Much of what I had read about in the paper or saw on the news regarding China was visible from the moment I arrived. I observed the rising middle class as we drove from the airport in Shanghai to our hotel and noticed that the majority of the cars on the highway were newer model cars and many of them high-end BMW, Audi, and Volkswagen. I expected, having spent time in Central America and Europe, these same brands but decade old models. Middle to high-end cars were even present as we got out of the big city and drove through rural towns. The rural areas didn’t just have nice cars but nice houses as well. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to find new houses being built on top of where old houses once stood. We spent one afternoon biking through farmland and were shocked to find workers in worn out clothes manning their field with their new four story house 30 feet away. The Chinese people are experiencing true wealth coming into their country. This money can be seen in the great size and design of the cities as well.
I expected cities like Shanghai and Beijing to be large, but didn’t fully grasp just how large. I have visited many world-class cities like New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, and Madrid, and driving through Shanghai felt like driving through all of them combined. Whereas in a city like Chicago it is noticeable if a new apartment building is being constructed, in Shanghai that same apartment will be constructed, only instead, there will be 15 apartments, all the same model, being built next to each other. These multi-complex apartments are visible on every other block. I will say, however, seeing the abundance of construction cranes gave me an eerie flashback to a time when I lived in Spain and saw the same mass of cranes in and around Madrid. This was just prior to Spain’s economy slowing and these empty buildings becoming ghost towns. China’s economy is already showing signs of slowing after decades of double-digit GDP growth, and I question whether we will see something similar in these great cities.
In contrast to the big city, we spent a few days in more rural areas of Southern China with a personal tour guide named Jack. For those that haven’t met too many Chinese, the majority of them choose an American name to use when associating with the Western world. Our tour guide, Jack, like many other “Jacks” in China named himself after Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Titanic, Jack Dawson. Movie stars and the characters they play provide a rich source of names for many Chinese (often leading to some rather amusing names). Jack was a great guide and a unique young adult as he was the second child in his family. He described himself as a “lucky boy” when sharing his personal history. China has maintained the one-child policy since 1978 and Jack’s parents suffered the consequences of violating this policy. I believe Jack stated that they paid the equivalent of nearly $3,000 U.S. dollars for giving birth to Jack. As rural farmers in China during the 1980’s, one can imagine the great cost of this fine to his family. Jack is unique in that he gets to experience what it is like to have a brother. Imagine for a moment how being an only child affects one’s childhood, and then imagine an entire generation of only children. This was quite apparent by what I heard called from local Chinese as the “Little Emperor Syndrome.” These children are pampered and spoiled to various extremes. It wasn’t surprising to see mothers picking their 9-10 year old daughter’s nose or feeding their 9-10 year old son by hand. For Chinese families, all the hopes and dreams of the family name and reputation go into the future of one child. Much is expected and a heap of pressure is placed on that child to succeed by one set of parents and two sets of grandparents. This plays out in competing for the best schools, obtaining the highest educational honors, and ultimately in choosing a promising career path.
Back to our tour guide, Jack was unique in his career path. Originally, he took a very common Chinese career path majoring in Civil Engineering with a focus on highway design and construction. However, after six months into his first job, he realized he wasn’t cut out for this career as it frankly “bored” him. Instead, he took his very extroverted personality and started his own personal tour guide business as a young 20-something, and at 27 years old is currently one of the more professional individuals I have met. It was refreshing to spend 3 days with a Chinese entrepreneur who decided to take his true talents and passions and make it on his own. I have had the privilege of meeting many Chinese of my generation and all have been wonderful people but most were of the same educational/career background in math/science and largely engineers. This wasn’t because this is where their passions necessarily lie, but rather because it is expectation, both of the government and more importantly of their parents. Engineers get the good jobs, make the good money, and project the right prestige. Jack was different. Jack helped remind me of something that makes the United States great. And this leads to my final point; I am often critical of the way things are in the United States until I visit other countries. When working with companies locally I am often disappointed to find that we don’t have a skilled labor force to meet the needs of the jobs available. By contrast, these many Chinese are qualified for these jobs. I don’t appreciate enough the fact that Americans largely follow their interests and passions to find a career they love. Sure this creates some problems like our lack of math and science degrees coming out of college every year, but it also allows for the entrepreneurial spirit that many Americans have and is the reason so many innovative new companies and products are founded right here in the U.S. We continue to lead the world in these areas, and it’s because of the mentality we have to pursue our passions, try new things, and not being afraid of failure. Gaining appreciation for other cultures always helps me regain appreciation for my own.
In closing, I will say that this recent visit to China was the best trip of my life. I have never experienced such contrasting culture, amazing food, landscape beauty, historical wonders, and special people. I recommend anyone looking to spend time in China to do so.