Monday, November 11, 2013

October 20, Shanghai / Beijing

I am writing this on the plane to Beijing. The Shanghai airport is a marvel of cleanliness, comfort, and prosperity, with every inch of the extensive floor gleaming sumptuously and stores on the price level of Swarovsky crystal jewelry. The air pollution in Shanghai was visible when the plane took off, but wasn't noticeable to me on the ground. I'd imagine this would have to be a transitional issue, though, as it was with the United States in the early industrial heyday, think Pittsburgh. China can't afford to poison itself either.

We had a marvelous morning. When told we'd visit a “community center” I had no idea how interesting it would be. The center we visited was the first one built in Shanghai, two years after the 1949 revolution, basically the local Party headquarters. Now several floors house a museum about those years. It was full of early Communist fervor and optimism. It provided free housing for workers – with shared kitchens and bathrooms, something still sometimes found in China today. It had a tiny store stocked once a week with the basics, which you had to buy not just with money but also with ration coupons specific to the commodity you wanted – soy sauce, oil, soap, kitchen utensils, whatever. It had, and still has, a health clinic with a doctor you could, and still can, go to for free; if you were still sick after a few days you could go to a hospital, still free. Soon more construction began around the center, with apartment buildings going up. Those apartment buildings didn't have a long shelf life: they were built with Russian know-how and help, and were shoddily constructed. (Think of the political implications of telling us this!) But they were replaced by better quality buildings. Now the area is totally built up, full of tall apartment buildings and carefully placed parks. “Tall” is an understatement.

Today the community center is all we'd think of, and more. It has sports facilities, a library, meeting rooms, the clinic of course, crafts centers, a computer center, and (very interesting to me) an adult education program offering courses on academic topics like philosophy and literature as well as hobbies. It serves as a social location for people of all ages, especially seniors. We learned all this from two women, one of whom toured us through the museum and the second of whom greeted us in the reception room with sofas and coffee tables on which were placed and ready for us the large Chinese mugs with covers, containing green tea. Around the room were various objects for purchase to help support the community center, some made by people at the center – some of the paintings were actually lovely – and many other things obviously bought for resale.

We also learned about the Chinese educational system. Preschool, which is optional and inexpensive, goes from age 2 to 5. Elementary/junior high is for nine years, free. After that, people choose whether to attend vocational school, university, the army, or go to work. Of course, some of these have entrance qualification requirements. Mexico also provides only nine years of free schooling, something I find shocking in the twenty-first century.

We left the community center and went to an apartment in a four-story building for a “home-hosted lunch.” I couldn't imagine that even with pay, someone could cook a Chinese meal for 7 Americans, 1 Chinese tour guide, and one of the Chinese women from the community center. We entered a cramped shared stairwell area and were shown to an apartment on the first floor. A five-foot round table with a white tablecloth covered with a thin layer of plastic and a lazy susan had been set up in the living room, which looked like it was eight feet by ten feet. On a short wall was a sofa. On a long wall was a television, pretty big but not flat-screen. Whatever else had been in there had been removed.

The hostess, helped by her husband, brought out dish after dish after dish. We counted: they had shopped for and prepared twenty separate dishes. I tasted my first quail egg, hard-boiled: delicious. She served soft pork meatballs and potatoes, roast sliced pork, fried chicken pieces, beef and vegetables, pickled cucumber, baby bok choy and mushrooms, green beans, fried bananas, and so many other things. The last thing she served was wonton soup with the best wontons I ever tasted. This picture doesn't show all the dishes, since some were replaced with others as we finished them.

Even so, with nine people we could not finish all the food she had prepared. It was absolutely glorious. And what facilities did she have to prepare such a feast?   Two tiny rooms, perhaps six by seven, one with a refrigerator and a table, the other with a sink and exactly two burners.

And here is a picture of our hostess.

She told us that her apartment had two bedrooms, one for herself and her husband and the other for their daughter. I was able to get a glimpse of her bedroom off the living room, another very small room. The apartment had the living room, which we had eaten in. It had a dining room which we didn't see. It had a bathroom and the two bedrooms. And it had the two tiny kitchen rooms. I was very glad I had brought a gift for this occasion, a handmade purse made in Mexico. She opened it right in front of me,which is the American, not the Chinese way (which is to open it later in private), and seemed to like it: I saw her showing it with great interest a bit later to a neighbor.

On the way to the airport we asked Mike about real estate in China. He said that after the revolution until 1995 apartments were strictly controlled in terms of how much space and what kind of location families were entitled to, but they were essentially free, about a dollar a month. In 1995 the government loosened ownership modes and sold apartments like the one we had been in for $2,000. Since then the market has set the price and he said, although several of us found this hard to believe, that the apartment we were in today would sell, after translating currencies, for about $650,000. Only recently has it been possible to buy property with mortgages, the same as we are familiar with (20% down, interest rate of five to six percent). One of us calculated that this would mean a mortgage payment of more than $2,000 a month. Asked about salaries, Mike said he knew someone who made a huge amount of money: $3,200 per month. How can young couples possibly afford to buy an apartment? Mike said that many can't and live with their parents. He himself is 41, married, has a toddler, and lives with his parents. We passed a few places with single-family houses – they are rare, with most people living in zillions of huge apartment buildings with more of them going up all the time, so the price of individual houses must be stratospheric. Especially because Mike says that perhaps three percent of Chinese can be considered rich, I have a hard time believing that the cost of ordinary housing could possibly be so very much higher than the US. I will have to find out more about this.

By the way, a mystery resolved. The number six is not unlucky in China, as I'd thought from the elevator numbers. In fact, it's lucky, even though the luckiest number is eight because the Chinese word for it sounds like the word for money. The sixth floor, it turns out, had a much more prosaic explanation: offices on that floor. It's four or fourteen that is unlucky because the Chinese word for four sounds like the word for death. But the seriousness with which the Chinese regard the luckiness or unluckiness of numbers amuses me.

I am writing now at the hotel in Beijing. Flying in I saw horrendous air pollution over the city, worse than I ever saw landing in Los Angeles when the air was really bad. I just looked up what the level is now – it was only moderately bad, “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” I am very glad I have hospital masks with me, especially given my lingering cold. Then followed massive traffic, requiring 2.5 hours to get to the hotel. On the other hand, I ordered “swamp morning glory” as a vegetable tonight and loved it! It turns out this green is long and stringy and delicious.

The rest of the group is arriving tonight, and starting 8:30 tomorrow morning we will leave on what Mike calls the other “Long March” – a walking tour of Tianmen Square and the Forbidden City that is over four miles. I feel sorry for them already.

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