Well, here is the return of the Email Journal, since I'm back in China and I can't easily access any of my favorite pieces of social media. No Blogger, no Facebook, no Twitter. Also no Wiki'ing something, and even my own website is still blocked because I use address forwarding. From my brief experience, and from the analysis of some friends, it seems that censorship here has gotten bolder and more encompassing, while at the same time actually losing some of its effectiveness. The government wants to avoid social networks it can't control, and in their place have stemmed a number of China-specific social networks and micro-blogging sites that the government can exert control over. Yet on social networks of any kind, information has to be posted first to be blocked, and often those precious few minutes of being shared publicly is enough to send the information around the country. It's a cat and mouse game that's still playing out, but suffice it to say that the censorship annoys me and seems pretty pointless at the end of the day. Whatever though, the mice are still running around, and that means there's still hope for the future.
I'll get some time later to put this entry up on various blogs, but for now, I'm returning to the e-mail journal format. The memories!
Anyway, another trip to Beijing means its like exploring another brand new city. It never fails to amaze me how quickly China is changing, and how ridiculously wealthy cities like Beijing have become. Wealthy and expensive.........
Sticker shock is rampant, from 4 dollar coffees to the wholesale move upscale of many shops and restaurants. Eating at a restaurant that I used to think was reasonable cost nearly as much for me and my friend tonight as I might expect to pay in Hong Kong or even for a decent Chinese meal in California. Even eating at McDonalds is no longer the rock-bottom bargain it used to be, and it's a strange world indeed when a Big Mac ends up costing me more in Beijing than it does in Hong Kong. The increasing value of the RMB (local currency) isn't doing me any favors either. Even with the central government artificially keeping the value of the currency low, I've lost about 10% of my wealth when translated into RMB in the past three years. My ten dollar tailor-made shirts now cost almost fifteen, and the uber cheap glasses I collected like business cards no longer seem like such a bargain. Even my beloved massages are not as affordable any longer, and I've been here over a week without getting a single one. In fact, I may end up waiting until I get to Manila to get my first massage. Oh, the horror.
Enough about money though, let me get back to how different the city is. Whole neighborhoods have completely changed, with one of the most obvious being the infamous San Li Tun area. Back in 2008, a new mall had just opened at the south end of the street. Now, there are new buildings and developments all along the street, radiating out in multiple directions. The influx of foreign brands, everything from Bershka, Uniqlo, Columbia, Diesel, Balenciaga, and virtually all of the major luxury brands is really jaw-dropping. Even Coldstone Creamery is here now. But it goes well beyond San Li Tun. The huge new tower at Guo Mao is open, the CCTV building has opened, there is a new mall at Dong Zhi Men called Raffles City, the Zhong Guan Cun area is essentially all high-rise buildings, the section of road from San Yuan Qiao to Si Yuan Qiao along the Airport Expressway has at least five international-branded hotels I don't remember seeing before including an Ibis and a Novotel. Financial Street, just inside the second ring road, has completely changed the face of the west side of the city. Even Wangfujing and Chongwenmen have been built up more than they were before. I'm sure the changes go on and on, and my ability to share them is limited only by how many places I've been able to go to since getting back.
While it may all sound impressive, there are definite down-sides to all of this, and one of the most aggravating is the traffic and crowds. The other night it took me about an hour to go three kilometers, from Worker's Stadium to Guo Mao. Fifty plus minutes of this was a complete standstill. On the opposite side of the city, I lost another half hour of my life trying to go one kilometer towards Zhong Guan Cun. I thought I could avoid much of the horrible traffic by traveling off hours, but like LA, the window of off hours seems to be growing smaller and smaller. The expansion of the subway system was supposed to ease some of this congestion, but even with something like a doubling of how much track is available to the metro system, it is clear that the subway is busier, more crowded, and more in need of capacity upgrades than ever. The pushing and shoving that I missed so much is still ubiquitous, and in what must be one of the worst constructed set of transfers ever, riders must waddle hundreds of meters from one platform to another with seemingly half of the city's population surging alongside. The situation is exacerbated by what now clearly, in retrospect, was the city's gross underestimation of how many people would actually be riding the subway and the narrow transfer corridors, stairwells, and escalators. As a consequence, the men and women screaming at people to walk to one side or get out of the way have multiplied, and are everywhere.
The daily ritual of mass-transit combat and getting screamed at by a guy with a loudspeaker are, despite all of the incredible changes to the city, not the only reminder that I have returned to Beijing. The honking is still here, as are the rolling turns that endanger the lives of virtually everyone on the road. Surprisingly though, I find that drivers here seem less aggressive than before. I don't know if it's because the ridiculous traffic has limited how aggressive they can be, or if its because I just got back from India where things may be something like a thousand times worse. I'm also happy to report that despite the adoption of non-smoking areas in many restaurants, that feeling of walking into a cloud of smoke is still easily found. There is also no escaping that wonderful smell of paint and construction materials that can be found anywhere buildings are being built or renovated - I wonder when the low-VOC revolution will find its way to China. Finally, the familiar sight of dried puke on sidewalks throughout the city serves as a comforting reminder that despite a new-found taste for red wine within the country, the culture of required shit-face-ing through suicidal consumption of baijiu (white rice wine) at business meetings is still thriving.
I write all of this with a hearty dose of irony and sarcasm, but the truth is, there is something warm and fuzzy about being back in Beijing. No matter what the city is like now and in spite of how many problems I can see, it is still a place I called home for four years and I'm happy to be back. It's not really about the city anyway. The best thing about being in Beijing is that it reminds me of how lucky I've been. Not just to have had the luck to live here, to travel through the country, and to see so much of the world, but to have had created such great friendships and memories while doing so. Meeting up with my friends here has been really enjoyable. Being apart for so long, you almost forget how great people are and how much you enjoyed their company. It's bittersweet knowing that my time here is so short and that we'll be thousands of miles apart again shortly, but that just amplifies how thankful I feel. Seeing how much their lives have changed, how they have grown, and how their hopes and aspirations have evolved is really rewarding.
I wanted to write more, and maybe I still will, but it's so hard to find time to sit down and write when I'm stuck in traffic or fighting folks on the subway all day. I'll do my best though. Anyway, here's wishing everyone a happy new year from chilly Beijing!