No purple houses.
I woke up in China this morning. New China, actually. The one that you know from your trips to Walmart and other stores that sell stuff you buy. It’s a city called Shenzhen, and it’s actually a very old town—going back to its role in the third century BC as a salt port on the Pearl River. But it was nowheresville until 1979, when Deng Xiaoping, successor to Chairman Mao Zedong as leader of China declared that Shenzhen would represent the new China he envisioned. In 30 years it has grown from a city of 30,000 people to 12 MILLION. And it’s all because of that stuff you buy in Walmart and Best Buy. Deng made Shenzhen a special economic zone and now there are thousands of factories here, and millions of workers. And it is craaazzzzy.
But I am getting a little ahead of myself. I left Singapore after a lovely day at the aquarium, a traditional high tea at a very ritzy hotel, and a Sunday children’s Mass at the Jesuit church of St Ignatius (which was packed, like Christmas!). I introduced myself to the Jesuit priest who celebrated the Mass to try to smooth the way for a baptism for Arthur, my friend’s newborn son. He looked at my casual clothing (shorts and sneakers) with some disdain, and inexplicably launched into a comment about the real danger of terrorism from foreigners in Singapore. I wondered if I somehow represented such a threat with my shorts, but I tried to give him the famous Jesuit benefit of the doubt and assumed he meant well nonetheless. On the way to the airport, I spoke to the taxi driver about Singapore, and he volunteered that living under an authoritarian government with no ability to express political dissent felt repressive, but on the other hand, it had yielded a fairly comfortable economic lifestyle for the majority of citizens. And the fact that crime was virtually non-existent and the streets were safe was an added benefit. But he added that he hoped to move to Thailand some day. So maybe it wasn’t such paradise after all.
On the plane to China, I had a first taste of the oppressive nature of this country’s political system. Multiple videos were played over the screens hanging above our seats, warning us---with happy cartoon characters and peppy music—of restrictions we would face when we arrived to China. They also reminded all foreigners that you had to register with the police if you were staying with someone’s private residence (as I would be doing). Hotels provided that service as part of their responsibility if you chose to stay with them. The point is, they are tracking you.
I was delighted to enjoy the hospitality another former student and his wife and three little kids. I’ve loved the guy since I met him at Fairfield in 1997. Daddy is now teaching at a school for mostly foreign (non-Chinese) kids, and he and his family are enjoying the “ex-pat” life here. It was actually amazing to hear him speak of their decision to move to China. He was a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, a kindred soul to me, and now he speaks of his former home without much affection. His experience teaching in New York public schools was more challenging than I guess I knew, and the respect and lifestyle he enjoys here teaching in private education is a definite plus for his whole family.
I walked about 16 miles around the city on the first day. It is clear where those 12 million people live: there are thousands of very tall apartment buildings, and they are everywhere, and more going up wherever you looked. Imagine Co Op City in the Bronx, with buildings twice the size and hundreds (thousands?) more of them. But I didn’t see the people that lived in them. The streets around the apartments were virtually empty, nothing like the crowds in New York. Were they all out working in the factories?
There were lots of impressive office buildings as well. Like Singapore, the architecture was a major step above Hong Kong, but there is a lifelessness to it. I’m impressed with the gigantic-ness of it all---their newest building here is 140 stories, 35 more than the new World Trade Center, and they have begun building a 200 story tower!
But this new city that they are creating has very little character to it. It reminds me of the rush to build the American suburbs of the 1950’s, when new neighborhoods of identical and faceless houses were built to provide homes for young veterans and their families. I’m sure that the Chinese who have moved here to Shenzhen from ancient villages and towns that no longer provide a means of living for them are very happy to have a shiny new apartment on the 56th floor of building that looks exactly like the 20 others surrounding it. But I wonder about the effect it will have upon their view of the world, and of themselves. Why is it that we humans so readily embrace conformity over individuality and freedom? I understand that we want to be accepted in the tribe, and of course that we want to be comfortable in our world, but at what price to our souls? I salute the guy who chooses to paint his house a happy purple---much to the chagrin of his neighbors-- because he loves the color!
Perhaps there is more to it here than just giving masses of factory workers good housing stock. Noam Chomsky once said that if people are encouraged to think for themselves, they won't have enough humility to submit to a civil rule or they'll start trying to press their demands in the political arena with ideas of their own. This country's political system is more about mind-numbing conformity than it is about the messiness of the model we have been following.
I also stumbled across pieces of the old Shenzhen, and contrary to the new neighborhoods, they made my heart soar. They were old, small, crowded ghettos with tiny alleyways and tangles of incomprehensible wires hanging just above your head. But they were much more fascinating than all those new buildings, and they were filled with real life and real community: men standing in circles playing cards with high stakes, women selling food on the doorsteps of their alley kitchens, children playing hide and seek down the labyrinth of dark and confusing corridors off of which everyone lived. The smells were wonderful and sometimes awful, and it was not a neat and antiseptic world, but it was as alive as any neighborhood I have ever seen. I spent a couple of hours there just observing it all, and felt the overwhelming presence of the Spirit hovering over it, embedded within it. This was the world of southeast Asia I had come looking for, and one which I hope to explore some more in the days to come.