CHINA: Then and Now

6 years ago

What a difference 28 years and an Olympics make!

In 1983, I stepped off a somewhat rickety Air China plane onto the tarmac of the Beijing International Airport – and practically needed a flashlight.

The plane was the last one to arrive in the city that night, so most of the lights in the terminal had already been turned off.  Instead of the phalanx of idling taxis I expected to see outside the arrivals gate, well, there was no arrivals gate. We just walked down the stairs of the plane, crossed the pavement, and wandered out through a towering chain-link fence. Other passengers had been whisked away on bicycles absent any kind of headlamp, their bells fading into the darkness. One solitary cab driver leaned against his vehicle, the smoldering tip of his cigarette offering the only other light within eye-shot. My husband and I stood there in the blackness and hoped that single taxi had not been spoken for.

We pulled out a piece of paper that had the name of a mid-scale hotel written on it in Mandarin characters, and thrust it at the driver. He was ready to call it a night, so took one look at the address, and thrust the paper back at us. We took that as a “yes” and hopped in his cab. Grumbling, our “chauffeur” put the car in gear and headed downtown.

It was a perilous ride, as the man drove with his lights off.  How he avoided killing anyone I still don’t know, since every now and then, when he did flash his brights, he illuminated streets teeming with hundreds if not thousands of pedestrians and bicyclists, all navigating nonchalantly in front of him.  The few other cars on the road were limos transporting the only people besides cab drivers who had access to cars, Communist Party functionaries.

We gratefully arrived at our hotel, only to have the hotel proprietor refuse to let us a room. He showed us a card for the equivalent of The Ritz and insisted we head there, where local police could keep a better eye on us. We’d chosen this hotel not just for the price, but because it was frequented by “overseas” Chinese (those who were visiting from Hong Kong or other countries) and seemed more authentic (and cheaper) than an American clone. We argued with the man for a good 15 minutes, us in English, him in Mandarin. Finally, he held up a key, asked for our passports, and took our money.

The next day, we rented bicycles so we could get around the city under our own steam. We had a map that was printed in English, but it was only marginally useful since actual street signs were written in Mandarin characters. By counting city blocks, we managed to get to where we wanted to go. When we were hungry, we sat down in a noodle shop and pointed to what someone else was eating that looked good. Otherwise, we bought fruit from street vendors or a cup of tea from a shop that made us drink on the spot so we could return the cup: no take-out or take-away in 1983. I attracted a large and boisterous crowd in Tian’an Men Square when a few Chinese women, some hobbling around by cane to help support their tiny bound feet, shouted to the other women in the square to come see my “enormous” clodhoppers.

On September 11, 2011, I landed in Beijing again, this time not a tourist but an environmental expert on my way to speak at an international women’s forum.  I was just as amazed as I had been during the first trip – but for far different reasons.  Almost 30 years later, the city has been transformed, both by unprecedented industrialization and by dint of hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Beijing International Airport is now surely among the most modern airports in the world. High-speed trams whizz travelers between luminous terminals; glitzy duty free shops offer the same kind of Swiss chocolate, exotic liquor, and over-priced souvernirs you’d find anywhere in Europe or the U.S. That phalanx of taxi cabs I expected in the eighties is definitely lined up outside the arrivals gates these days, their English-speaking drivers only too happy to escort tourists to their destinations.

Hotels abound, and none of them refuse travelers entry. I was greeted with a cordial “Welcome” when I arrived, then given directions by the English-speaking concierge. Meanwhile, the television in my room easily offered as many channels in English as it did in Mandarin, along with some options in Japanese, French and German.

Image: Chinafotopress/Xie Zhengyi via ZUMA Press.

When it came to food, I had my pick of Pizza Hut, Subway, McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken.  I could have bought Skittles and M&Ms from a 7-11, or gotten a chai latte at Starbucks, followed by an ice cream from Baskin Robbins.  I wouldn’t dare rent a bicycle, given how many cars now ply the streets. But I didn’t need to, as the city’s sleek new subway system, with its signs and announcements in English as well as Mandarin, makes it easy to get just about anywhere without getting lost.

Returning to Tian’an Men Square, I found myself once again the object of attention. Shyly smiling couples politely asked if they could have their picture taken with me. Two young women from one of China’s southern provinces wanted to know all about Washington, D.C., where I live. Complementing me on my “elegance” (their word, not mine), they seemed oblivious to the size of my feet!

 I was both dismayed and charmed.  I had traveled all the way around the world, and still run into the Golden Arches.  It was a relief to be able to navigate the city so easily – but where was the mystery, the thrill that comes with the possibility of getting lost?

My last morning in Beijing, I strolled up to Ritan Park. Winding paths lead to small pagodas. Streams brim with lotus flowers. Simple stone bridges arch over the streams, giving on to garden beds lush with flowers. Unexpectedly, I came upon a lone woman silently, gracefully practicing tai chi, oblivious to the small crowd of admirers she’d attracted.

I walked on, eventually drawn to lively rock-and-roll music. At least twenty couples were doing something they wouldn’t have dared do during the more repressed era of 1983: they were swing dancing.

China. Then and now. Today.


Diane MacEachern

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