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When I arrived in China, I expected to meet people sporting red armbands and green hats, like icons from a 1950s propaganda poster. So when I began seeing young people in Beijing that broke this mold – Mohawk-sporting musicians, tattooed skateboarders, extreme-sport enthusiasts – it seemed more significant than what this same behavior might mean back home. Thus the question: In a country that has put so much stock in conformity, do new forms of self-expression represent small but meaningful forms of rebellion?
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The early morning scene in a Chinese public park is part Lollapalooza, part Jazzercise convention and part Karate Kid, with just a tinge of One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest. While youth might rave or hip-hop the Shanghai night away, it’s the seniors who rule the dawn.
On a typical early morning in Zhongshan Park, no fewer than 17 activities share the walkways and grassy enclosures. From badminton, ballroom dancing and tai chi to table tennis, Chinese elders have taken the government’s physical fitness call-to-arms to heart. . . .
It’s 9 a.m., my eyelids are heavy with sleep, and the Sofa Café doesn’t open for another hour. The café down the street also has an hour and a half to go before opening time.
“What type of coffee shops don’t open until 10 in the morning?” I ask Hao Ziduan, my interpreter, while walking with her through Shanghai’s tree-lined streets, punctuated with café’s, coffee shops and restaurants, in my quest to explore China’s coffee culture.
“Coffee for [Americans] is different than coffee for Chinese people,” she tells me. “For you, it [helps you] wake up. For Chinese people, it is [an opportunity] to sit around and talk.”
While Hao’s assessment is accurate to some degree, coffee in its various roles has taken China by storm. Every morning, a stream of Chinese walk into their local Starbucks, emerging with a cup of Joe to go. Inside, the scene appears equally familiar to the Western eye — students study at tables stacked with textbooks and coffee mugs while businesspeople talk shop with clients.
The fifty-something woman with curly hair peered into my eyes and asked me in Chinese, “How old are you?” When I told her I was 20, she laughed good-naturedly and immediately drew me into a conversation about her life and family.
Recently retired, she lives in a senior citizen center in Yuxian, a small city three hours’ drive west of Beijing, where her days were filled with dance classes. To my delight, my new friend’s degree of candor quickly escalated. She started sharing the rather intimate details of her children’s lives with me. As fellow members of the center showed off flamboyant dance moves in a performance for our group, the woman told me about that her daughter had three children, a clear abridgement of China’s one-child policy. She then proceeded to outline her daughter’s medical history in surprisingly frank detail. Before coming into China, I had assumed that cultural norms here rarely permitted the discussion of intimate matters with a stranger, much less a foreigner. Her openness was as surprising as it was refreshing. . . .
“Can I smoke in here?” said Wu Jiang, 27, glancing around the lobby of a Beijing hotel with annoyed nonchalance. Without waiting for a reply, the shaggy-haired film student lit up his cigarette with a hint of rebellion.
“I started to listen to rock ‘n’ roll,” he said when asked when his interest in shaking the status quo first began. “I wanted to be a rebel.” While many of his high school classmates prepared to enter university, he waited until a few years ago to enter one of China’s most prestigious film universities — the Beijing Film Academy.
Wu said his parents have rejected his choice of career and lifestyle, preferring that he establish himself in society as a “normal” person without calling attention to himself.
Beishe is a village located in rural Shaanxi province, a two-hour drive from the ancient capital of Xi’an. While change has come to Beishe over the years – the introduction of electricity, an increase in motor vehicles and other labor-saving devices, and overall improvement in the quality of life – it has come at a much slower pace than in the country’s booming urban centers. This video offers glimpses of a day in the life of the people of Beishe, who manage to honor age-old rhythms in a time of dramatic national transformation.
In Xi’an, you can hear the buzz of a Starbucks espresso machine and then, five minutes later, after a stroll through center of town, experience the sound of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer at the Great Mosque. The area known as the Muslim Quarter swarms with tourists haggling for souvenirs and imitation goods with men in white caps and women in head scarves belonging the local Hui minority. Yet as in many other minority communities, the migration of urban youth threatens a traditional way of life. . . .
In central Beijing, I walked past a guy sporting a T-shirt that said, “If hope is fire, and future is smoke, life is a cycle of smoke following fires; light seven fires and see smoke erupt from eight places.”
I asked the man if his shirt held some philosophical interpretation, but he said: “[It's] just for fun.”
When I asked for his name, he wrote “Fearless” in my notebook. I thought he was kidding, so he gave me his business card. A blogger and freelance T-shirt designer, he actually goes by the nickname Fearless. . . .
Bai Zhuxian’s modest eatery is easily overlooked amid the many retail signs that decorate the bustling streets of central Xi’an. Just around the corner, Chef Wong’s Prosperity and Fortune Restaurant, boasting both neon lights and promises of what could only be good things, could bewitch any passerby.
Yet the vast difference between the two establishments does not lie in their physical exteriors but in the attitudes of their chefs. “When you go into the kitchen, all you deal with is smoke and grease…” Wong says.
When Li Zhuyou was 19 years old, his house, literally, came falling down around him. The collapse of the shoddily constructed building injured his leg so badly that he’s walked with crutches ever since. For several years he managed to work on the wheat and corn crops in his village, but three years ago the physical strain proved too great and he had to abandon his plot. And with it, his dignity.
Li, now 39, is a beggar in the streets of Xi’an. “Begging isn’t a good way to live, but it’s my only choice. . . .”