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A Family’s Adventure in Wonderland – Finale

(This is one of my earlier English essays.)

Time flied at an alarming speed. All too soon our adventure in Beijing came to an end. Before closing the door of our temporary home one last time, I gave a swift look at the bookshelves where I always found new book titles till the last minute; at the single bed where my parents spent sixteen snug nights; at the mini sofa where I fast conquered my fear of rolling down to the floor; at the computer with which I consulted the Google Map for the best bus and subway routes; at the kitchen that proved to be safe from a few cockroaches creeping out and being all glued to the “Cockroach Exterminator”; and at the handwriting of Aunt Jeannie, to whom I felt grateful for not only her contribution to cutting our travel budget in half; but also for all that she had done to offer us a comfortable little home away from home.

By the time the train slid off the West Station, the night had come to drag the sun down behind the horizon. The eighteen-day adventure is over, I reminded myself, and it is time to go home, to go back to where I have lived my first twenty four years of life – a portion of time long enough for anyone to subliminally feel a sense of belonging and to take almost everything for granted. An image of my homeland flashed through my mind, and I felt a surge of contentment and peace. I am going back to my most familiar world. But there was something else in that feeling – something that changed the image ever so slightly that it would not have been grasped had I had a diversion for one second. My most familiar world…but have the sixteen days of adventure in Beijing not ever changed the way I feel about and look at my homeland? I mused, turning my head over to the curtained window.I stared into the mantle of night. What was supposed to be Beijing’s skyline had been engulfed in pitchy darkness, but its mirage appeared before my mind’s eye just as real. “High-rise”, I thought, would be a word too ineffective to describe what came into my view as the train drew nearer and nearer to the Beijing West Train Station on our arrival sixteen days ago. Against a background of blue penetrating through a veil of haze – much thinner, though, than that I saw in Urumqi or Lanzhou along the railway, stood a forest of buildings literally slicing the sky in large pieces. Each and every one of them was built as if to enter an increasingly fierce competition for height, modernity, and attractiveness. Highways and viaducts down below were winding and curling like petrified Chinese dragons, upon which crawled vehicles of all models and sizes. This was a wonderland of glass, steel, and cement.

More “human touch” was on the show once I set foot on a street, in the subway, on a bus, or in any of the tourist attractions. An endless variety of clothes and accessories for early winter exhibited a whole range of modern aesthetic tastes we Chinese acquired from Pierre Cardin, Hugo Boss, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Gucci, and some unknown designer who went as far as to sew fake fox tails on female overcoats! An increasing number of white, brown, black skins and golden, creamy, silvery hairs created another sight which would certainly have provoked gasps, stares, and probably shouts had it been either in Beijing thirty years ago or in any city of Xinjiang today. Mercantile pursuits have been developed to a point where Mother exclaimed when we arrived at the Xidan Commercial District, “Oh, my! Is this the place we visited twenty years ago?” Yes, mom, I wanted to say, you should not have been so very much taken aback by what Beijing has achieved over the years. Last time we checked, there were shabby cottages along the railway and the chance was far better to spot fifty bike riders in grayish yellow clothes than to locate one single western restaurant downtown. But today thirty Pizza Huts are fast outstripping the competition with Quan-Ju-de Roast Ducks among young Chinese, and family cars are fast outnumbering bicycles particularly in downtown areas.

If failure is the mother of success, it would sound equally wise to say that openness is the father of development, be it for a human, a company, a city, or a country. In the case of Beijing, new infrastructures and improved services – to name a couple of the progresses most directly perceived through the senses – are considerable changes brought by the Olympics and other international events. For a capital city stuck in cultural and economic containment for centuries, it is a huge accomplishment to have internationalism integrated to such an extent that I felt no surprise to see Chinese reading English documents and Westerners doing Chinese homework in a metro car.

China at large has gone through an unprecedented cultural and economic transformation since its economy was gradually opened to the world. People and products from foreign countries are no longer seen as capitalistically evil, because “foreign” now becomes a byword for good quality and fine civility. A wide selection of international brands marches to either actual stores or online shops, ranging from clothes to medicines to foods to electronics to air-tickets to banks to daily necessities to crazy gizmos. CEOs and other high officials for some Chinese multinational corporations are either foreign nationals or domestic elites with backgrounds of “powerful American education”. Immigration has thus become popular. There is an increasing number of Chinese people who have in one way or another become citizens in foreign countries, particularly in North America. Next to cars and villas, a passport has become another symbol for high social status. Gone with the greeting “have you had the meal”, comes a cliché “when do you go abroad.”

