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First Impressions of Xi’an, China

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Xi’an, China is a big bustling city of over seven million people. It was a Chinese capital of ancient dynasties that thrived centuries ago, but today takes second stage to the prominent coastal megacities—Beijing and Shanghai and that more recent capitalist “import” to the mainland, Hong Kong. Beijing of course hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics while Hong Kong hosts some of the most amazing economic inequalities anywhere in the world (think ten million dollar penthouse suites while poor city residents rent cages to live in), but Xi’an’s seven million residents would easily make it a top-five city in the United States and the most populous city of a majority of countries in the world. By contrast, my native Philadelphia, America’s fifth largest metropolis according to the 2010 U.S. Census, has a population within city limits of about 1.5 million.

From a developed-world perspective, if being from Philly can count as such, my first impression is that Xi’an is hot, dirty, crowded, and dusty. Buildings often appear to be in a state of disrepair, and piles of garbage sun themselves near residential and commercial properties. But when you take a closer look, you see that in fact, the disrepair may only be a sign of accelerated growth—the front of the building where your daughter joins dozens of other little girls for dance class appears to have been bombed because escalators are being installed. Yes, there is garbage, but isn’t there open-air garbage in parts of every large city? You say no one who grew up in Philadelphia in the ’70s and ’80s should ever critique another town’s sanitation? Yeah, I hear you, and I grew up proudly “picking it up,” “loving it back,” and drinking Philly tap water straight from the faucet. Hey, we had fluoride in the water and winning sports teams.

In Xi’an, drinking water is boiled first or sold in a plastic bottle, and everyone is on the move. Most walk at a brisk pace, talk on cell phones, and get on with their lives. Cigarette smokers, men mostly, pass by frequently, and small stores selling alcohol and tobacco abound. Construction cranes loom above the city’s skyline, and I get a sense that this may be an exciting time to live here if you are established financially or part of the young adult generation—the millions “on the go” or “getting ahead”—that is, prospering from China’s amazing urban expansion. My wife, a Xi’an resident for most of the 1990s, tells me the neighborhood we live in did not exist twenty years ago.

People scurry about to and fro, buying and selling, cooking and eating, and there is a lot of discussion, and to me, it sounds like noise, harsh shouting. I can’t tell what is being spoken of, transacted, or otherwise accomplished because in China, I’m illiterate; I know only a few expressions, hello, goodbye, thank you, that sort of thing. What I can offer is my perceptions based on what I see, hear, and smell, not what I’m reading or listening to. So it is hard for me to tell exactly how “successful” any of these people are, but they appear busy, and with purpose, using hi-tech phones, tablets, and other handheld devices.

It is quite a battle to get anywhere in Xi’an. Merely crossing the street, even if walking on “green” and in the crosswalk, can make you certain you are risking your life. Cars, bicycles, motorcycles, and mopeds speed from various directions, and although most are in the correct lane, an outlier will drive the wrong way or speed up unexpectedly so that your pedestrian maneuvers soon resemble the green hero of the video game Frogger. Indeed, the same old lady who was just offered a seat by a young capitalist-comrade aboard the bus will run for her life to get across the street.

The buses and taxis are plentiful and affordable (one bus ride costs about 16 cents American, and you can go far in a taxi for less than two dollars or 10 RMB), but particularly during rush hour or on the weekends, it is difficult to hail an empty taxi or find a bus where you won’t be squished together with the masses. A Saturday afternoon visit downtown requires multiple stops, and plenty of patient waiting as the taxis zip right by and many of the buses are too crowded to board. In the hot sun, and already in May we have seen temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, just waiting for the right bus, or one with room, can be tiresome. Public restrooms are not readily available, so hydrating by drinking water offers its own potential problems.

When your bus finally arrives, you step up and forward in a series of twists and contortions that hopefully don’t leave your lower back too far from your legs and arms. And then, as the bus rumbles, speeds, churns, and turns, you hold on for dear life, or at least to avoid plopping into the lap of the old lady who was just granted her seat by a twenty-something now stuck in a squeezing-room-only stance.

I’m sorry that I don’t have much statistical information handy, but as best I understand it, the entire country is undergoing a major transformation from rural to urban, and this is very much visible in Xi’an. All told, the Chinese economy of 1.3 billion people remains a dynamic site, with growth so accelerated that when economists speak of a Chinese “slowdown,” they insist we should “only” expect growth of seven percent in the future.

While the most spectacular contemporary architecture is most visible in the coastal megacities, you still see the “new” China in Xi’an. For example, a first-world subway system opened last year and will be expanding in the future. As with the newer subway lines I’ve encountered in Suzhou and Seoul, South Korea, the cars are far cleaner and more contemporary—overhead televisions and a bilingual “voice” announcing stops in both Mandarin and English—than most of the subways I’ve used in Europe or back in the states.

In the section of Xi’an I live in, I am the only Caucasian I have seen so far, so I am very much feeling like “the white man” here. It was a few days into my stay before I noticed any other non-Chinese, and over my ten days here, at this point I’ve seen a total of two others—in both cases, they were citizens of the global African diaspora, what in the states we might call “black guys” although my best guess is that these two are from Africa or Europe. Both times, I want to run twenty yards and greet the stranger like an old friend, even if our difference from the norm could be all we have in common. Of course, because I am “exotic,” the Chinese I interact with are friendly and considerate, and I sometimes get the random “hello” from passersby as I maneuver on the crowded sidewalk.

