2003: welcome to China

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Brian Hennessy. China Australia Consult. 2003

I was feeling apprehensive despite the excitement. China seemed so far away from Australia and my familiar Western culture. The China I had heard about was an out-of-date model shaped by the experiences of an older generation. Emotive words like, Communism, Red China, and the Cultural Revolution kept popping into my head. What kind of country was I travelling to, and what was I letting myself in for? This was 2003. Well before the global financial crisis and China’s rise to international prominence.


2003. Welcome to China

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I was the only foreigner on the Dragon-Air flight from Hong Kong to Chongqing – a mountain city on the Yangtze River deep in the hinterland of China. My sense of distance and isolation reinforced by an unfolding landscape below. Wild mountain ranges, giant plateaux, and steep river valleys. Roads and villages and townships appearing out of nowhere, then disappearing just as quickly.

Deflecting a few last minute doubts. Where will I live, what if I can’t find work, and will I have difficulty adapting to life in an inland city where expatriates are thin on the ground? Reminding myself that I have wanted to do this for years, and that here I am now – doing it.

Two hours later I see this famous inland city with a wide-bellied Yangtze snaking through it. My God, this is no cultural backwater – this is rising China. Shining glass towers soaring above the ridgelines and the river below. Dusty grey tenements covering the spaces in between. Winding climbing alleys and thoroughfares threading their way through the older areas of town.

It was late afternoon on a rare sunny day, and it looked so beautiful and exciting down there. I can handle this, I murmur to myself.

The first shock occurred as I left the baggage collection area. There was no barrier and a bustling, noisy crowd had surged forward blocking the way. Pickpockets, thieves, and con-men were sure to be active here. Take care Brian, I cautioned myself as I wove through this confronting mass of unfamiliar people.

In fact, they were local people awaiting the arrival of friends and relatives. That’s all. It’s every man for himself here. There are no queues in China.

Jetlagged and disoriented, and with no directions in English, I didn’t know which way to turn. And because I was the only Westerner in this old airport (a new international airport would open soon) I was marked as easy prey by the touts and taxi-drivers who waited in ambush outside. So many new friends wanting to help me open my wallet. All of them motivated by a local dogma: Westerners are rich.

I keep moving. Eyes fixed on a distant point as I walk a straight line through this noisy hustling mob and out onto a busy street where I rustle up my own taxi (it wasn’t easy, folks).

“Chongqing CBD. Hotel. OK?”

He nodded, I got in, and we drove away. Half an hour of sheer terror later he dropped me off at a two star hotel in a grimy side-street not far from a steep rocky incline tumbling down to the muddy Yangtze below. Nowhere near the CBD.

A streetscape that might have had some charm 50 years ago and another welcoming committee hanging around the hotel entrance. Waiting to pounce.

I look around and notice a large sign in English saying, The Bank of China. And that’s when it hit me:

Culture shock.

My God, I am really in China now. No familiar signs, places, or people. Just a swarm of helpful locals wanting to carry my bags and escort me into this dodgy hotel.

Me with one hand on my wallet, the other fighting to hang onto my luggage – I fear I will never see it again if I let go – and trying ever so politely to tell this mob to get lost and leave me alone because I don’t need their help and I can do it myself and no I don’t need another taxi.

Alone in a crowd. No language. Everything noisy, smelly and strange. No personal space, just wall-to-wall Chinese. So difficult to restrain oneself and not lash out and yell: “For heaven’s sake, leave me alone, I can do this myself – I don’t want all this unasked for help!”

My fault for doing it on the cheap. I should have pre-booked into the Chongqing Hilton where the welcome would have been more restrained.

My God I could do with a cold beer. But how do I ask for a cold beer in Chinese? And how do I say I am hungry? All I want is a sandwich and I will be happy. No way. No room service. No cold beer, no sandwich, and no happy.

Worse still: no wall-posters exhorting the masses to unite and smash the imperialists and capitalist roaders. No police, no soldiers, and no overt evidence of totalitarianism and repression. In truth, I was a little disappointed. This is not what I expected. My western baggage included more than my backpack. I would have to adjust my prejudices.

In fact, as the weeks and months ahead would confirm, I was entering a different civilization. But I didn’t know that then. Ten years later it is a different story. Now I operate in two societies, and call Chongqing home.


Old airport. Chongqing

Bank of China

New airport

Chongqing today


 

 

 

 

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