I am always being asked what China is like and I usually freeze in response to that question. I could tell them that I went to three or four places in China and that they were all as different from each other as Seattle is from Kalamazoo or New York, but that would make me sound really condescending and it would not give the person asking the question any more of a clue. Or I could just say something about how China is big and crowded and then let them respond as to how they knew that, but that would not achieve anything either.
So my trick is to say that I spent much of my time in Qingdao and it is really more like Seattle than you would ever imagine. Half of the people say “really” and move on and the other half start asking questions to learn more.
But what really frustrates me is how difficult it is to convey how China “can be simultaneously so rich and so poor, so strong and so fragile, so advanced and so undeveloped, so controlled and so chaotic….” James Fallows, one of my (and everyone else’s) favorite writers on China, just did a short article for Atlantic, entitled, “Imagining What China Looks Like.” In this article, Fallows talks about how tough it is to convey China to those who have never been:
My standard “learning to live with China” pitch includes exhortations for foreigners actually to go and spend serious time there — and as much time as possible away from Shanghai and Beijing and other cities with superficially “familiar”-seeming areas. The reason is that the place is so huge, so varied, and so contradictory that, unless you have much more robust imaginative powers than I do, it’s hard really to sense how it can be simultaneously so rich and so poor, so strong and so fragile, so advanced and so undeveloped, so controlled and so chaotic, without seeing for yourself.
He then assumes not all readers will immediately be heading to China on his advice and provides links to two excellent articles that help (at least a bit) in conveying what China is like. These articles do this not by talking about China as a whole, but by focusing on small parts of it.
The first is a Boston Globe article, “Landslides strike Zhouqu County, China,” replete with “riveting” photographs of the recent mudslides there. Fallows comment on the photographs makes sense:
Obviously pictures like the one below aren’t the “normal” look of inland China; this is disaster and its aftermath, reminiscent of the look of Sichuan province after the horrific earthquake two years ago. But when you hear about some inland Chinese city whose name is unfamiliar but is bigger than Chicago, this gives an idea (minus floodwaters) of how the cityscape might look.
The other is an article in Foreign Policy by Christina Larsen, entitled, “Chicago on the Yangtze: Welcome to Chongqing, the biggest city you’ve never heard of.“
If you want a better “feel” for China, I urge you to check out James Fallows’ article and to follow the links.