Dear, dirty Dongguan

(Originally published in The Greenwich Citizen)

There’s a silver lining to every cloud. My career as a foreign teacher in southern China’s Guangdong province ended early, which means I got to start traveling sooner. Part of the (very generous) compensation package for my job was a ten-day guided tour around Hunan province, Guangdong’s better-looking neighbor to the north. I’m not usually a fan of guided tours: they’re not flexible, they’re not immersive, and they’re not cheap. But it’s hard to say no to something that’s free.

It’s not long before someone on our tour comments that you get what you pay for. By the second day of our trip, we’ve spent eighteen hours on the bus. I think I am the only one in the group who doesn’t mind. I love watching the scenery change, and realizing all the things you miss about a country when you fly over it. Crossing the border from Guangdong into Hunan reminded me of why states have such jagged edges: they follow natural contours in the land, like humans had to before we started dynamiting through hills and stringing suspension bridges across rivers. The Guangdong-Hunan crossing takes us through a range of forest-clad mountains and deep gorges. It is somehow comforting to see that nature has created an area so intimidating that even Chinese industry can’t cultivate it.

Inside Hunan, there’s little to differentiate the highway from the New Jersey Turnpike aside from the roadside advertisements. There aren’t many of them, and those that exist tend to offer industrial goods: mobile phone parts, concrete mix, and in what I can only assume is a blissfully ignorant transliteration, ‘Strong Safe Screws.’ China’s highway system is used almost exclusively for industrial transport. The highway is smooth, fast, and underfunded by the government, which means that the tolls are high – prohibitively high for most Chinese, who rely on trains instead. This will likely change as the booming middle class starts to make enough money to construct that spoiled child of the developed society, the suburb. For the moment, however, we share the road with trucks, tour buses, and the occasional expensive car.

During a rare stretch of bottleneck on the highway, my bus is stuck next to a truck full of hogs. They are piled on top of each other, looking forlorn as prisoners on the way to the guillotine. Which I suppose is more or less appropriate.

The roadside rest stops are all identical. Each has a convenience store, a restaurant with no name, and a bathroom. In the first, the familiar signals for ‘vacant’ and ‘occupied’ were reversed: green meant someone was inside, red meant empty. It reminded me of the years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1956-76) when overzealous members of the Red Guard student movement declared that it didn’t make sense to stop at red lights, since red was the color of the future. From 1966-69, green meant stop and red meant go. The scale of the resultant traffic jams made the Greenwich-New York rush hour commute look like a jaunt on the Autobahn.

Leaving the highway is always an adventure. On the way to a remote village, we spend three hours lurching over potholes and around cows on an uneven dirt road. Hunan is just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, and I can imagine the green of the hills being overpowering in sunlight. But sunlight eludes us on all but one day of the tour. In a total of five weeks in China, I have seen a blue sky twice.

I leave the tour in Changsha, best known as the city where Mao converted to Communism. City really isn’t the right word. It’s more of a megatropolis: streets wider than Pennsylvania Avenue, buildings taller than New York’s skyscrapers, and everything under construction. The place already looks decrepit, even though most of these buildings can be no more than ten years old. The whole rhythm of life is accelerated here: buildings spring up in days, so it shouldn’t be surprising if they look ready to fall down in a couple of years.

Dilapidated architecture and squat toilets aside, I’m sad to leave China. It’s impossible to spend more than a month in a country and not fall in love with some parts of it. I’ve just made it to Mongolia, and I find myself missing the chili drenched squid I used to buy on the street and the irate looks my students would give me when I asked them to do grammar exercises. There is so much more to say about China, but, in the familiar words of Stephen Colbert, that’s all the time we have for tonight.

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