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After: One man’s trash

By 29 June 2009 No Comment

Of the three cities we visited, I most enjoyed Xi’an. Not because it was particularly nice. In fact, that’s exactly why: in many ways, Xi’an is kind of a dump. But what a fantastic and wonderful dump!

On one of my final nights in Xi’an I had a chance to speak with a girl who’d returned to the city after studying abroad in Germany. Her English, and presumably German, were excellent, but she had no desire to go to Shanghai or Beijing. They were too busy.

Sitting in that Starbucks, she told me Xi’an was more relaxed. And I agreed!

I realize this may not have been the popular sentiment among many in our group. Admittedly Xi’an had what I would colloquially refer to as “a hell of a lot of people.” But the main difference, I thought, came in how they moved.

In Beijing, everyone felt as if they were being pushed forward at all times – even the hutong (alleyway neighborhood) we lived in saw itself under daily reconstruction by migrant workers while residents watched on. Whether they liked it or not, this was progress.

Here in Shanghai, there is an ever-present pull toward the future, and I get the impression that there’s a drive to meet it. Unfortunately this is accompanied (and to a degree caused) by more exposure to propaganda for the 2010 Expo and its accompanying toothpaste-Gumby hybrid than I can possibly stand. But hey – live and let live.

Xi’an is nothing like either. It’s not even on the same wavelength. Perhaps it was simply the places I frequented, but it seemed to me that people were far more likely to simply hang out for the sheer, unadulterated hell of it. Not because it was tradition or trendy or because the government was encouraging it for social harmony. They seemed to be doing it because it was fun.

Xi’an showed that the two most famous urban areas in China can’t speak for the rest of its cities. Every city has a different character, and if you only traveled to Shanghai or Beijing, and not to Xi’an or the countryside, you could conceivably come away never knowing China had any problems and thinking it was on a clear-cut path in one direction.

Before this trip I thought I knew better. Now I know I know better. For all its traffic and haphazard construction, I enjoyed Xi’an.

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