Written by Carolyn
China: the vortex of change. You return after one year and it’s different. Not just the usual stuff; buildings, fashion, prices etc. but the fabric of lives. When I left, a friend who hadn’t even met his spouse is now married and about to become a father, another, my old flat mate, she had ten English students last year, now she has 200 and rents three apartments for their classes. Another friend, a successful architect, announced over tea he’s changing track and becoming a potter, and another, a fabulously successful men’s clothes designer, has shaved his head, grown as thin as a chopstick and is becoming a monk.
My love affair with China began on my first visit in 1985. I remember the moment—it was a snowy afternoon in February and I was half way up Ermie Shan. I’d just spent several months exploring winter peaks in Japan and South Korea so although Ermie’s thigh-high snow drifts were making my ascent slow, they didn’t faze me. I was wearing crampons, mountain boots and a waterproof Goretex suit. I’d been climbing about 4 hours when I came across a couple on their way back down; they were dressed in going-to-town-for-the-afternoon clothes, didn’t have proper coats and her miniskirt and sling backs looked surreal against the craggy peaks and falling snow setting. They were so cheerful and she laughed so sweetly and with such a carefree happy abandon that my passion for her people and country was lit. After saying goodbye to this couple I continued for another 30 minutes uphill and came to an old Buddhist temple. As I stepped onto the forecourt a monk came flying out of the main hall in a Kung Fu leap with a cigarette in his mouth. He was surprised when he landed beside me. That evening, he and the six other young monks who lived at the temple gathered in the kitchen/dining area to cook and eat; they were a relaxed and happy crew. This was China before tower blocks and cars and when everyone wore blue and streets were rivers of bicycles.
This summer, in modern Xi’an, I rediscovered the pleasure of walking along Chinese pavements. How friendly the Chinese are to foreigners. They make you feel wanted and welcome. My friends were pleased to see me too and I soon felt like a socialite dining out often for lunch and dinner. My daughter and I had separate social lives and often our only contact was a sleepy hello late at night and a goodbye when I left for tai chi at 6:30 am. By the time I returned she had usually gone and by the time she returned I’d usually fallen asleep. I knew she was safer in Xi’an than had she been roaming after dark round our local town in England. She told me drugs and sex were not on the menu in Xi’an. They obviously exist but she and her Chinese friends weren’t looking for them.
In comparison to Europe, the vigour and optimism in China is refreshing. That measured slowness and apathy which hangs over western life doesn’t exist in China. The Chinese complain differently to Westerners and most Chinese believe their Government will keep pushing China in the right direction, the direction they want.
In Britain, on the other hand, most people think the UK Government is in the hands of a bunch of self seeking incompetents. Democracy is so boring the population grumbles itself to sleep and for the most part can no longer even be bothered to vote. Maybe both systems are perfectly viable and perhaps they will always exist in tandem; yin and yang. Who’s to say in the long run which will be better?
But the polluted Chinese skies made me feel sad and unsafe. On the train journey from Beijing to Xi’an, when it was possible to see anything through the hazy fog, I almost despaired; the pollution, the ugliness of modern city planning, the massive and sudden urbanisation of farmers, the change, the upheaval, the force. But then I saw my friends becoming fathers and businesswomen, potters and monks and I fell in love all over again.