Flesh-eating fishes and the Overnight City, part I

Guanxi (see last post) came in handy again this weekend: the lawyer for the school happens to be the lawyer at a nearby resort, and so some fellow teachers and I found ourselves installed in lakeside bungalows with a free ticket to the spa. It was even better than the 80 cent DVDs.
The resort was on the outskirts of Shenzhen, a coastal city adjacent to Hong Kong. In 1980, the Chinese government declared Shenzhen a ‘special economic zone’: a hopeful utopia where western-style market capitalism could blend with Chinese social (and socialist) values, generating prosperity ‘capable of satisfying the needs of any person or business,’ to quote a tourist guide I picked up.
Like any well-thought out act of social engineering, Shenzhen comes with a creation myth. I will attempt to paraphrase from a variety of disagreeing sources.

From the first days of population in the 12th/15th century until the 1970s, the city was a poor and backwards/idyllic and wholesome fishing village. Evil British/admirable-mostly-Chinese Hong Kong pressured/inspired Deng Xiaoping to grant ‘Special Economic’ status in 1980 in an attempt to resurrect China from the economic disasters wrought by the visionary/bat-crazy Mao Zedong. A windfall of hasty/miraculous foreign investment resulted in unprecedented growth: Shenzhen, colloquially known as the ‘Overnight City’, has been the fastest-growing urban area in China for the last thirty years.

That the city’s success revolutionized China’s economic system is undisputed. Whether or not that is a good thing is the subject of heated debate.

The drive from Dongguan to Shenzhen carves through the the hills of the Pearl River Delta on China’s southwestern coast. I’ve driven through the Pallisades in New Jersey and the Delaware water gap every summer of my life and always thought of hills as rolling. Here, they rise and fall like mini-mountains, or a choppy sea frozen mid-swell. Many are grooved with terraced rice fields, reminding me for the hundredth time of how long people have been living in China. Some look like they hadn’t been cultivated for centuries, but still bear the marks of human hands: trees grow in obedient rows, mountain streams turn at abrupt and useful places. I’ve never seen such compelling evidence that humans can control the natural world.
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Sunshine after an eclipse

The Chinese word for eclipse translates roughly to ‘Moon eats sun’. The entire school had the morning off to watch the twenty-minute event, which was only visible on this side of the world (a cool animation of the trajectory can be found here). We stared at the disappearing sun through thick layers of colored cellophane, which I’m pretty sure is completely insufficient for avoiding retinal damage.

This didn’t seem to be an issue. In general, care for the future seems to be in short supply here. From toilet paper to computers, everything is expendable. Toilet ‘paper’ is plastic-based, which means it can’t be flushed or recycled, but is carted off in loads of foul-smelling garbage. Electronics are routinely fried by power surges, but they are replaced instead of repaired. Merchants sell fake or faulty goods – admittedly at rock-bottom prices – because the chance of any one consumer coming back to a store repeatedly is small: there is such a multiplicity of goods, and people are so often on the move, that courting consumer confidence hardly seems worth the effort.

But I’m not telling the full story. Of course some people settle, and these people build up tremendously important networks. Anyone who has tried to do business in China will tell you about the importance of guanxi, connections. I’d always thought of China as an almost obsessively meritocratic culture – test after test, heirarchy into heirarchy. I’ve been surprised to hear people say that top government positions, business contracts, and even University admissions are not earned, but traded.
The supervisor at my school has close guanxi with a DVD seller at the local mall, where she took the English teachers last weekend. The DVDs, which were retailing for around $3, were reduced to 80 cents when she was standing next to the cashier.

I took advantage of the discount to buy Sunshine, the mostly overlooked movie Danny Boyle made between 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle manages to take an absurd premise (team of scientist/astronauts on a mission to reignite the sun) with predictable plot development (they go crazy under the pressure), throw in a sort of undead monster (he’s good at this – see 28 Days Later), and turn it into one of the most compelling films since Apocolypse Now, which happens to feature an absurd premise (soldiers sent into the jungle to kill a renegade officer), predictable plot development (they go crazy under the pressure), and a half-dead monster-human (Brando, how little we knew ye).

I first saw Apocolypse Now in London. When I returned the movie to a rental place on Earl’s Court Road, the wiry-haired clerk looked at the jacket and laughed.
‘That’s my movie,’ she said.
‘What do you mean, your movie?’
‘I was the music producer on Apocolypse Now. I chose all the music.’
I was impressed. ‘How was that? I mean – what was it like?’
The clerk smiled and waved her hand, as if wafting away the ghost of ganja past. ‘It was great. We all just sat around, smoked a lot of spliffs, and listened to a lot of groovy music.’
I wanted to ask her why she was now a clerk in a movie rental place in London, but thought it might be rude. It does make me feel perversely better about being a soon-to-be-unemployed Harvard grad. One more week of teaching! If I can just figure out a way to teach a class of lower-intermediate English level kids about sustainability…
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