Friday, July 31, 2015

Seven Signs of Change in China Since 2001…Or At Least Beijing

I’m back in Beijing after spending two months in Shenyang researching the northeast part of my dissertation on the foreign economic strategies of China’s border regions.  Here are my first impressions on the changes over the past decade in China’s capital.  The last time I took the route between Beijing airport and Peking University was in 2003, when I left during the SARS scare.  There was no Olympics stadium, now a proud symbol of the past. 

First, more cars have replaced bicycles.  The only way I could identify my old apartment across campus was by the green bicycle stands.  But these are now covered by cars, mostly SUVs.  International students now drive scooters, or what they refer to as glorified bikes.  Rush hour traffic is still terrible, but instead of packed bicycles there are lines of people at the metro, where the number of metro lines has grown from 3 to 15.

Second, things are more expensive.  For a one hundred dollar bill, you now get 600 RMB instead of 800.  When I went to get my hair cut, they gave me a choice of 150, 200, 280, or 350 RMB.  I remembered the first time I cut my hair in China, when they asked, do you want the 8 or 4 RMB version?

Third, people approach each other with “nihao (hello)” and address women as “meinu (literally, beautiful woman).”  People only said nihao before in English when greeting foreigners.  Hello has now become a way of addressing each other.  I was flattered when I first heard “meinu” until I realized it’s just common expression.  Before it was either “xiaojie (miss)” or “xiao meimei (little sister).”  

Fourth, people stand in line.  You don’t see a triangle of crowds at counters anymore.  Now it’s more or less a straight line.  The good thing is there is less chaos; the bad thing is you can’t really cut in line when desperate.  

Fifth, people are obsessed with We Chat.  It’s amazing how widely We Chat is used in a country where the internet is so restricted, but perhaps not so surprising given the limited options.  I am hardly connected to social media outside of China, but had to get We Chat here to communicate with my landlord. 

Sixth, there are more foreigners.  Foreigners have increased not only in number but also diversity.  In the past you could tell where a classmate was from by the color of his/her dictionary: red for American, purple for Korean, orange for Japanese, blue for Russian.  It’s now harder to tell, because there are so many of them and because most are talking to each other in broken English rather than broken Chinese.

But these changes are less apparent a five-hour train ride away in Shenyang, the biggest city in China’s northeast.  You not only see bikes but the occasional donkey cart, and can have a full meal for less than 10 RMB.  People will look at you strangely if you say nihao, and it’s fine to cut in line.  Internet access is more limited.  Most foreigners are African exchange students, missionaries, or reportedly spies. 

But one obvious change even in the northeast is that college students don’t want to go to Hong Kong anymore after they graduate.  In 2001, most of my Chinese classmates in Harbin wanted to move to Hong Kong or somewhere south to work.  Most students now plan to move on to graduate school to study, or feel disenfranchised to see that the opportunities to get rich at home have already been taken. 

Passing the Forbidden City

See-Won Byun, Ph.D. Political Science
Sigur Center Summer 2015 Asian Field Research Fellow
Beijing and Shenyang, China

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