Requiem for a Sangria

If you travel frequently, comparisons are inevitable. I took a long bus ride today and read a bit of the journal I kept last summer. I was working in Madrid, which is worlds away from China in every sense except literally. Comparing a typical day there and here in China says a lot about the differences between the two countries:
Sunday, 6 July 2008
  • Randomly met a musician from Cincinnati named Philip and a Quaker named Sue. Both in their forties, I think. Went to Reina Sofia (big modern art museum) with them.
  • Pitcher of sangria split three ways for lunch. Mmm.
  • Went to 2 exhibitions at CaixaForum (free gallery sponsored by Spanish bank). Exhibits on Alphonse Mucha and Charlie Chaplin.
  • Really need more supportive shoes.
  • On to the Prado. Depressed by Goya exhibit.
  • Walked through Retiro park. Hundreds of people come and drum on things in the park on Sundays. Loud.
Sunday, 26 July 2009
  • Informed that the teachers are being taken to Shenzhen for 7 hours of shopping. I am not enthused.
  • Walk around shopping area, think deep thoughts.
  • Take refuge in a Starbucks. Chat with English construction worker named Roy who has blown half a year’s savings to fly over here to see the eclipse. He spent much of the 80s hitchhiking around southeast Asia. Says Cambodia is the most beautiful place in the world.
  • Pass a street musician on the way back to the bus and wish I had time to stay and listen. Chinese violin is infinitely more tolerable than Chinese opera.
The comparison may not be fair: I did not spend all my Sundays in Spain museum-hopping, nor do I intend to spend every Sunday in China shopping. But it is telling that the supervisors in charge of the teaching program have taken us to a mall each of the past three weekends. And these are not like American malls, where you might find movie theaters or restaurants. Every inch of mall real estate is given over to shops. The idea of spending your leisure time looking at modern art or nursing a jug of sangria in the sun would be quite foreign to most Chinese.
Perhaps this difference in how the two cultures spend their leisure time explains why China is taking off and Europe is, in the rather apocalyptic words of my friend Etienne, ‘dead’ (for a not uncompelling counter-argument, see here). There’s something to be said for a robust consumer culture, or so Obama’s economists keep telling us. But I know where I’m happier, at least.
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