It is a natural law that animals tend to flock to where they are empowered to catch prey with the least effort and the highest probability to succeed. In the human world, it is usually opened markets and abundant investments that forge an epicenter, a lure of opportunities for personal success and prosperity. Geographically and politically, Beijing and other few cities in Eastern China are favored to attract more investments and hence human forces to form a virtuous cycle, by which development rolls like a snowball, small at first but gaining scale and speed as more players come along to innovate, collaborate, and invest. Megacities – “Lands of Dreams” in other words – are therefore born and welcome, notwithstanding traffic congestion and energy overconsumption due to centralization of huge populations (16.33 million permanent residents in Beijing and 18.58 million in Shanghai by the end of 2007, the number steadily growing annually) that flocked there for higher probability to succeed in catching more prey….As I envisioned young graduates crowding into cities like Beijing, the image of my hometown Xinjiang once again flashed through my mind. My most familiar world…all of a sudden it dawned on me that I would never be able to feel about and look at my homeland the same way I had over the last twenty-four years, not after what I saw and experienced in a New Beijing, where preferential development delivers exclusive opportunity. Then a thought came up to me almost as mischievous as the one that struck Thomas Friedman when he wrote the chapter China for a Day in his new book Hot, Flat, and Crowded. If only Urumqi could be Beijing not for one day but for one decade – starting from now.

Slightly higher in latitude, Urumqi is the capital city of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the farthest northwestern province that takes up one sixth of China’s total area with over 570 rivers mostly distributed up in the north and a land of 1,660,400m2, 48,010,000ha of which is arable grassland. According to the 2007 census, there are 2.313 million people sharing 14,216.30km2 for permanent residence in Urumqi, which is a Uyghur word literally meaning “beautiful pastureland”. Thanks to the great West Development Campaign, the city has long waved farewell to beautiful pastureland and gradually become “a major industrial center [accounting] for 64.5% of the total industrial output of Xinjiang, together with Karamay and Bayin’gholin prefectures,” while being “the largest consumer center in the region, recording CNY 32.2 billion retail sales of consumer goods in 2007, an increase of 18.24% from 2006, with the GDP per capita exceeding US$4,000; and being ranked 7th in 2007 by the disposable income for urban residents among cities in Western China,” according to Wiki.The statistics show quite an accomplishment when compared to the data collected in the 1980s, but what, I wondered, would be like after one decade of being in the shoes of Beijing?

First and foremost, people would get rich quick. The 11th issue of City Planning for 2004 stated that Beijing’s GNP reached CNY 58.989 billion in 1991 and soared up to CNY 313 billion in 2001, whereas Urumqi and its greater area only managed a GNP of CNY 69.86 billion in 2004 according to Xinjiang Economy, the 6th issue for 2005. These numbers are probably too dry to read, but they augured a fact that, as evaluated by the National Bureau of Statistics, Xinjiang today is ranked fifth at the bottom by urban average salary in the first three quarters of 2008, reportedly falling from the second place in the 1970s when an injunctive subsidy accounting for 30% of basic salary was offered exclusively to anyone who had decided to “make contributions in the west.” With inflation in the currency and rapid development in eastern China over the years, the 30% subsidy has become more of a joke than an incentive. The lagged economy has resulted in tens of thousands of families – particularly in rural areas – that can’t afford school or even daily necessities like milk and eggs.

Ten years of intensive investment would have not merely promoted the economic performance. It would also have hatched a great zest for improving the international image as foreign capital began flushing in Urumqi. Governmental regulations and business competitions would then drive services in all sectors right to finer details. There, for example, would be workers on the bus announcing the stop in the Chinese and English languages and asking passengers to offer their seats to the disabled, the elderly, and the pregnant. Waiters in decent restaurants would politely and patiently jot down anything you required of the cook. And you would no longer have to worry about sudden calls of nature, because now toilets – many as clean as your home washroom and all free of charge – would have been available in every block of the city.Environmental protection was another major issue brought up to a higher priority for international activities and events. More trees would be planted around and within the city. An increasing number of busses would be equipped with electric and hybrid motors and designed to be more efficient with increased passenger capacity and more user-friendly with handrails, air-conditioners, and lower, wider thresholds. Big pollution manufacturers such as chemical factories and iron-smelting plants would be either closed or moved to somewhere else. A clearer sky should be something worth all the money because, hey, we had to wear better suits as a global player! And those suits became affordable now because we were rich in revenues from all the investments from home and abroad.Unfortunately in reality we aren’t. 2007 saw USD 7.9 billion introduced to Shanghai alone and yet USD 0.81 billion only proposed in Urumqi as foreign investments. That looks like a huge fortune to me! You’d say. But for a province larger than Japan, France, Germany, and the UK combined, investments that amount to USD 0.81 billion would generate tax revenues quite inadequate to trade seemingly urgent budgets for better outfits – or rather awareness of environment. Environmental plans are being discussed and implemented to an extent that we now have small trees on some hills in the city, but they have never been fine tuned to the point where the Olympic committee would possibly consent to any sports event held in here. For one thing, there is quite a number of what we call “grand old buses” – busses that have been in service for more than ten years and therefore very much energy-inefficient and well-worn with earsplitting noises and ramshackle chairs and floors. For the other, haze – thicker than that in Beijing – has been hovering over downtown Urumqi for I don’t know how many years. The sky goes blue only when the smog has given way to a big rain or snow. Partly attributed to the fact that the city is located in a pit to impede ventilation, the sky grows grayer in winter when more coal-powered plants are up and running to heat houses, jeopardizing the health of millions of citizens.

