I’ve been spending the last few days in a small Chinese city by the name of Zhangjiagang. About 15 minutes drive from the clean and industrious city of Zhangjiagang lies the small rural town of Chenyang, and that’s where my mother comes from. In Chenyang I spend my time in between a traditional five-story cold concrete Communist house and a much smaller, dingy home overlooking a courtyard and a dirty river. The concrete house is where I sleep and that belongs to my uncle (my mother’s brother) and the house by the river belongs to my maternal grandmother. Her countryside house and my paternal grandmother’s Nanjing city flat are the two houses of my early childhood.
My maternal grandmother’s countryside home is dim with bare bulbs strung up in a makeshift way from the low cement ceiling. The floors and walls are slicked with grease from years of cooking for the family. A big Mao Zedong poster hangs proudly by the front door and beneath it a frame filled with photos of my mother, father and I from our faraway home in Melbourne, Australia. The main living area hosts a small wooden table that has been there for as long as I can remember. Off to the left lies a door which leads to my grandmother’s bedroom. A simple wooden slat bed with a mosquito net around it and a small box-shaped television by the foot of the bed is all that she needs. Another bed – my grandfather’s – also once occupied a corner of the room, but since his death four to five years ago it’s since been moved out and replaced with odd bits of furniture that couldn’t find their home elsewhere. Behind the house lies a concrete courtyard and a well. Here laundry is hung out to dry, salted vegetables are bathed in the sun to be preserved for another day, clothes are washed by hand, and small animals such as live poultry are slaughtered. The river which runs right beside the courtyard – once clean in my mother’s youth – is now filthy and filled with liquid waste and stray bits of rubbish. My grandmother is as short as she is warm-hearted (which, in this case, is very) and though well into her eighties, she still rises before six each morning to make her way to the local market to buy vegetables and other ingredients for the day’s dishes.
Coming back to this place always feels like a blast from the past. Chenyang always feels somehow the same. Each time I return I remember what it felt like to come here as a child. Walking the streets without a cause I’d go into the supermarket to buy Chinese snacks for lack of anything better to do. Stray cats would meander across my path and other village folk would take a second glance because I, a city kid from Australia, stuck out like a sore thumb. I’d pass locals sitting around on street corners on small wooden stools playing mahjong, cards, or talking the day away in a local dialect I couldn’t decipher. Bicycles and cars would drive by and you could hear the chatter of noise and the wafting in of random smells from the marketplace. This was the slow and unchanging pace of Chinese country life at my feet.
This time around however, you could start to see signs of China’s breakneck-speed development trickle through to a place even as remote as Chenyang. The shop beneath my uncle’s home is now a shiny, fashionable hairdressers’ run by young Chinese people with K-pop inspired hairstyles. The last time I was in there, they were playing country music from Texas. The local shoe shop has been replaced by a large pharmacy selling western medicine – pills and antibiotics for any ailment. Over the years cars have increased in number too and less and less bicycles grace the roads of this small country town. My grandmother and grandfather used to grow and raise all of their own food – now in the place of crops, the fields in which they used to grow their livelihood is home to a series of apartment buildings. And whilst my mother’s family and their neighbours used to be incredibly poor – only being able to afford a small ration of meat each week, now they live comfortably as China gets more and more prosperous. Chenyang is changing – that’s undeniable – and in some parts it’s for the worse and in other’s it’s for the better.
In comparison, a few days prior to the slow development of Chenyang I found myself in Shanghai being chauffeured around by my cousins. One girl and one boy, they were both in their mid-twenties and they came from affluent Chinese families. They lived together in a four bedroom apartment overlooking the river and the city, they both had Australian tertiary postgraduate qualifications under their belt, they had high-pressure careers in finance, and they drove luxury cars and spent money like it was no issue. My first evening in Shanghai they took me out to a restaurant on the 47th floor of a luxury hotel. The same night we went to a bar and drank and smoked and talked about sexuality. The next day I was with my female cousin, and we went from breakfast to the shops to massages to arcade games to dinner and finally to mahjong. I asked her if every weekend was like this and she said, “Yes, my job is tiring and long so I need to have fun on the weekend.” The next day was a Monday and so she was busy and back at work. I wandered the streets of Shanghai’s former French concession district and found myself having a traditional tea ceremony in an art gallery. Over small cups of puer the gallery’s young manager and I lamented the loss of old Chinese culture in the progress-driven baby-boomer era of contemporary China. He showed me photos of his mother’s old home in the countryside. After I left I walked along the treelined streets photographing the architecture which also held so much of Shanghai’s past.
