I have alluded earlier to the differences between the China of this interior region and the China of the Coastal region. There are many more differences than this standard, oversimplified generalization, but for the sake of a brief discussion I'd like to use it. One of the posts was an invitation to those who would be in Beijing during the Summer Olympics. I stressed that there were differences between the "two Chinas," and encouraged people to venture inland. What I haven't much talked about are the differences that we experience as volunteers and the differences someone who has never been to China might see.
When we arrived for training one year ago, the very first place we saw was the Beijing airport. I was immediately shocked by my surroundings and I thought that the place was a little underdeveloped. After catching a connecting flight, we landed in Chengdu. I was even more troubled by the crowds of people and seeming disorganization, not to mention the condition of the airport itself. Arriving at our hotel, a sign read "Don't drink the water," and it was directed at the 65 volunteers who were lugging several heavy suitcases through a line to pick up our name-tags at 3 a.m. before we officially slept for the first time in about two days. We moved in with our host families and became accustomed to our lives there. We learned to accept the conditions of the colleges at which we received language, cultural and technical training.
And then, two months later, we visited our sites. It wasn't too long: just a week to get acquainted with our surroundings and meet the right people. We went back to Chengdu and made final preparations for our move to our new homes. Some people didn't have much readjustment to do. They lived in cities where other PCVs could be found, or even other foreigners. Places like Chongqing, Chengdu, Guiyang and Lanzhou became different to me. At first they were places I compared with America, but now they are places I compare with Anshun. At first they were elusive places with strange customs, but now they are beacons which harbor small luxuries that do not exist in Anshun (mostly food).
In my daily life I see, hear and smell a lot of things that I no longer notice. These things have become a part of the daily milieu into which I have integrated (even if hundreds of staring Chinese have not). What happens is that we get together, the PCVs, I mean. We meet and talk about our experiences and our teaching and our lives. Inevitably we make comparisons with things in America or someone will make an argument that something is "wrong" with how China works. I have become increasingly sensitive to these statements because people are making some fundamental mistakes in their reasoning. I have begun my own argument.
China is big. China is filled with different places and different people. Although there are certain aspects of culture that permeate the deepest hill countries and most backwater towns, the differences are often a result of economic hardship or harsh landscape. The truly difficult distinction is when an event occurs which cannot be separated from culture, just as it cannot be separated from poverty. When poverty and culture intertwine, the scenario becomes something that even someone in Beijing or Shanghai would watch with curiosity. The China that many volunteers see on a daily basis is the China in which the land and poverty and culture come together to more completely conceal the reasons for certain actions. This stretches across a continuum: from the street to businesses and actions taken by people in a school who are trying to solve a problem. Each place will have its own unique reasons for doing things or making certain decisions.
When people from the outside look in, there are certainly differences between the "two Chinas." These differences might be a bit different for people who are watching from outside, and people who are living inside. I never wanted to presumptuously claim that one China is "real" or not. They are merely different.