Wednesday, March 21, 2012

China in brief

Sometimes me missing my spot is my own fault but last week it was not. I was in China and in China blogspot is not accessible. The same applies to facebook which incidentally did not bother me much as I never have the time to go on it anyway.

My trip took one week and I spent the whole time in Beijing. As you probably know the city used to be called Peking but got changed somehow, much the same as Mumbai, previously known as Bombay. Who knows, maybe the city name changers of the world will one day decide to call Reykjavík Beikjavik or Meykjavik. But I digress. The reason for my trip was a literary festival named the Bookworm, organised by the owners of the only English bookshop in Beijing. In attendance were 80 authors from 20 different countries which I think is remarkable for an event arranged by a private entity. The festival was very well set up, the panels interesting and very well attended.

I do not qualify as an expert on China in any way. I know that there are various problems with the administration of the country but one could not tell from the people‘s faces that anything was amiss. To the contrary everyone seemed pretty content and the city is thriving to a degree that I find hard to put into words. Everywhere you look you either see a mammoth high-rise or construction of a high-rise and when you cross the road you are more likely to be hit by a Ferrari as you are a rickshaw. Never in my life have I seen a city as un-communistic as Beijing.

But pollution is a problem and due to the low lying clouds that tend to engulf the city you cannot help but get the feeling that the air is pretty foul at times. But city officials have taken steps to change this, the number of new cars to get registration plates has been limited to 20 000 a month. Only. While we were there 8000 number plates were auctioned off by the city, the lowest bid that got you a plate amounted to 18000 USD. If anyone has been wondering where all the money went to following the depression in Europe and the US you need wonder no more. It is in China.

Also meant to cut pollution is a limit to driving. Cars are only allowed to drive four out of five weekdays. The last digit of your number plate decides which day the car must stay at home, the ten available digits have been divided among the five weekdays so each plate has one black out day per week. If you are caught on camera driving on the car’s day off you pay a hefty fine. For this reason many people elect to have two cars.

As part of the book festival I participated in a visit to a migrant school where authors were given a chance to visit a class and discuss their home country with the pupils and get them interested in writing. To explain, such schools are set up for the children of migrant workers who flock to the city for work in the multiple factories in its outskirts. Such jobs pay better than those available in the countryside. But these people do not have the official papers that allow them to set up habitat outside of their own province and as they are not registered their children cannot attend regular schools. Hence these migrant schools that are run on a shoestring budget and manned mostly by volunteers. The school building I attended was as an example not heated and the temperature outside was colder than the inside of a refrigerator as was the inside. All of the student wore winter parkas inside the schoolroom.  

The class that I took over through a translator had 26 children aged 5 to 6. All were exceptionally cute and very interested, especially in the Icelandic candy I had brought specifically for this purpose. I told them about Iceland, about Grýla and threw in a ghost story for good measure that the translator was not all that keen on translating for this young crowd. But she did and they listened wide eyed. One thing that I found interesting was to peek into their notebooks to see the level of math they were working on. Turns out they were already adding and subtracting two digits, i.e. 19 -3 and 24 + 11 etc. Icelandic kids are certainly not doing anything as complicated at six, much less at five. The children's neat and tidy handwriting bore witness to them not being novices to lettering, both English and the Chinese signs.

At the Forbidden City we got a guide to walk us through the area. This was a young man of about 25 who knew less about the city than the explanatory billboards posted next to the buildings within it. But he was entertaining nonetheless and had insights into life in China that one would not expect on any government approved signs. The one that I found most insightful was when he told us that as a child his family was unable to afford meat except very occasionally. His childhood dream had thus been to grow up and be able to afford a meal containing meat at least once a week. As he believed this to be pushing it a bit he said that he had been willing to downgrade the dream to having meat once a month. Now he is on a diet.

I know China is not perfect and that many things are harsh and totalitarian. But without a doubt such negatives will move in towards the light. Considering how fast they have moved from the Mao suits and bicycles this will probably occur at the speed of a Ferrari once underway. 
Although they have changed the name of the city, Peking duck is still called Peking duck - not Beijing duck. Although whole nations bow to them, the name changers of the world don't stand a chance against the restaurant industry. 
Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. Really interesting observations. It sounds like the schools are really doing their jobs. As for the two cars, people will find a way to get around the rules, but it sure sounds expensive.

  2. Yrsa, that was a post worth waiting for! A refreshing change from so many of the broad generalities the uninformed offer up on what's happening there. Your insight on the "migrant" children and their math level I thought a particularly poignant message for the future.

    As for the new Rekyjavik, how about selling off naming rights in some corporate sponsorship arrangement such as they do for professional sports stadiums in the US? I can see it now, welcome to Vicks-o-rub.

  3. Great repost, Yrsa. How I envy you, getting to meet and talk to those kids.

  4. I found your post fascinating and informative. It brought out some interesting details about life in China that will certainly add when I read Chinese authors.