My wife Nancy and I have been in China just over two weeks now and we’re finally beginning to find our feet again. I’m here teaching a six-week course in English language public speaking at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University. It’s one of some 16 such institutions in Xiasha, a suburb of the northeastern city of Hangzhou. Each year, Ligong (Sci-Tech) sends an English language public speaking team to Beijing for the national competition. My job is to get them ready.
They’re an eager bunch, my students, willing to do whatever I ask of them. I have two sections of around 20 students each and we meet on Wednesdays and Fridays for an hour-and-a-half per class. The rest of the week is mine to do with as I please.
As part of the deal, we’re housed in a furnished two-bedroom apartment that includes a flat screen TV, free WiFi, and a washing machine. It’s on the third floor of a seven story apartment block in a gated community called Beyin Gongyu.
When I say “gated,” I mean gated with a capital G. There’s a guard shack at both the front and back entrances, and a turnstile that requires a special electronic key to operate. In our two previous visits here the gates were always wide open.
In fact, I’m noticing stepped-up security in all kinds of places that didn’t used to have it, like at the entrances to the metro stations, where we’re required to put backpacks and purses through an x-ray scanner. I’m not sure why the increased surveillance, although rumor has it that it’s in anticipation of the G-20 summit scheduled for this summer in Hangzhou.
Another thing I’m noticing is a huge increase in the use of smart phones and other technology. A couple of days ago on the metro, I was stunned to see that virtually everybody in the car had his or her eyes glued to a device. There’s wi-fi on the trains so you can check your email as you make your way. And, as in the States, you can now pay for things using your phone.
Despite what you may have heard about China’s economic downturn, things seem to be pretty affluent here, as in lots of designer stores with Lamborghinis parked outside. Since we were here three years ago, a new mall/office tower/metro station called HEDA Town has opened not ten minutes walk from our housing complex. Mainly what it’s got are high-end restaurants, a Starbucks, a bakery, a KFC (one of three within two blocks of each other).
One of my former students and his girlfriend took us to the “Hot” Restaurant in HEDA Town. (“Hot” is not an adjective, by the way. It’s the name of the place). There we shared a big grilled fish covered in a spicy sauce with diced vegetables and served on a communal platter. Delicious. About $40 US for the four of us, which would be cheap Stateside, but for China that’s a lot of bread…er, rice.
The staff at the Hot were clapped out in identical black unisex outfits – baggy at the crotch – with sunglasses and stingy-brim hats. Midway through the meal, they all stood up and did a funky line dance that looked like a mash-up of patty cakes and Michael Jackson.
I haven’t yet mentioned the cute young serving girl, fresh from the countryside and unused to interacting with Westerners, who came over to our table to greet us, just gushing with pleasure and excitement at the sight of us. How often do you see such innocence in the world these days? It’s one of the things that endears China to us. Another is the sheer energy and optimism of the place. Faith in a brighter, more prosperous tomorrow hold sway in this country, and it’s a pleasure to be around.