From Eastport to Suzhou
Flying from Chicago, we arrived at Shanghai, China, after a fourteen hour flight. It was 1:30 pm on August 11, 2009. The weather outside was hot, 90 degrees F., humid, overcast and rainy. We asked ourselves, why did we leave one of the most beautiful places in the world, Todd’s Head in Eastport, Maine, to be here?
It was our first visit to China. We were here, not as tourists, but, to work in an international school. We would be in China for the next two years. Our knowledge of China was only slightly more than the average American, having gathered more and more information about the country, in the last 6 weeks, since we had been hired. This time had been rushed, as we packed up our belongings, emptied houses, and prepared to go to the other side of the world to live.
The airport in Pudong, outside Shanghai, is sparklingly new. We deplaned, walking through a new terminal, with shiny stone floors, new signs written in Chinese and English. We followed the signs to immigration, passed through one people-maze, turned over our health sheets about potential H1N1 flu (the Chinese are particularly vigilant about this), on to passport control, where an officer motioned us which booth to step in line for, and at the booth the immigration officer politely scanned our passports and visas, before stamping them and sending us on to pick up our baggage. We were impressed with how efficient the Chinese are. We read the overhead monitor as to which carousel our luggage would be at and walked to it and found our luggage already on the rotating conveyor. We gathered our luggage onto an airport cart and trundled out into the main waiting area past numerous signs with names of people to be met. We looked for our names on a sign. Initially, we did not see our names, but going back for a second look we found them on a sign held by a young Chinese girl. We pointed to our names and to us. She told us in very fine English that her name was Ling, and she was our housing agent. She had a driver, who took our luggage. Ling led us to an elevator down to the large parking garage, where the driver loaded our gear into a minivan, opened the door for us and handed us a bottle of water. We got in, with Ling and the driver, and were on our way to Suzhou (pronounced like the names, “Sue-Joe”), where we would be living and working the next two years.
Suzhou, China, is about 160km from Pudong, or about a one hour and forty minutes car ride. On the way we were immediately struck by the wide modern infra structure. The roads were in excellent condition accommodating the traffic without traffic jams. We saw hundreds and hundreds of new tall apartment buildings. We saw electric towers, tens and tens of them, carrying complex wires connecting countless other wires, electrifying the masses of buildings.
When we arrived in Suzhou we were taken to our apartment, which the school had arranged for us. It was located in a relatively new building complex called Landmark Skylight.
The complex has over 20 high-rise apartment buildings. Our apartment was on the 26th floor in building 22. The buildings overlook one of the large lakes, Jinji Lake, located in Suzhou. Suzhou is an old city, over 2500 years old, filled with canals, and has been described as the “Venice of the East.” Over 6 million people live in Suzhou.
Landmark Skylight is located in an area of Suzhou called SIP which stands for the Singapore Industrial Park. The industrial park is a cooperative effort between the two governments of China and Singapore. What that name really means is an intensely modern showcase of the future of China. Here, all the buildings are new, modern architecture all surrounded by green space, water fountains or lakes, with art sculptures and walking paths of brick. There are canals with planted trees staked along their edges. This industrial park is not what the West defines as an “industrial park.” It is where the corporate offices of various companies such as Apple, IBM, Xerox are located. There is light manufacturing by companies like Black & Decker, Fairchild Semiconductor, and Panasonic. These offices/industries are the leading international corporations of the world. They are housed in the most positive, modern appointments, making it appealing to be located here. The corporations are given excellent tax incentives by the Chinese government and are encouraged to bring their executives and their families to work here and be schooled in the international schools, which are located here.
What is obvious in this modern industrial complex is the dynamic power of the international corporate influence. This city (the modern part of this city) is a product of world corporations and their agendas. The Chinese have given these entities what they want to be more and more profitable as the future becomes the present. So, consequently, these corporate offices are show-pieces; amazing curved architecture, sloping sides, glass and steel is unimaginable shapes. Everywhere you look are hundreds and hundreds of new buildings going up and many in process.
The building going on here is breath- taking—hard to describe. Along with all the modern tall, interesting shapes are the organized roads, boulevards with separate lanes for electric (only!) scooters and bicycles . Traffic moves with care and intent.
To create a modern civilization from an over-populated poor ancient one is a massive task. How to remove some the old and turn it into something totally different has much to do with governance and the country’s goals for the future. The wheels of change began here in the 1970s; change and modernization was the way things were going to be. The Chinese are a people coming from many areas with differences in language and customs, but they are homogeneous as a people. They respond to regulation, order and hard work.
All of the development here has led to jobs for the Chinese, and from the jobs, money. With money, people can buy things. The spirit of modernity is turning Chinese into consumers.
We went to a Chinese store named Auchan (actually a French store) on Friday night to pick up some things. This was the third time we have gone there. It is similar to WalMart…in many ways, but it takes consuming to a new level. It is similar in size to a Super Wal-Mart, has groceries and household, clothes etc. This store has 110 check-outs, which were not all in use, at the time we were there, only about 105 were! People were busily pushing shopping carts around looking at, picking up and getting any and all sorts of goods. The prices were comparable, maybe even cheaper than the US. Produce like fruits and vegetables were definitely cheaper. Items that were very popular…a huge crowd was waiting in line for cooked whole chickens which were being cooked not in the usual US supermarket rotisserie, but a giant rotisserie that held about 100 or more chickens at a time. The fish section was a whole aisle with multiple tanks housing everything from catfish to stingray. The meats, chicken beef and pork, went the whole length of the grocery store. If you want you can buy an electric motor scooter (most bikes and scooters here are electric), and ride it down the flat escalator to the lower level, you can. When you take your shopping cart on the escalator the cartwheels lock until you reach the bottom. One of the people we work with said he was in this store on a Saturday afternoon, and all the registers were in use with lines 10 people deep, he was trying to estimate how many people were in the store, and he came up with around 10,000! The Chinese have money and are anxious to spend it! Given how many Chinese there are, there is no way the US can hope to compete!
Almost every Chinese person here has a cell-phone and knows how to use it. Everything here in SIP is new and clean. Chinese people are all wanting to own cars. For most, the electric bikes
and scooters are their main transportation, but they see cars in their future. This is the next market for the carmakers. Volkswagen is already here and has been for a while as all the taxicabs are VWs. Toyota and Nissan are here, although maybe not as popular as in the US, as China has memories of Japan from past wars. Buick is popular along with some other US makes including Chevrolet and Ford. Pedestrians do not have the right of way as in the US. Cars zoom about, electric scooters move silently, and when you are on foot-watch out!
Granted we do know that Suzhou is not the true China right now, but it is the direction that China is headed. Clearly China is going to be the dominant country of the 21st century.