November was nearly over here in the heartland of China. The days alternated between short manic bursts of sunny, blue skies and longer periods of sunless, chilly days full of drizzle and melancholy. It was weather most conducive to studying Mandarin, writing for my own site, and reading other people’s blogs. One of my favorite China blogs was Matt Schiavenza’s A China Journal. The Kunming-based blogger brought my attention to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s podcast on Perspectives on China in which two correspondants and an author discuss their “boots-on-ground” perspective on the rise of New China in an informal panel. The moderator asked them to describe their first impressions, especially ones that immediately overturned any preconceived notions.
As for my 2 fen: I had no clue what I was getting into when I first stepped into the blast furnace of a summer day in southern China. I knew little more than that I was going into a part of the country known only for its honorable mention on Chinese takeout menus across America. Only after doing some homework did I realize that it too was Mao’s home province. It was my second day incountry when my employer drove us from the coastal megacity of Gaungzhou to Chenzhou, a “small” city farther inland in Hunan province.
I will never forget the festival that sprung out of the tarmac. Traffic came to a dead halt three hours into our drive north along Jingzhu Expressway. There had been an accident, and a policeofficer told us everybody was expected to wait at least an hour before our we could move again. That was when a festival sprung out of the tarmac. People got out of their cars. Truckers dumped out greasy bags of KFC chicken bones. Children played tag. Boys passed out cigarettes and hawked up loogies. You heard pop and traditional Chinese competing from various sound systems. Girls shielded themselves from the midday sun with parasols and strolled along in high heels. And peasants from a dilapidated village capitalized on it all: They came out of the rice fields in their pajamas and conical hats bearing goodies by the bucket loads.
This was the first of many puzzles pieces in a larger jigsaw that seems to indicate that China had become more capitalistic than America.