How quickly you have changed

As we travel in our home on wheels, there are mainly four things that we concern ourselves with in order to maintain our self-sustained status: fuel, water, toilet disposal, and sleeping spot. Subsequently, irrespective of which country we are in, we are on a constant hunt for petrol stations; rivers, lakes or taps for water source; public toilets or facilities to dispose our human waste; and every night we search for a safe and hopefully quiet place to sleep. Depending on the country these four elements have varying degrees of availability. 

For campervan-friendly Europe, everything is easily available but at a cost. In Mongolia, while sleeping spots are abundant but due to a lack of infrastructure the other three elements were a little more difficult to obtain. Meanwhile the opposite applies to China, where fuel stations are as numerous as in Russia, public toilets and water hoses aplenty. But every day finding free space to set camp for a quiet night’s sleep proved to be a mission.

Downtown Shanghai

For the world’s third largest country it seems unbelievable to hear that we found difficulty in finding land. This said, you only have to take a look at the Heihe-Tengchong Line to understand our struggle. This is an imaginary line, drawn from Heihe in the north-east and Tengchong in the south-west, that divides China diagonally into two roughly equal parts: the west side of the line (Xinjiang, Tibet, Qinghai etc.) covers 57% of the land mass but only inhabits 6% of the population and on the east of the line (Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing etc.) covers 43% of China but where 94% of its population resides. These statistics came to life for us as we travelled around.

To say China has undergone an enormous amount of change is a gross understatement. The life my grandparents led to those of my parents and then to the lives my sister and I had growing up abroad is mind-blowingly different. The tales of my grandparents’ generation living in poverty in the countryside of a famished China, struggling to get food for her five children and how the eldest died due to starvation, seems an unbelievable story to my generation. How my grandma recalls the story of beating our youngest uncle, clearly the naughtiest member of the family, because of his misconducts of getting into fights with other children or losing his precious hand-sewn shoes and the fact they were poor and hungry fanned her fury even more.

As retold by my grandparents, the worst of the famine hit China in the beginning of 1960s when my parents were born. Despite the difficult circumstances my parents came through and received a high school education. Their wedding certificate consists of sticking two passport photos together and any black and white photos would have to be hand-painted if they wanted them in colour. Children of the Cultural Revolution also have many stories to tell, such as needing tickets to get their monthly ration of rice, meat and oil. While it takes leveraging on connections in higher places to get a special ticket to own luxurious items such as a bicycle. This was only 50 years ago. That China I do not know but it has come a long way since then. At the very least this offers an explanation, and to a certain degree of justification, to the selfie-craze and shopping-sprees!

As this new China embraces capitalism, I get the feeling, everything has a price, and everything can be on sale. The most astonishing thing we felt we had to pay was access to all nature reserves, even at a place as vast as a desert there is an entrance fee. If we saw a lake on the map there would be no way of getting close to it because it would be barricaded off to make sure the public cannot freely access it. This became rather frustrating but with a population as large as China’s, everything is geared towards mass control. Without doubt it is the country with the most surveillance we have experienced so far. With cameras at almost every corner we really became aware of their watchful eyes – the price of public safety.

Growing up in the stability of a developed West, I received education that taught me to value different things in life than those educated in China. But what is clear is I always have to put myself into another mental gear whenever I go back there. The energy and speed in which China continuous to change makes you forget to breathe. In the past when people said they aim to go to the States to pursue “The American Dream”. 

At the time I did not quite understand what they meant by that. But after observing my country for the last two decades I think I understand it more now. Anything is possible in China, you only have to think it and work for it, for it to come true. There is vigorous competition, and everything is a fight, but this energy fuels innovation and growth, which provides an abundance of opportunity for those who dares. I don’t think my grandparents can imagine making payments by scanning QR codes nor would they ever dream of by tapping a few times on a flat glass screen (smartphone) it would summon the service of a dude on an electric scooter ready to drive them home in their own vehicle because they had one too many to drink. 

"...the service of a dude on an electric scooter ready to drive them home in their own vehicle because they had one too many to drink."

In front of their eyes China is metamorphosing into a world that they no longer recognise. Old housings cleared to make way for towering flats or new skyscrapers that will attempt to break another record. A street where you got your breakfast every day, and you were sure you walked past it the evening last, is gone and cleared the next morning. Every neighbourhood is changing in an unprecedented speed that makes it difficult to grasp, especially for the older generation. Thankfully the Chinese, for better or for worse, are one of the world’s best adaptors and improvisers, no matter what age group. There is always a way!

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