Food is on display and for sale everywhere in Xi’an. Walk down one city block and you’ll pass cooked and uncooked chicken and pork, little noodle and rice joints, and street-corner vendors scooping spicy tofu into paper bowls or frying scallion pancakes on their portable range. Unrefrigerated “pure milk” is sold in little packets for 2 yuan (32 cents) and a hot dog on a stick costs half that. Cold bottled water, beer, and tea drinks, from fruit flavored to “milk tea,” are always available if a stand or store has refrigeration. What appears to be pure orange juice is invariably orange drink, but tasty nevertheless. Expect to pay more for your apples and pastries if you buy them in the large local supermarket, but from the naked eye, it appears as if you are getting the exact same thing offered at the smaller stands and kiosks.

Likewise, the neighborhood farmer’s market has dozens of merchants and much duplication. Cherries and strawberries appear to be in season, and almost everyone sells them. They all stock apples and cucumbers, and many butchers show you gutted whole chickens as well as all the properly cut pieces and parts. A notable difference between an American farmer’s market and this Chinese one is that in addition to the regular stands, you see dozens of migrants crouched down at the entrance also hawking their wares. They sell the same items as the stands inside, but the merchants tend to be older people, with darker skin, rural farmer’s tans perhaps. So there is an air of spontaneity about the experience, as if the woman crouched at the entrance with her large bowl of cherries may have decided to plop down there only for the day—although it is entirely possible she has held that spot for the past five years. My wife suspects that there is an informal rent system in place for these entrance spots, but of course, I cannot easily verify this information.

But what I can see is that every crowded corner appears to become a market of its own during rush hour. If the migrants aren’t selling cherries and strawberries they have women’s underwear or children’s socks. I’ve noticed that in American malls, recently, children’s clothing stores are booming while other kinds of retailers, alas, bookstores, for example, are disappearing. So maybe this is the global constant—a woman with a baby girl, xiao meimei, will buy clothes no matter how much progress we endure.

Once we saw a woman with a large tricycle cart who was transporting a sullen white-haired goat. I assumed she was in town to sell the animal, but my wife made me realize that people were lined up to purchase the goat’s milk.

What stands in stark contrast to Philly and other American cities is that I don’t see panhandlers or homeless people. I did see a few beggars seated on the cement of a downtown walking bridge rising above a busy intersection. But overall evidence points to the pride or necessity of being a peddler, of having a good or service to exchange for one’s money. Strangely, because the street vendors with the smallest stands, or no stand or cart at all, are often so old, and the younger adults stride right by in newer and nicer clothes, chatting on cell phones, and manipulating handheld computing devices, it can appear to be a society where the young tyrannize the old. What do the old do if they are not selling fruit on the sidewalk? Grandma and Grandpa take care of the little one while mom and dad turn a buck. In China, as in the states, it is most common that both spouses work.

To a great extent, contemporary China is a work in progress—not at all the common second- or developing-world country, but a combination of the three major rungs—developed, developing, and underdeveloped  (first, second, and third world), and all you need to do is walk down a crowded Xi’an street to witness this.

The brand new apartment complexes rise high above their neighbors, much older buildings that appear dusty, decrepit, and even falling apart, while across the street there may be even newer construction underway. Cars parked or driving by include this decade’s models of Audi and Mercedes, but then these cars have to navigate the chaotic street crossings of people on bicycles, motorcycles, mopeds, and even oversized tricycles, driven as taxis, with little compartments fit for two adults and a child. (With one-child policy remaining intact under most circumstances, a family of three remains the common one in China.) The woman with the goat, the crouching migrants with their cherries, the cars old and new—VW, BMW, Toyota, Nissan, Suzuki, Chevrolet, and Western and Japanese models you don’t see in the states, compact cars branded for China alone—are presented all at once. The cars fill the streets and are parked on sidewalks, parked illegally, and parked outside brand-new restaurants with bold neon signs serving the same spicy noodle dishes for 70 yuan ($12) that cost only 7 yuan at a whole-in-the-wall joint across the street. If you want to pay 7 yuan, there is a great chance you’ll get a tasty dish, but don’t expect a restroom with soap available and hot water running from the tap. Xi’an is changing rapidly, but it is still very much a BYTP (as in, “Bring Your Own Toilet Paper”) kind of town.

There is so much more to write about Xi’an and China, and I hope to post additional thoughts in the future. Please remember that these paragraphs are not from an expert, and as stated, by some criteria, my impressions are hardly those of an “educated” traveler.

But if you’re thinking of packing for a trip, be sure to start your leg and lower back strength and conditioning exercises now. Although dividers and a door for privacy exist in most newer public bathroom stalls, if you get a chance to show off your talents in an older “restroom,” you’ll impress your neighbors if you can finesse squatting like someone who hasn’t grown lazy from the convenience of an American toilet seat.

Alex Kudera's Fight For Your Long Day (Atticus Books) was drafted in a walk-in closet during a summer in Seoul, South Korea and consequently won the 2011 IPPY Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region. It is an academic tragicomedy told from the perspective of an adjunct instructor, and reviews and interviews can be found online and in print in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Inside Higher Ed, Academe, and elsewhere. His second novel, Auggie's Revenge (Beating Windward Press), and a Classroom Edition of Fight for Your Long Day (Hard Ball Press) were published in 2016. Kudera's other publications include the e-singles Frade Killed Ellen (Dutch Kills Press), The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity (Gone Dog Press), and Turquoise Truck (Mendicant Bookworks). When he's not reading or writing, he frets, fails, walks, works, and helps raise a child.

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