Where time is flying stillness

Tianjin Diaries, 8.19.2010

Highlights: Class dreams; life in a nutshell

Two weeks ago Cheryl bought a new cell phone at a shop not far from here, and a few days later it failed. She set out for the shop and couldn’t find it again. So did I and eventually did find what was left of it — a gutted hole in the wall, waiting for something else to be installed. Tianjin, like the rest of China, is experiencing rapid, continuous change. Rianna commented that it’s almost impossible to take a picture without a large building in the background; it’s also almost impossible to take a picture without something either going up or coming down somewhere in the frame. Even here at the Nankai University “Foreign Guest House,” the courtyard has been transformed in three weeks, having been plowed under and replaced with a new driveway, parking, and eventually a tiny park with sculptured boulders and a meandering stone path. Around two dozen workers are at it pretty much around the clock, including in the middle of the night. This is feasible because they live on the site, in two barrack tents off to the side. They cook their meals on a grill by the tent, and wash selves and clothing in basins along the street. We assume they are migrants, and have been told the job is under pressure to finish before the fall term begins. Just past the courtyard is a building wrapped in scaffolds, and another just beyond that.

On a cab ride from the train station to here (about 20 minutes, around 3 dollars) I counted about twenty new construction or reconstruction sites. Each is surrounded by a high wall, and the wall is usually plastered with billboards about the project. These include gleaming futuristic renderings of the tower to be, alternating with more artful renderings of the meanings embodied in the structure within. The poetic images include parks, flowers, berry picking, weddings, golf…. Usually these are apartment buildings, and their names are presented in English and Chinese: Carmel Garden; Magnetic Capital; Original County; Ren Ai House King; Class Dream; Warner Garden; Royal Palace; Landscape City; Elite Community; Vantone Central Park; Ascot; Olympic Tower; Crown Residence; Royal Lakeside. One of them, “Towards Northern Villa,” offers this lovely insinuation of what residents can expect:

A life is either faster or slower, but time is flying stillness, and the past events are becoming a perfect delight to the eyes as the roses. Yet I am hungry to be a burglar to steal back the losing odds and ends, and to piece together that beautiful time which may not be catching back.

We walked to Magnetic Capital yesterday, where one of the big supermarkets is located. We recognized the genre immediately — a grid of pedestrian streets lined with shops and restaurants, inside a ring of residential units. Most of the shops have English names — English being the universal subtext of style (as it is in Finland too). Indeed, most are familiar franchises, including Subway (rare), Pizza Hut or Pizza Hill (a knockoff?), and the ubiquitous artery-bricking KFC. Readers from our home town would know this zone immediately: Blue Back Square! A Tianjin resident commented on the Magnetic Capital apartments, “That’s where the rich people live.” How rich? My informal research shows that high end rentals in Tianjin (2 BR) are about $1000 per month. Units of that size sell at around $100,000. Not bad — unless you consider the average annual salary around here: $7000. Elite community indeed. The local English monthly, “Jin” magazine, writes that “the savings of three generations and a heavy burden of a monthly loan, which can still only buy a tiny one-bedroom apartment, has created a new group of people called ‘people living in nutshells’.”

We read about the rising middle class in China. The sprouting of apartment buildings is a concrete bar graph of this phenomena. The Magnetic Capital apartment buildings are all about 30 stories. On the Google map satellite image, I count 44 such buildings, and the next phase, also huge, is under construction. Such complexes are springing up all over. From the bullet train you can see whole cities arising at once, two dozen cranes amid dozens of unfinished skyscraping shells. Apparently the first thing to go up at a building site is the billboard wall. Looking down from the trestle at one of these, I saw pictures of rolling green fields blocking the view of rolling green fields. Expect bulldozers tomorrow.

What, then, is the life of the average Tianjinian? (Tianjinite, Tianjinner — who knows?) The sudden infestation of wealth and in-your-face inequality must be prominent to them as it is to us. I’ve been enjoying an anthology of contemporary Chinese stories of urban life, of which three quarters are about conflicts between the newly urban rich and the poor. A generation ago, everyone was poor, so these conflicts are often internal, an ambivalence about the meaning of wealth, status, and urban style.  And yet the backdrop of this upheaval is a civilization that’s been around for 5,000 years. Today I had tea with a Nankai professor who studies contacts between China and the west during the Han dynasty — the time of Alexander the Great. The primary sources he works from were written 2,300 years ago — in Chinese. He said that some of the characters and expressions are arcane, but for the most part he can just sit down and read it, as if it had been written yesterday. China, a flying stillness. (Does this history alter perception of the present for the Chinese? I don’t know, but we made a plan for regular conversations with history graduate students; perhaps I can learn more then.)

