After around three hours of indecisiveness on Friday morning (a frustrating, time-wasting flaw I still cannot shake), I finally decide (while I wait for my visa extension to come through) on a weekend trip to Ha'er Bin, a city in the north east world-famous for its spectacular ice-festival . I was to leave on the 7.15am train on Saturday with a painful 6am wake-up. Surprisingly, I managed it in good time and arrived at the station half an hour early. Perfect. Except I couldn't find where my train was! The transport system in China is actually very logical, but language difficulties still make the logical impossible. I walked around the waiting area frantically, showing everyone my ticket, using the few Chinese words I knew, but no one could comprehend or indicate to me where the train was. Some indicated to me to stay in the waiting room. Finally I spot a conductor who points out the way. I arrive at the platform to see my train… slowly… rolling… away…
I cursed the punctual trains - where were all the delayed trains I keep hearing about? - and decided in that moment that I hated Chinese, with all its complicated characters and the creation of English-allergic tendencies in its people. I went to the ticket office with a pitiful and exasperated look on my face (I still haven't learned to deal with upsets to my schedule) to which the officer responds with (literally): "Because of your face, I will give you another ticket". Great. Unfortunately, the eight-hour journey does not come with a nice seat this time but only standing tickets but it would do.
I killed the 6-hour wait at Central Hostel, across the road from the train station, and cheekily used their free Wi-Fi and hot showers. I made use of the extra time by preparing myself - I bought tickets to return to Beijing and go onwards to Ping Yao on another overnight journey. I chose the earlier train of two options, leaving from a far away station. I decided there was nothing to do in Beijing late into the night and it made more sense to spend more time in the new city of Ping Yao. How was I to know I would meet MICHAEL?
He's a resident of Central Hostel, an American in Beijing to learn to teach English on a four-week course (everyone I've met teaching English here have launched straight into it, but characteristically of Michael, he decides he wants to do it properly and would only entrust himself on the kids if he can do it right). He originally intended to stay put in Beijing to teach English and carve out a new life for himself out here, at least in the short term, after apparently leaving a well-paid job in the States. Unfortunately, he's finding it hard to access the show-and-tell performer in him (which apparently is what job demands) after a serious career in the 'City' and is rethinking his teaching plans, instead looking into learning Mandarin.
We hit it off immediately, after meeting properly at the reception of the hostel as he was preparing to leave and I was coming in from buying train tickets. We ended up sitting at the reception doorway for the hours after. Our conversation focused on a topic close to our hearts - India. I've finally found another traveller who loves the country as much as I do, maybe even more so, if that is possible. Amazingly, he seems to be a fan of Hindi movies too and actually loves the cheese and fluff of Bollywood, along with the colours, singing and dancing. I couldn't have invented him if I tried.
Now how can I summarise our conversation in just a short blog? He's made such a strong impression on me that now I feel like anything I write will not do that morning justice. Nor can I remember the bulk of what we talked about, given the time that has elapsed since that meeting.
Michael had spent some months in India, in Rajastan I believe, working for an NGO or some charitable organisation for half a year during a possibly post-degree gap year. With all we've gathered about India, and the little we've come to know of China, we talked at length about the development and future of one of our favourite countries, and compared it to China. I've been thinking about it for some time and here, in the most random way, was someone to thrash out the ideas with. It couldn't have been more perfect.
I've seen China's staggering growth displayed proudly in its prosperous big cities, and with growth statistics of 10%, it's hard not to be impressed. I've been thinking that China's economy, strong as it seems and currently holding a lot America's and other countries' debts, will grow from strength to strength, even potentially outstripping our current superpower. The fact that it is such a major exporter (with countries relying on its cheap goods) and that it has the biggest market in the world (in excess of a billion), China wields a lot of power. This, and the fact that the money keeping other countries afloat is from China also mean that it is politically strong - countries will loathe to get on the wrong side of it. Obama and Clinton have to tread carefully when making statements about a country fast becoming their direct rival.
Michael is not so optimistic for China's powerful future. He argues that the world will eventually, if not already, grow tired of poor quality, cheap products. That seems to be China's only specialty at the moment so as soon as demand for that falls, so will their economy. How much longer will people put up with such bad products being dumped on our shores? I argue that the answer is forevermore, since economic cycles will always create relative poverty in even the richest nations at some point and these consumers in this time will naturally lean towards cheaper goods, however poor quality they may be. But he did throw up an interesting point I hadn't considered - can China's growth based on its current focus last forever? Of course, I also argued that as time goes on, China will be able to diversify. For example, with the intensity of Shanghai's development, in building major office skyscrapers, through holding the Expo, and whatever else, China is already showing it has balls in other courts too.
