Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe’s series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.
- See second column – Are We Really Old? – here.
- See third column – Cars and More Cars – here.
- See fourth column – Getting Educated – here.
- See fifth column – Home Alone? – here.
- See sixth column – Death – here.
- See seventh column – They’re Playing Our Song – here.
- See eighth column – Driving: Knowing When To Quit – here.
- See ninth column – Hobbies: What’s Your Favorite – here.
- See 10th column – ‘The Last of Life, for which the First was Made’ – here.
- See 11th column – Volunteeering – here.
- See 12th column – Duck and Cover – here.
- See 13th column – Providing for the Future – here.
- See 14th column – Here We Go Wandering… – here.
- See 15th column – State of Schools – here.
- See 16th column – Our War – here.
- See 17th column – Behind the Curtain – here.
- See 18th column: Our Mind
- See 19th column: Change
- See 20th column: Memorials
- See 21th: When is Old?
- See 22nd: Roles
- See 23rd: Becoming a Dad
- See 24th: Where Are My Roots?
- 25th: Is it our fault?
- 26th: Getting There From Here
By Steve Canipe
July 18, 2014. Exploring the land of China was something that I had always wanted to do. It was a mysterious place, filled with people who were really different in outlook from my Western view. The actual trip happened sort of by happenstance.
My wife and I had planned to go on safari to Kenya and Tanzania with some friends in 2002. Several events intervened to cause that not to happen…like 9/11 for one. Our friends decided that they did not really want to travel to the African continent because shortly after the World Trade Centers, our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked. Our travel company, as many did, offered us either a full refund or a free rebooking.
My wife and I decided we wanted to travel but maybe not to Europe or Africa. The company had a great sounding trip to China and when we checked it had space available. So it was off to China. I felt pretty good about Chinese security response to any issue that might arise.
So off to China we went. Our first adventure was boarding the flight on Air China in Los Angeles. Almost everyone was of Chinese descent. We were among the few “big nose” people traveling. This is a sort of descriptive but sort of pejorative term that is used for Westerners. The other is “big feet” people. Both are sort of descriptive when you compare our body types to those of the average Chinese person.
Our flight took off and we swung northward paralleling the US west coast; curving across Alaska, then down across Siberia, and then into China where we landed in Beijing. After a surprisingly easy time clearing customs, we were picked up by our driver and taken to the hotel.
As we drove across the city, I was amazed by several things – one was the terrible air quality. The smog was so bad that it was hard to see very far at all. The other thing that struck me as odd was the building that was going on but much of it being done with hand labor. The scaffolding on buildings was made out of bamboo poles.
The traditional tourist sites were on our itinerary and we greatly enjoyed walking and climbing on stretches of the Great Wall. Visiting the Forbidden City was great and being able to see how the uber-wealthy lived back in the day was very enlightening. Now this is open to the people of China and the world.
We visited Tiananmen Square and were struck by how very much like a busy urban plaza it seemed. Thinking of the students and others, who tried to get a better hearing back in 1989, and the hundreds or maybe thousands who died trying to get that hearing was sobering. We along with lots of other westerners and Chinese were able to freely walk around and no one said anything about taking pictures or not taking them. I saw uniformed officials who were unarmed but they seems to have no interest in our being there and gawking at the Hall of Heroes or any other monument surrounding the square.
Our guide was very open in discussing the political situation. We asked her about Mao Zedong, (Tse-tung) and her comment was that in earlier days he was very good but in his later years he had sort of lost his way. The reverence of him as a leader was there but the practical view was a little startling to me. She talked freely about the economic freedoms that were so obvious. Everywhere we went there were merchants (hawkers) offering post cards, photos, trinkets, t-shirts, caps, etc. In some cases, they were so annoying that we were advised to not say anything, just totally ignore them and walk on through the gathered mob. At times I resorted to speaking French or German – neither was as widely understood as English and they would stop bugging you…at least for a bit.
The history of the places that as a kid I had only dreamed of came to life in the modern tableau. I was impressed and awed by the industriousness of the people. Lots of merchandise was available everywhere and surprisingly in the shopping malls we visited, real items were about as expensive as if had been in the United States. The touristy trinkets were abundant and cheap with many of them being offered for $1.
While in Nanjing I visited a bridge over the Yangtze River that apparently the Soviets started building and then for some reason got upset over something the Chinese did or didn’t do. All the Soviet engineers took their plans and went home. The Chinese completed the more than 4 mile over water span…the greater bridge is another 2 or so over the wetlands leading to the river. A huge statue of Mao in his traditional hand-raised pose is there. Mao picture here.
This bridge represented the strength and determination of the Chinese spirit to me. I know that we are always complaining about cheap goods and the loss of manufacturing jobs to China. The fact remains that for businesses it is cheaper to do business overseas than to keep jobs in the US or even to have them done in nearby Mexico. Chinese workers make very low wages.
In the US we seem to be looking for the quickest profit and not worry about the future. We sometimes have long range plans but these are at most maybe 5 years. Chinese planning sometimes takes decades or maybe centuries. The leaders are not looking for immediate gratification.
Another case in point is the grand city of Shanghai. The Chinese make no bones about it that they want and plan to become the financial capital of the world and Shanghai is the epicenter of that planning. Currently in 2014, the population of Shanghai is about 24 million. This is a massive amount of people driving that economic engine. The city mixes new and old but one of the things that seemed obvious to me is that it is alive with energy. New York, Moscow, Delhi, London, Paris are also alive with lots of people but they don’t seem as driven as Shanghai, at least to me. I would almost describe Shanghai as seething.
What will be the fate of China relative to the rest of the world? They have enormous money reserves; a well-defined political system (true even if you don’t like Communism); and an economic system that has both government control and individual entrepreneurial spirit. The population is gaining both in economic clout but also in influence around the world. If the terrible smog does not cause early deaths of many, this will definitely be a country to be reckoned with in the coming years. Maybe we will all be asking Nǐ huì shuō – “do you speak Chinese” before too long.
I mentioned earlier that I was going to do several travel columns on exciting places I’ve been. China was certainly an exciting place that I had the opportunity to return to in 2011 and other than more good economic news for China, nothing much had changed. The economic drive was still very much alive. I will describe other trips in this column during the summer vacation season in the hopes that other Boomers will plan some of the same trips, I’ve enjoyed over the past several years. If you cannot go in person to these places, I hope that vicariously you can enjoy what my wife and I have seen and at least consider what I saw and how I reacted.
I hope that you will share your former or current travels with readers, either through posting at the end of the column or on Facebook or by writing to me at [email protected]. I do want to hear from you. Not just the glorious things you have seen but your feelings about the people you’ve met.
Next week join me on an exploration to Russia, including the Hermitage Museum, Red Square, the Kremlin, and St. Basils. Buckle your seat belts for the next three columns. For a preliminary view of some photographs from Russia, visit the websites linked here and here.