Sure, I got the occasional acknowledgement–like the thumbs-up sign from some guy at a restaurant in the suburbs of Beijing who had probably never seen a foreigner eat there before–but otherwise China had opened up enough, seen its share of Western tourists, and consumed far too many Hollywood movies for a lone American in 2007 to attract any attention whatsoever. I guess I sort of have mixed feelings about that.
Tomorrow: Oh China, how you’ve changed! Part 2