A few days prior to that I was in Beijing. My days were spent taking in the sights by bike and my evenings were spent in the company of more relatives. In Beijing you get used to travelling down streets with big tall walls on either side, and who knows what goes on behind those discrete concrete barriers. Guards stand stiff by the gates of these places – a common sight, I realised, in this intimidating and impenetrable city. In the evening I sat with a cousin of mine in a noisy bar where we quietly talked politics. For me it was hard to ignore the fact that I was in the city where all of China’s big decisions were made. Evidently this awareness was apparent to her too. We talked about what it was like to be in your twenties in China, to hold and balance differing eastern and western perspectives, to juggle expectations of family and career and to wonder what the rest of the world must think of you and your country. Our conversation ended on the topics of expression, censorship and dissent and I was so grateful to have my mixed feelings about the city mirrored in someone else of my generation. The next day I met another cousin and she taught me about Chinese culture – about long-held beliefs about northern and southern Chinese men, about old Chinese proverbs and where they came from, about the history of the language we were speaking. She studied Chinese at a postgraduate level and so I listened intently to everything she had to say. Later that night I met up with a local I met in a shop – he worked at the trendy art precinct 798 – and we went to an art opening before checking out some Chinese underground punk rock and eating some Beijing street food. Leaving the monolith that was Beijing the next morning I was really impressed by just how culturally diverse and globally aware its young citizens were.
And tonight I’m spending the night at my aunty’s place. She’s been a primary school teacher for over twenty years in the small city of Zhangjiagang and over tea this afternoon we talked about family, politics and China’s next generation. We discussed Chinese familial expectations and parenting styles, and then we moved on to politics, sparked by the hot topic of the conflict between China and the US. When we couldn’t see eye to eye on the sides that we took, we went back to child-rearing and each used that as a metaphor to describe how we both individually thought it was right to govern a country. Coming from the west I believed it was important to respect the individual wishes of your territories – my aunt felt differently. “Your land is yours, and you can’t start allowing each dissenting voice to be heard. What happens when they all want to be heard? What do you do then?” When we couldn’t see eye to eye on that still I told her a western story that I often use to talk about perspective. “I guess it’s like we’re both in a dark room holding different parts of an elephant,” I said, “fighting about what an elephant looks like when we’re both in the right, we’re just seeing it from a different perspective.” In the middle of my story she nodded avidly, “Yes! This is a Chinese proverb too!” before preceding to say it. As she told it to me I was simply dumbstruck by how two such different cultures – the east and the west – could have two so differing styles of governing country and family but still hold such similar fundamental mores and values too.
And as I come to be aware that my time in China is coming to an end, I know I’ll miss hearing and seeing and being amongst such different experiences and perspectives to the ones I already know. With each new person that I meet here I am prompted to learn something new. With each conflicting viewpoint that I hear here I am challenged to find a common thread. With each sight of something that shocks, discomforts or alarms me I am asked to look inside and to understand why it is that I feel what I feel. All that aside this is a country that with each and every person, event and perspective, pushes me to feel. I can’t tell you how special that is.
With each day that passes I understand at the same time a little more and a little less about the world that I live in. I learn a little bit more about myself and my values, and I’m beginning to understand why so many people love to live in a place that is so different to the one they know. Like the rapids of a river, how magical and exciting and tumultuous it must be to be able to be a part of the ever-shifting current of a developing country’s social, political and cultural change. I see it in the younger generations and how their viewpoints on life, love and family are changing – just as rapidly as the technology and industry around them is too. It brings me hope for a future in China that might look more open, contemporary and conscious than what I’ve seen so far. And anticipating heading back to Australia’s developed shores I’ll know I’ll miss the dynamism, fluidity and the excitement of being a part of a country and a peoples that is still, I guess, in a little way like me, finding itself.