In three days, I will be on my way to China. On my last trip there, the country was still in a transition phase from a somewhat backward country to an emerging economic leader. It has always been a large presence on the world map, but its people were invisible for a long time. The Beijing Olympics was still 9 years away. The country may have still been celebrating its success at being invited into the WTO. It was finally shedding layers of uncertainty from the dreadful Cultural Revolution. On my last trip, there were no smartphones or even a decent subway service (not that I recall seeing a subway train in one of the largest cities). The most popular show was a period drama series. There was no WeChat or Baidu or Youku. Owning a laptop was still the envy of many people.
Fast forward to 2018. Today’s social and cultural landscape is very different. The citizens crave what Westerners have long taken for granted. Whereas Michael Kors is just another brand to us in the West (nothing to see, move on), it is a status symbol in China. Whereas my Chinese relatives love American cars like Cadillac and Buick, I grew up in a 1985 Oldsmobile, which was known more for its defective fan belt than any other quality. There is an obvious market for brand names in the new Chinese economy. Technologically, China has outpaced Canada in smart phone usage. App services such as AliPay are the brain child of savvy Chinese techpreneurs. Wealth has taken on a new dimension among the Chinese. It was not long ago that only the best and brightest or the lucky few were sent abroad. Today, as long as you have resources, a vacation in the majestic Rocky mountains of Banff, Canada is not out of reach.
Of course, the China I know today exists only on television and in Youtube videos. And of course from anecdotes. I have not personally experienced China since 1999. I fully expect to be pleasantly surprised, shocked, inspired, and disappointed. My relationship with China has always been a mix of admiration, sadness, despair and hope. Perhaps, this vortex of emotions is what makes these trips to China so worthwhile.