Gringos in China

A semi-distant cousin of mine is currently teaching English in China for the year, to young children. Like many on study- and teach-abroad trips, she is keeping a blog, and on that blog, she sometimes says things that bewilder me.

On recent demolitions near her bus route to school:

I met a university student from Belgium who was interviewing villagers who had moved to Nanjing. A few of those villagers lived in housing that was going to be demolished by the government and who would then move to a new apartment (which was paid for by the government). The few people that she interviewed were happy to be moving to a new apartment since it would be more modern- indoor plumbing. But the sense of community is vastly different in an apartment complex. More time spent inside, less socializing, etc.

So. People who live in high-income times and places spend a lot more time at leisure, because they don’t have to work as much to earn a living. That they spend less time outside to “wash clothes, wash their hair, brush their teeth, etc” is a good thing. That these people will now be able to partake of this sort of behavior is a good thing. Economic growth for its own sake isn’t always optimal–concerns about inequality are important! But these are some of the poorest people in the world–according to UN estimates, roughly 40% of people worldwide lack indoor plumbing, if that is correlated with income, then it corresponds to people in the bottom half of the Chinese income distribution. The average income in China is, of course, 1/6 that of the US. So. While there are details worthy of discussion, my baseline is that this is a nearly unmitigated good.

On visiting Xian:

Ryan and I will be traveling to Xi’an next week. We have 3 days off from work (of course working the weekend to make up those days). I’m hoping that Xi’an will prove to live up to it’s reputation and be slightly less developed than most cities here.

Well. Yes, I’m sure that the fact that Xi’an is undeveloped–which is to say, poorer–makes it interesting to visit. However, mostly it just makes it poorer. Xi’an has an income per person in the area of $4,200, compared to the $12,000 per person in Nanjing (where my cousin lives) or the $19,000 per person in Beijing.

Now, I’m all for visiting poorer cities, I think it’s worthwhile to question notions of development and inquire as to who they are helping, and I’m certainly in favor of cultural exchanges like the one my cousin is doing. I’m sure she is learning a lot, and she is obviously has a much clearer sense of how things are in China than I do. But–come on! It wouldn’t hurt to ask why, or its cousin what does this mean, a bit more often. Why do those interviewed say they like the new apartments (plumbing > “socializing” over communal sinks while brushing ones teeth?)? What does it mean that Xi’an is less developed? The answers are surely more interesting than anything I have suggested, and I knot that I would love to learn them. Unfortunately, I don’t think I will get that opportunity from this blog.

Maybe I’ll just have to travel to China myself…

3 thoughts on “Gringos in China

  1. Abroad blogs: where I go to judge people’s judgement.

  2. Oh dear. There is a point to be made about replacement housing not allowing the social structures that existed in previous neighborhoods to be maintained, but that’s more of an issue of how much user patterns are valued and taken into account in the design process. Either way, access to indoor plumbing = net gain.

    And Xi’an is awesome, but not because it is “less developed.” Obviously northwestern China is a lot different than the more populated coast, but Xi’an is one of the most “developed” cities in inland China. So this is kind of like saying “I’m hoping Chicago will live up to its reputation and be less developed than New York and San Francisco.” Anyways, tell her to eat everything in the Muslim Quarter and ride bikes on top of the city walls.

  3. I’m glad you saw this Shelby, so I can feel more secure that I’m not just full of it here!

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