Many western people who have never been to mainland China seem to have a great deal of preconceptions about what it’s like to be there. Images of thousands of people riding bicycles, over-glorified paintings of Chairman Mao, and everything at the dollar store comes to mind. In fact, judging from the number of doubtful looks I got when I informed them that people REALLY do not eat dog, snake or scorpion over there (and haven’t done so for decades), shows me that in the west we really don’t know a lot about the everyday life of people halfway across the globe.
During my stay in Xi’an, I saw first hand how the Chinese lifestyle is changing at the hands of unprecedented economic growth. The city is famed for being the home of many dynasties of Chinese emperors, ancient Buddhist temples, and its prevalent Tang dynasty architecture. Today the city is changing faster than ever. All around me I saw highrise apartment buildings being erected, overshadowing the ancient sites of Xi’an, framed by the silhouettes of cranes. The importance of all these ancient places is not overlooked. Archeological findings are reported virtually every time before a new building goes up to preserve the findings there.
Meanwhile the newly built subway system, makes mass transit a realistic possibility for a sprawling city of eight million people. Two years ago everybody just rode their bikes everywhere they went, often times they were overburdened with a heavy load towering over the cyclist. By contrast, most people drive cars now, and they’re surprisingly nice. BMW’s, Audi’s, and Mercedes are not uncommon on the road. There is even a Lamborghini store not far from the ancient city wall.
More than anything the leisurely life of the Chinese people dispels the image of a backward Chinese society. Nightclubs and bars are increasingly gaining local popularity, but the local opera houses also remain packed. Fast food is quickly gaining a foothold as well, but the healthy local cuisine is still far more popular. Everybody even owns an iphone, or the newest Samsung Galaxy S phone.
Xi’an, and China as a whole is a place where old an new can co-exist side by side. In the face of the chaos of rapid modernization they haven’t lost what is most important to their identity; culture. Simply put, China is progressive.