On a more mundane level, if the erupting towers are the bar graph of growth, then its scatterplot is traffic, a twice-a-day gridlock in the city center. A few days ago we wanted to taxi to a tourist site and the driver told us, essentially, you can’t get there from here. In the late afternoon it is impossible to drive to some locations. Although the number of cars is exploding, my impression is that most residents don’t own one. There’s public transit and a subway (still unexplored by us), but most folks of all ages travel by bicycle and its variants: the three-wheeled rickshaw, electric and gas scooters, etc. Multiple riders are common, as it seems everyone knows how to sidesaddle on the back-wheel book rack of a bike and ride without holding on. The expat websites ponder traffic as if it were string theory, reflecting a judgment, which I share, that there are laws — if only you could figure them out. This is an issue because most streets comprise eight traffic lanes, six for cars and two on the outside for bikes (loosely interpreted); and American instincts for street survival are completely wrong. Here then are a few conjectures: 1) There is no right-of-way. 2) Lane markings are irrelevant. 3) All moving objects are equal. 4) Pedestrian interpersonal space (about 10 inches) is suitable for all moving objects. 5) Keep moving at the rate of flow for your means of travel, and by all means be predictable. 6) So, if you are about to be run over, make a slight adjustment to your trajectory. Sometimes the other person will also adjust. 7) Nothing abrupt: Don’t stop, turn, or be polite. Apart from that, anything goes. Just Be the Flow.  (…as in this video.)  Local folks seem completely at home with street existentialism; we must look pretty silly, bickering about when to scurry. We take cabs for our longer trips (as do millions of other people), and I usually ride in the front, a whiteknuckle experience every time as the driver beeps through surging crowds of cars, bikes, and pedestrians weaving in every direction. The most terrifying driver is the angry and aggressive one, but these are rare. Most drivers seem completely calm, even cheerful, as they plunge through the vortex of certain death.

I suspect most residents live in nutshells, as do we. Our apartment is mainly two rooms of moderate hotel size and hotel furnishings, with one love seat, two armchairs, and two single beds. The kitchen is a walk-in closet with a small refrigerator, hot plate, microwave, sink, tiny wash machine, and water cooler (no one drinks from the tap). Wonderful A/C. We’ve discovered, once again, the pleasures of living in cozy spaces with far less stuff. The kids have an identical place upstairs, with three modes of communication: cell, land line, and Skype (which is the favorite). No one has a kitchen table — no place to fit it. So, we eat out, and sometimes do takeout. As in every other aspect of daily life, the artificial exchange rate benefits us. Tonight we had an excellent dinner at the restaurant attached to this building, for fifteen dollars total. Yesterday we set the new record, Chinese crepes for us all (pretty good), $1.80. A magnum of beer: 60 cents. Tianjin has thousdands of restaurants, most about the size of a spare bedroom, and people also sell food along every street. The citizens like to eat out, apparently. On hot nights, eating out takes another form as groups gather around small folding tables at the edge of the street.

On balance, life here is arduous, still very hot and oppressively humid, and the distances one must cover in a day are always far greater than anticipated. Yet the people overall seem very cheerful; they’ve been very friendly and especially appreciative of our halting Chinese. (Our parental strategy is to speak so badly that the kids will take over to avoid embarrassment.) We are basically in good spirits too. Before we left we heard lots of warnings about life in China: crowding, pollution, etc. These turned out to be overstatements (or perhaps more true in Beijing), but the downsides are just not so down. Before we left we also worried about the nutshell factor, like for example a year with three changes of clothing, two of which are usually hanging in the shower, drying to wrinkled slabs of cardboard. But who cares, really? Alison Gopnik, a psychologist, wrote recently that the mind of a baby is radically unlike the mind of an adult; babies lack mental focus, but instead are attentive to everything at once. She compares babyhood to the experience of arriving in a foreign land, when every experience is new. We are certainly babies here, illiterate, prelinguistic toddlers. We wander in a village of ten million, all of us migrants toward a future no one can clearly foresee.

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About lloyddan

Professor, Trinity College, Connecticut, but living in Tianjin, China, until July 2011
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