Sunday, March 29, 2009

Wind of change

Mao and pagodas

I've been turning this over in my head since I came to China, this reason why I seem to have a knee-jerk dislike of so many things here. It's not the dirt and it's not the foreignness, though both of those are not exactly my favorite things. It's the fact that China reminds me so much of Russia, the way Russia was when I was a kid, 20 years ago.

I was born in Moscow and lived there until I was 10 years old, when my family immigrated to America. My memories of it are the hazy recollections of a child -- I remember my house and my grandmother's house, my school and taking the subway, small things about everyday life. I can't describe the political tension and the mood of the country as the Soviet regime crumbled into nothingness and the borders opened. I can, however, remember finding out about Moscow's first McDonald's opening up, and wanting desperately to go there, because of the inherent appeal of the forbidden Western fruit. This is why it's been so hard for me to describe the similarities between here and there -- I lack the language of adult analysis for the Russian side, and lack the language more literally for the current Chinese experience.

The most tangible similarity has to do with housing. I grew up in a huge, crumbling, industrial-looking apartment block with poor infrastructure. I hadn't seen any buildings like that since I came to America. In China, everyone lives in them, the faceless Communist stone boxes divided into identical little apartments, too many people crammed into each one with insufficient plumbing.

Many of my fellow teachers and other foreign expats who come to love this country say it is because they have never seen anything as exciting. The lack of infrastructure is part of the excitement. When the power or water go out, all you can do is laugh about it. If I had grown up in a cradle of Western comfort and stability, I would be more inclined to take it in stride, shrug and chalk up one more point for "local color." But I didn't, so I can't. It hits too close to home. I grew up like that, with the inconsistent power and water, in a nation that imposed poverty on its population as one of the side effects of Communist power-grabbing. I have never had any desire to return to Russia, and living in China now feels too close for comfort. I remember too well how hard-won my American comfort and stability have been.

There are other factors and reminders, of course. The xenophobia that comes with a closed society. The way all foreign and Western things are simultaneously feared and coveted. The amount of bureaucratic red tape required for travel. Something about the mood of people, the atmosphere. These are insufficient words. As I said before, I lack the language to fully describe this.

If YouTube were not currently blocked by the Great Firewall, I would end this with "Winds of Change" by The Scorpions, written in the early 90s about the children of Moscow faced with such a rapidly changing world. It's a song about me, about my generation. I was a child in Moscow when the song was written. I can hear it now in the streets of China, a soft whisper through the veil of smog and exhaustion.


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