I received email in response to my last post (whole lot of catching up…) that concluded from what I wrote that the folks in the U.S. have it better. The email has prompted me to lay out some of my thinking on modern China vis-a-vis the U.S. and on cultural difference generally.
When I described the apartment and all the shopping we did to make it feel like home, I was in no way trying to insinuate that the Chinese are deprived and folks in the United States singularly fortunate when it comes to accomodations and consumer options.
1. There is nothing that we want that we have been unable to find in China except a nearby playground with swings and a slide and dried black beans (and I haven’t visited all the public parks and grocery stores in town by a long shot). That’s right, we have easy access to converse all stars, ben and jerry’s, starbucks, giant bicycles, gymboree play&music, papa johns pizza as well as rice makers, iphones, distilled water delivery, and the aforementioned IKEA.
2. Furthermore, our apartment is likely at least 30 years old and was only minimally furnished because it is designed as a visiting faculty apartment. Sure, there is a physical and bureaucratic infrastructure problem – aging buildings, redundant red tape, etc. Yet, although we have a traditional (pre special economic zone) kitchen, I am not in any way implying that all kitchens in China look like ours. There is much new housing with new kitchens. Furthermore, the lack of oven, etc, speaks as much to differences in cuisine as to Chinese deprivation. If you steam your rolls instead of baking them, you don’t need an oven.
3. I travelled extensively in Russia in the early and mid 1990s so I have some idea what type of scarcity can exist in a planned economy. In Russia in the early 90s, if you saw a line forming outside a store, you got in it first and found out what it was for second. Over the last 15 or 20 years China has incrementally left the planned economy behind. Our apartment may hint at lean times in the past (and there were many) but for most contemporary urban Chinese the trappings of modern life are not so different from those in the U.S.
4. All this being said, there is tremendous economic inequality in China – more than at home. However, like the States, much Chinese inequality hinges upon the rural, urban, migrant worker in the city divide. Also like the U.S., this divide also maps to some extent on to ethnic divisions in the country. Like in the U.S., poor folks may have underfunded schools, inadequate medical care, and suffer disprportinately the degradation of the environment, all the same, most of them have televisions and, increasingly, cell phones.
So, I guess what I am trying to say is that, although I may occasionally complain about aspects of life in this place and point out how things are different here, unless I say so specifically, my complaints and recognition of difference are not intended to support claims of American superiority, but instead express my frustrations as I push the limits of my own experience and understanding.