Random thoughts

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Changes in China

January 25th, 2009 · 4 Comments

As a layman who spent a significant number of days in Beijing between 2004 and 2007 (large enough to delay my US naturalization application, anyway), I remember the macroscopic changes every time I was moving back there. Of course there was the turnover of foreigners that periodically made my circle of friends shrink back to zero, but the main impact was obviously in seeing the city change so quickly, physically and psychologically. In july 2004 I left a city swarming with red taxis, a place where as a foreigner you could not help but draw attention wherever you were going. I came back in june 2005 when the taxi fleet had just been updated, with new cars, new colors, and new drivers (you could not miss the occasional “I’ve just started a few days ago, I have no idea where’s this place you want to go to”). As you jumped into a taxi, the chances of entering a gas chamber (in the two arbre-magique fragrances of cigarette smoke or garlic-rich diet) went dramatically down over the same period of time. And as I spent the next year there, I observed how my presence stopped generating interest among the locals, to the point that during national holidays I could spot 外地人(wai4di4ren2, the visitors from other places in China) from the curious looks that a zoological phenomenon like a tall bearded white guy was still causing among them.

New streets, new buildings, new neighborhoods. The processing of airport departure formalities that transitioned from a collection of stamps and chops on your boarding pass and on the receipt of the airport taxes (strictly to be paid separately at the airport the day of departure), to a much more streamlined process that still required you to show your passport before the check-in (making completely useless to have anybody seeing you off at the airport), till eventually the new terminal 3 was organized for the perfect departure experience.

Since I’ve moved back to the bay area in 2007, I’ve experience quite a few changes related to the processing of visas to China as well, with requirements evolving by the day around the Olympics. I haven’t been able to visit Beijing as often as I wanted to since then. Now there’s the new subway lines, the new multi-language recordings on the subway made with help from native speakers and some consultant who probably thought that mispronouncing the chinese names of the subway stations would be beneficial to foreign visitors. Gone is the striding charm of line 13’s “Welcome to take Beijing subway and have a nice day” once you reach the terminal station. Not to mention the almost unreal landscape without an army of street vendors at every corner.

Imagethief and Shannon Roy have some recent experience to share on how pervasive change is becoming in Beijing, while some people seem to not take notice. I particularly enjoyed the definition of a “general-store-with-Chinese-characteristics”, very funny. A note of nostalgia for me reading about BLCU, the Beijing Language and Culture University that offered all the teachers for my chinese classes in 二里庄 (Er4 Li3 Zhuang1). Another place that changed quite a bit.

I can’t help but wondering what did Beijing look like before my first visit in 2004, but it’s too late to experience that first hand now.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Shannon // Jan 25, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    Hey! Thanks for the shout-out!

    Like you, I was also living at “The Zhuang” during my student days in 2002. The Fourth Ring Road wasn’t a complete ring just yet, and so “outside the fourth” was basically rural China…

    …how that’s changed now!

    But as I was driving at in the guest post on Imagethief, it’s the invisible, social changes that most fascinate me.

  • 2 marcodb // Jan 26, 2009 at 10:31 am

    Hi Shannon,
    you’re welcome! I actually want to apologize to you. Initially I had just intended to post a link to your post, but got carried away by my own memories, and quickly realized I was unable to describe “change” in a more general sense. I feel I got a bit stuck on taxis and airport procedures, never really getting to the changes in perceiving foreigners. None of which was in fact related to your post, which focused on social changes. Sorry for linking to you with a somewhat out of context intro!

  • 3 Shannon // Jan 26, 2009 at 11:38 am

    No apology necessary at all! You’re very right about the change in perception of foreigners, at all levels.

    Just as an anecdote along those lines, I remember traveling China in class breaks in ’02, and how regularly I was asked to be in photos at scenic spots by locals. Me and two grinning Chinese domestic tourists slightly obscuring some landmark! I was literally in dozens and dozens of such shots. Not because I am special or remarkable in any way, but simply because I was, for many, the first foreigner they had seen. Ever.

    And I can only imagine how many of my friends here — some who’ve been here 10, 15, 20 years, must have been viewed in, say, 1992 instead of 2002. In one way it would have been fun, in many others absolutely crushing and overwhelming. All the time.

  • 4 marcodb // Jan 26, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    Take a look at this article, published on the first issue of “News China” (august 5th, 2008):


    Professor Anthony Saich landed in China in 1976…

    “[…] The bus was so crowded, but there was always a 5-meter space around the foreigners.” In those days, the main reason was probably fear to be associated to foreigners by others.