Why I believe I can live in China
China is in continuous flux and that makes it an attractive place to be in, discovers Nitin Chaudhary
Scoring a taxi in the rush hour traffic gridlock of Beijing is nearly impossible. There is no Uber in China, and I didn't have access to Uber’s Chinese alter-ego DiDi. At eleven in the morning at the choked intersection of Wudaokou, after sweating in a caustic cocktail of the harsh June sun and the black automobile exhaust for nearly half-an-hour, a taxi finally stopped. The driver hastily waved me in. I fumbled with a note containing the address, of which I had forgotten to take the Mandarin translation. The driver didn't understand a word of English, which is not uncommon even in the big cities of Beijing and Shanghai. I tried to explain by talking slowly, decomposing phrases into syllables, but with each passing second the driver’s restlessness grew. I was wasting his time at this peak hour.
Just when I thought I will be thrown out, the driver fished out his smartphone, opened an app, and indicated me to speak into it. I hesitantly spoke, my words dissolved somewhere in an invisible ‘cloud’, and out tumbled a crisp robotic translation in Mandarin. The driver knocked his head back; he finally understood what I had been trying to tell him. With the help of Baidu’s translator, which is likeGoogle Translate, we spoke throughout the twenty-minute ride. In a foreign country, if you can interact with the taxi drivers and hairdressers, however haltingly, you've overcome the communication barrier. Now I can finally live in Beijing, I told myself when I got off the taxi.
“I would love to live in China,” I said to my wife when I returnedhome to Sweden. She rolled her eyes; she had heard this from me many times before, in effect after every trip to China. I wasn't surprised by her reaction; for with whoever I have shared my wish of settling down in China, they generally react the same way. Why would I, living a comfortable life in Sweden, where language and food are not a problem, wish to trade my life for the polluted, alien Chinese cities?
“I feel China is the place to be in,” I would offer as a weak justification.
Now, I never ventured much beyond Shanghai and Beijing, and my perception of China is coloured by its big sheeny metropolises. Moreover, no single epiphany led to my desire to live in China. Rather, it was a snowflake of a thought in my first visit that consolidated into a rolling snowball and gathered momentum with each subsequent visit.
When I first came to Shanghai in 2008, I found a city completely different from the one that I had read about in history books. Once Shanghai was a disregarded coastal city handling minor trade volumes, and European backpackers sifted its streets for the orient and the opium. What I saw instead was a city transformed, with its layered flyovers and skyscrapers popping out at break-neck pace one after another.
“The new reality is that we are living in a world running at ‘Chinese speed,’” a Danish friend, who I was travelling with, ruminated when he learnt that in the past five years Shanghai has added 20 new lines in its metro network, totalling a spread of 400 kilometres. Elsewhere, such growth would be unheard of. That visit was a visible proof of how action was shifting from the West to the East. Wouldn't it be fun to be a part of this growth story? I wondered.
In my next visit, I stayed for another week in Shanghai to study the city. From the window of the hotel room, I could see a slum by the side of Bund; one of the few remaining corners of Shanghai where poverty is still in sight. I went inside, and found immigrants who either work in the construction projects in the city, or then there are those who hawk fruits, live crabs, fish and snakes, and cheap plastic goods on the streets. The small enclosed square is also the recycling centre of Shanghai and hundreds of labourers, including children, sieve through discarded waste. In contrast, the paseo of the Nanjing road, one of the busiest streets in the world, is an unblushing parade of luxury brands: GAP and Cartier with their twinkling blue neon lit megastores stand firm next to the diaphanous Apple store.
I realised that the only common denominator between the two otherwise inconsistent corners of Shanghai is people, in hordes, and who occupy every imaginable corner of the city. Despite its contradictions, Shanghai grew on me. I wished to live here, amid its confusion that in the same breath reminded me of my careless years in Delhi, and my more organised life in Sweden.
I found Beijing a shade less international than Shanghai, but it compensates with its rich history and culture. In the mornings spent in Beijing, I would go out for a run to Jingshan Park, from where I could see the Forbidden City spread out. On the weekends, I would walk through the Art 789 district or Tiananmen Square, before invariably ending along the Shichahai Lake for a pub crawl and live music in the evenings. Poverty is less hidden in Beijing, and communication morechallenging. So when I discovered through the taxi driver how technology has addressed that challenge, I was thrilled. Beijing, which I had earlier discounted given consistent language struggles, is yet another option where I could see myself living.
The big question now is how to convince my wife, who believes thatmy love affair with China is an infatuation. Probably she is right that it’s the entrepreneur in me, driven by the fear of losing out on the growth opportunities in China, who is craving to spend the best part of my life there. I reason otherwise: China is like an awkward adolescent, haphazardly trying to control her fast growing limbs, and that scares away people. Instead, see it also like a crazy innovator, moving fast and breaking things, but also shaping the future. Why wouldn't one wish to learn alongside it, and preferably from within it?
A version of this story appeared in The Hindu