China: Locked in the past or harbinger of future?

A man on an electric cart carrying a load of styrofoam drives past the China Central Television headquarters building Oct. on a polluted day in Beijing.
A man on an electric cart carrying a load of styrofoam drives past the China Central Television headquarters building Oct. on a polluted day in Beijing. AP

Few of us in Tacoma think of China very often. In fact, not that many of us know that Tacoma has a sister-city relationship with Fuzhou – a major port city on the east coast of China.

As some of us found out a few weeks ago, Fuzhou is the hometown of China's current president. Which is why the leader of the world's second largest economy came to Tacoma recently.

We learned more about China, but that doesn't make it any less mysterious.

Visiting China is like taking a trip 100 years into the future and 1,000 years into the past – at the same time.

China is a place where every encounter, every sight and even every conversation brings more questions than answers.

Is China a harbinger of the future? Or is it forever locked into a manual labor, serf-based feudalism?

Is China a model of state-run communism? Or unbridled cowboy capitalism?

Is China a culture obsessed with control as it seemingly monitors every citizen and visitor? Or is it on the verge of upheaval, collapse, revolution and chaos? How do cities with the populations of mid-sized nations even function?

The most amazing thing about China is that it does seem to work; the impossible becomes possible, impossible-looking buildings are being built, and seemingly infinite populations are being fed and housed – and educated. And monitored. Or not.

Is China the future? Is it teetering on collapse?

I’m attracted to places and situations that are impossible, ridiculous, contradictory, neglected and rejected. If it doesn’t pay, and no one else wants to do it, it’s for me.

That might have a lot to do with why I like Tacoma. And why I volunteered for a short-term teaching gig outside of Shanghai, China.

Shanghai, a city with almost the population of California, has one foot in the ancient, traditional past and another in a futuristic, high-tech fantasy.

A common European-based saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words. But in China, a picture raises a thousand questions.

Real Chinese food, as one might imagine, has almost no correlation to most Chinese food as served in North America. Most authentic Chinese food is unrecognizable, if not unidentifiable.

You won’t find Orange Chicken, fortune cookies (they were invented in San Francisco) or forks. But you will see animals – or animal parts – you would never expect to see on your dinner plate.

Ready for pickled vegetables and piping-hot soy milk for breakfast? How about stewed beef tendons or duck tongues for lunch?

Even those few restaurants that appeal to Western, English-speaking customers have descriptions that are less than helpful. How about chicken feet soup – for breakfast?

But it is not only food that makes Americans or Europeans feel like Marco Polo. The university where I was teaching (one of the largest and newest in China) did not have flush toilets – or toilet paper, soap or paper towels – in the bathrooms. In fact, the Shanghai airport featured helpful signs showing how to use a flush toilet – for those not accustomed to such things.

If you go to China, don’t expect to lounge in a Paris-style roadside cafe or to drink a toast like you would on a Mediterranean cruise. In China you’ll feel a spirit in the air that there are worlds to conquer and fortunes to be made, and no one wants to be left behind.

And good luck looking for the “real” China. The real China is as elusive and mythological as the “real” America.

What else captures the collision of the medieval and the Space Age more than freeways and high-speed railways being literally constructed by hand by armies of manual laborers with trowels, tools and techniques used for millennia?

And, yes, virtually all social media sites are blocked (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many more); monitors, guards and watchers are everywhere.

Every street scene seems to veer between unleashed chaos and obsessive control. Cities with populations of mid-sized nations are the norm.

Yes, China is messy, corrupt, crowded and oppressive beyond description. Every experience is surreal and expansive beyond human recognition.

Many people I know hate and distrust China in a way and with an intensity unlike any other nation. China is frustrating, incomprehensible and packed with filth, disease and squalor. And opportunity.

Perhaps, in its own way, China is the new land of opportunity.

Tacoma resident M. (Morf) Morford, a former reader columnist, lived in Beijing for a year and visited the Shanghai area in May. Email him at mmorf@mail.com.