Monday, August 22, 2005


The City of All Around Opening Up, one poster proudly proclaimed on the side of the bus. Nanjing isnt the same city I went to for the first time in 1999. It has more or less exploded with new buildings, new shops, new attitude. Opening up indeed. I counted at least 4 branches of Starbucks. In a country of tea drinkers, that's a lot.

Back in 2001, I was there with an international cast of colleagues: from Belgium, Portugal, the U.K., the U.S., and everywhere we went we were stared at like a traveling freakshow. Not me, actually. I have dark hair and unmistakable oriental features and could blend in more-or-less if I kept my mouth shut or if Im not being mistaken for a Japanese. But the others were loudly occidental. N.G.'s flame-red streaks in her blonde hair didnt help any. People would turn their heads and stare. "I'll never get used to this," J said in his Ah-nult Schmarzemeneggerberger accent as he had to endure people on the streets treating him like a novelty item.

Fast forward to 2002. The streets were being torn up and houses were being torn down to make way for new construction. The 2-lane 'main' street near the office was now an 8-lane highway, which led me to wonder what happened to all the houses that used to stand there. My Chinese colleages assured me then that they were relocated and compensated. New businesses were being put up and a lot of foreigners were finding their way to Nanjing as students or business people. Westerners werent being stared at anymore as they got used to them.

By 2003, Nanjing's development was well under way. More streets were being torn up and more buildings were beign torn down and more people were being evicted from their apartments to make way for new developments. The new subway system was taking shape and malls were being planned. The office wasnt spared. They were given notice that the government had other plans for the land it was on. It had to go. Along with the farmers who were planting vegetables in the fields outside the office. (They use organic fertilizer which gave the area around the office a distinctive organic smell.)

By the time we got back there in July this year, the demolition of the houses around the office was proceeding apace. I was back in Nanjing again with an international cast of colleagues from Thailand, Indonesia, the U.S., the U.K., and Portugal and when we went out, no one paid us any mind. We werent that strange anymore as more and more westerners were findign their way to the city. But there was something else I noticed. This was the openness of our Chinese colleagues to discuss China's problems. Two years before, I remember one Chinese colleague starting to tell us a story about her parents' experiences during the Cultural Revolution that began with 'My mother hated it.' Another colleague sort of sushed her. He spoke in Chinese and I didnt understand what he said, but she abruptly ended her story right there. But now, China's problems with corruption, with their environment, and the increasing gap between the lives of the rich and the poor, are openly discussed on TV (CCTV-9 is in English), and this has somehow changed the attitude of the people. Our colleagues now discuss the problems inherent in Nanjing's rapid development openly. This includes the displacement of people from their homes and sources of income, the inadequacy of the compensation, and the corruption that could be taking place. With that subtle change in the openness of the people to discuss problems their country is having, I thought that China might be well on its way to becoming the next superpower. Fifty years, tops.

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