Whatever the case, Michael sees more potential in India, a country he says is bursting with creativity and one that has more avenues of growth than its counterpart China. The Chinese, he conjectures, seem to lack the creativeness and entrepreneurial spirit of Indians - likely a product of strong indoctrination from birth and a tightly controlling, censorship-practising government. The Chinese have been instilled with a particular way of thinking, so that everyone expounds the same thoughts and ideas and therefore tends to have similar ways of doing things. The lack of creativity this engenders will naturally limit its future development. India, on the other hand, is full of vibrant free-thinkers, ready to shape their proud nation into a more prosperous one.
On the positive side, under a repressive government, keeping tight control over its people, the Chinese population seems to be much happier (than, say, their arguably poorer rival Indians, or actually even the richer Westerners). Who needs freedom when you can feed your family and not have to think about much else . Now we're entering into rather shaky arguments with little to back it up, but this at least allowed for discussions on the merits of absolute democracy verses a somewhat autocratic political system that can potentially work well for its people as in the case of Singapore. But anyway…
The ideas we share about China, we both admit, are rather short-sighted conclusions, reached with eyes that have only seen a few weeks of the country. Our thoughts on India are much more spirited and had more root, but I can only remember the gist of it now, enraptured as I was in this topic that I was swept away completely in talking to Michael about it. I remember saying that as much as I loved being in India, as much as I love its people and its culture, I could not be so optimistic about its economic future, seeing all the problems that it has to overcome. I cannot possibly see a way out - the huge corruption struggles, the tightly bounded caste system (automatically destroying the potential for countless people born into lower castes), the diminished role of women (still homemakers with very little power on the whole), the burgeoning and ever-growing population, the severe poverty, extreme unemployment (in the sense that I see no end in street children and generally street people, hanging out on the streets, playing cards and just watching the world go by, with little else to do), what seems to be an increasingly intolerant people (creating political unrest in strikes, separatist movements, church burning, religious suppression etc.)… You might wonder why I'm still so in awe of the place with all of that, but what I see in the country as a whole, and what I see in its individuals are very different. But more than that is something that I haven't yet put my finger on… But suffice to say, Michael's vision for India differed from my pessimistic tones. India's natural resourcefulness and creativity, its growing technology industries, its English usage…many things will enable its future success that will leave China trailing.
Michael and I part ways so I can catch my train but alas, the hours spent talking to him meant I arrived at the platform just in time to see my train… slowly…pulling…away. Yes! I actually managed it a second time. Unbelievable! This time, however, I fully accept my fate. It was my own error after all, but I felt it was fully worth it. I trudge to the ticket office to buy a new ticket and it was as if it was meant to happen all along. Train tickets, especially overnight ones with beds, are hard to come by, but a ticket was magically waiting for me, pre-printed, on the counter. This magical phenomenon left me in awe, but then I later realised that it must have been printed when I was trying to buy tickets earlier - a ticket printed in error due to the language difficulties I had. Or was it? There was still something spooky about that ticket being there…waiting…
Another wait at the hostel, but Michael was away. Instead, I spent the afternoon and evening chatting to Simon, a Liverpudlian (from Liverpool, England) teaching English in the nearby municipality of Tianjin. Like Jimmy, he's earning far more than he can spend in the cheap living of China and so manages to enjoy a pretty fine life as an expat here. His week is in Tianjin but for weekend fun, he usually hops over to Beijing using the super-fast railway line connecting the two major cities within only half an hour (I'm told it's the fastest inter-city train in the world). He was with Justin, a Canadian colleague who has lived in China for a number of years and whose efforts with Chinese means he now speaks it relatively fluently (unlike Simon, who lives oblivious to it all somehow). I was surprised to find out that young Justin is married, to a European expat who he met while travelling; but he was then having marital problems, so left the hostel pretty quickly to sort through it.
Simon and I laughed and drank wine together through til evening, and for possibly the first time in my life, I was getting drunk on a Saturday afternoon. It was a surprisingly fun end to a rather bizarre day. By dinnertime, we were stumbling out of the hostel, looking for something to eat. At a nearby local 'restaurant' (ie kitchen with a few plastic tables), I used my limited Chinese to order whatever was the best thing on the menu. I was proud of at least being able to get that idea across! It was one of the best meals I had thus far…but I ate it minus Simon. I somehow took a joke too far, though in my rather tipsy state, I could not fathom what was wrong, before Simon stormed out and didn't return. I was calling his bluff, thinking he'd quickly come back but gave up once I finished my meal and still he didn't materialise. I packaged what was remaining of the food and shared it with Michael, who I did in fact see again at the hostel. Michael and I said our goodbyes and arranged to meet for breakfast at the hostel when I returned to Beijing.