When you so unfortunately got seriously sick, however, you’d better catch the next flight to Beijing before it was too late. The reason is not that there are no qualified doctors and nurses here, nor that your disease would be 100% cured in Beijing, but rather that the expertise in general is just only as good as maintaining an incidence of misdiagnoses and drugs abuse much higher than that in Beijing, one of the few cities in China that, by the guarantee of numerous incentives and opportunities, attracts the best of the best professionals in all walks of life.

A city’s attractive business card should also include education. Over the thirty years of openness to higher education, universities and colleges in China have been thriving and robust in producing millions of graduates, postgraduates, and doctors in social and technological sciences. “Education is the foundation of the nation’s everlasting development,” so goes a most popular slogan. Education itself, nevertheless, needs to be consistently upgraded to serve as a foundation for greater national development. With any form of development comes investment. In 2002, more than CNY 90 billion was funded for the nationwide education system by investments from governmental agencies, social organizations, and individual students. It should be noted that the investment from individual students – personal investment – took up 62.7%, the governmental investment 33.6%, and the social investment 3.7%. What might these numbers suggest? They simply revealed a fact that the thicker your pocket is, the better schools your local community will establish, and the more likely your kid will be on the road to “becoming a pillar of the future”.

Consequently, there was no sign of Xinjiang’s higher education institutes appearing on a list of 100 universities and colleges by teaching performance and scientific research in 2007. The list was prepared by China Academy of Management Science in a survey that concluded “Tsinghua University has been ranked first for 11 years, followed by Peking University and Zhejiang University.” Of the top twenty universities on the list, four are located in Beijing, eleven in a few cities in eastern China, and two in Heilongjiang province up in the northeast. As a result, college graduates would not hesitate for a moment to leave Xinjiang if they proved worthy of jobs in eastern China. Those who did stay or return are usually considered as losers. This funny notion has traveled so far and wide that I was surprised to get a reply from a translator in Beijing, “Your English looks awfully good! Are you really from Urumqi?”If only Urumqi could be Beijing for one decade…I was wondering, though, how many Urumqis are there in Asia, Europe, Africa, America, and the world as a whole? And how many cities, regions, and countries are out there being so much less privileged without Internet-connected computers, schools, hospitals, infrastructures, or even electricity that their citizens would cry, “Wow! Would I ever dream of this place!” when they by any chance had a tour around Urumqi? I am afraid that I will never be able to get on Google and find some numbers to these questions.

A city, a region, or a country in effect is a collective form of humans residing in its geographical components. Much of its political, economic, and cultural interactions with the rest of the world may well be translated into nature and behavior of any human being. You show me respect, and I show you mine. You humiliate me, I will seek revenge. You have what I think are candies, so I will trade for them what you think are sweets. You do not give me what I want? Fine, I have three choices then: (1) to negotiate tactfully; (2) to bribe; and (3) to find allies and fight. You don’t have anything in my interest? Okay…I’ll just leave you alone and partner with those resourceful guys who will help me get bigger and stronger and rule the world. These natural tendencies humans have in their genes are what have created many Urumqis and Beijings today. And yet there is one thing that differentiates us humans from fellow species: a high level of self-consciousness that constantly reminds us what should be done through what means to achieve what end. Your neighbor steps on your lawn, but you give him a little smile because he quickly says sorry. You and I are friends who are sharing with resources for the greater good in our community. This abandoned child looks so miserable, and I will adopt him and feed him and make him a competent partner of my organization for better resource allocation. But it takes great discipline and wisdom for anyone to behave like a civilized and loving man who knows how to create opportunities of a balanced growth for both himself and fellow citizens. For countries, wise strategies, smart policies, judicious regulations, and the will to enforce them.Some noises interrupted my thoughts. I looked around to find Mother and Father in an enthusiastic discussion about how wonderful this trip was. I smiled, feeling warm and cozy. Where will we be on our next tour? Will it again be a family adventure? When will it begin? The train clanked homeward. “So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality…” Alice’s story ringed in my ears. But the reality is dull no more. It is full of hope now with the old brick-shaped cassette player gone and new dreams to be dreamt.


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