Editor's note: This is a letter from Graham Smith, a writer, teacher, and long-term China resident, who shares his views on the changes that have taken place in a Chinese city where he first moved to more than a decade ago.
I recently moved back to China, having spent six years back in the UK. Having lived in a medium-sized third-tier city in Jiangsu Province and then Tianjin and then Beijing the first time around, I've come full circle and returned to the city in Jiangsu I initially moved to in 2007. (I'll keep it unnamed, if that's alright). I hadn't visited it in nine years, so the changes both to the city itself and life in general seem phenomenal.
It's a much-repeated truism that China is developing rapidly, but sometimes it's useful to step back and delineate exactly what has gone and what is new.
The city I found in 2007 had about two million people in the urban areas. I chose it because I was offered a job teaching at a university, which provided an apartment and meals on campus, while the students would also have a decent standard of English, which I thought would make things easier for a newcomer. (I had never previously been further east than Budapest, so felt an understandable degree of trepidation).
It was a great introduction to China, far from the Western imports of Shanghai and Beijing. There were maybe 10 foreigners in the entire city, so there wasn't an expat bubble. But because few students had ever seen a foreigner before, they constantly remarked "Laowai!" or "Hullo!" when I passed by. It might have been understandable that they would comment on such a novelty, but it grew very tiresome. The university's old campus was just outside the city center, and between them were two streets filled with numerous tiny mom and pop shops and restaurants, selling some of the best noodles I've ever had in my life (you could literally watch the cook slice them off with a razor) at very reasonable prices.
There weren't much leisure facilities: there was a pool and snooker hall with spittoons on the floor, KTV bars, bath houses and a dreadful smoky nightclub, the memory of those toilets even now fills me with horror; but that was about it. Shopping for Western items was difficult: for items like decaffeinated coffee, oregano, or pasta I had to take a five-hour bus to Shanghai and then hunt out the foreign food store in some upmarket hotel. The local supermarket astonished me with its tanks with live eels, turtles and frogs, and customer service was an idea just taking hold. (I remember one hot day asking for ice with a drink, and the consternation and confusion of the waiting staff). When buying any larger item you had to see one salesperson, who would write out a receipt, and then another, where you would actually pay money. It felt like you bought things at the convenience of the shop.
But now? Now it's very different. The city center has been massively redeveloped, knocking down the little shops and restaurants for giant plazas and shopping malls. A tram glides back and forth in the street in front of the university gate.
Shopping is a totally different experience. E-commerce is everywhere. Previously I had never used Alipay or WeChat, but this time I have yet to use cash for anything. Meituan delivery riders in their yellow jackets are highly visible, and make ordering food incredibly easy. Taobao similarly makes buying household items a frictionless task. Young people now have the money to be fashionable, with girls in Japanese Loli outfits and boys in upmarket denim and sneakers. The new shopping malls reflect the priorities of the population: in one of the largest, with eight stories, floors two and three are dedicated to educational and extra-curricular activities for children.
Taxis, once so cheap and plentiful, can't be easily flagged down any more – it's all about ordering them through Didi. (In Beijing where I would sometimes spend half an hour trying to flag one down, this must be an absolute godsend). The roads are perhaps even busier, but the driving seems significantly better. Car horns, which once peep-peeped like bats trying to blindly navigate, now honk less vociferously.
Smoking seems also to have substantially declined. In 2014, according to the medical journal The Lancet, two thirds of Chinese men smoked, and there were few genuine restrictions on doing so indoors. But according to the 2018 China Adult Tobacco Survey, smoking among Chinese aged 25-44 and 45-64 has decreased significantly. It feels like a genuine sea change.
Meanwhile, the tower blocks throng all through the city, not just in the center. I don't recall seeing any before, but now there must be hundreds of 30-story tower blocks. There are several massive shiny new office blocks too. And the pace of life seems significantly quicker.
This isn't the sleepy backwater of 13 years ago. This is now a city bubbling with life, in the way that China does so excitingly.
And no one has called me laowai.
A writer, teacher, and long-term China resident
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