I got James Fallow’s “Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China” on sale from a local bookstore in Pondok Indah. At Rp. 35.000, it was a bargain not to be missed. I actually have had my eyes on this book for some time. But somehow I had never found the right reason to buy yet another publication on China, especially when many of them have remained unread ‘til this very day.
In the end, I was happy with my purchase. It was worth all Rp. 35.000, and probably more. After reading just the first few paragraphs, I became hooked. I felt that I just had to read the entire book immediately; the other books on the shelf will have to wait their turn. I figured out that reading 260 pages in the next few days would unlikely be a problem.
Fallows explained that the book comprised of articles written between 2006 and 2008 while he lived and worked in Shanghai as The Atlantic Monthly’s China correspondent. I couldn’t help but think that that was almost the same period as my stay in Beijing. Actually, I was in China longer, having arrived in Capital Airport’s Terminal 2 in October 2005, and then leaving the brand-new, high tech, most awesome Terminal 3 in March 2009.
Then, I had an idea, a simple enough idea. If Fallows had lived in China at the same time as me, then not much from his book would differ from the way I looked, analyzed, and understood China. Of course, as a journalist, he probably had more time to wander around the country and write down an insightful mélange of ideas. But at least, the topics that he would raise should be in line with some of the things that ran around my head at the time.
Simple enough, eh? Fallows’ book would provide a way to gauge my 3.5 years experience in Beijing. If much of Fallows’ views did not ring any bell, this would mean that my observation of China had been lacking. And if I nodded my head enough during the reading of the book, that would mean I had experienced the same feelings and sensations.
In his book, Fallows described the country as a complex, diverse, and often, a contradictory entity. He stated: “I have not been anyplace that seemed simultaneously so controlled and so out of control. The control is from on high – and for most people in the cities, most of the time, it’s not something they bump into. What’s out of control is everything else”.
Fallows’ writing was in general an easy read. Then again, the fact that I had had immense interest in the topic may have skewed my opinion. He wrote about, among others, China’s nouveau riche, its industrial prowess, the media and the internet, Macau’s growth as the region’s gambling capital, and the Chinese leaders’ perception of the world outside of the Middle Kingdom.
I totally recommend this book to anyone who is interested in China, both rookies and experts.
There were things Fallows talked about which I completely missed during my stay in China. One of them was his account of the growth of television reality shows, in which he described the new Chinese spirit for progress. I guess, I should’ve watched more Chinese TV while I was in Beijing, instead of AXN, HBO, or the BBC. Through such reality shows, Fallows introduced me to the various sentiments growing among the Chinese people with regards to nationalism, entrepreneurship, camaraderie, and… I guess, reality.
As well, unlike Fallows, I didn’t have a chance to meet very, very, very rich Chinese people like air-conditioning tycoon Zhang Yue. Zhang is different from what people assume as today’s Chinese industrialists. His company is a world leader in central air-conditioning systems that use diesel or natural gas instead of electricity. Yes, he likes his expensive toys like private jets, stretched limos, and gargantuan mansions. But, at the same time, Zhang is at the front of making China more energy efficient, and hopefully, more environmentally friendly.
When reading the chapters on these two topics above, I suddenly felt that I hadn’t learned enough about China. It made me feel somewhat disappointed at the times I had wasted while loitering aimlessly through the hutongs of Gulou or when I wallowed on a heart break or two.
Then again, I was probably too harsh on myself. Other parts of the book would later reveal that I may have just been focusing on different things about China. Things that Fallows preferred to look at in a different way.
In his account of the Olympics, Fallows focused on internet freedom (or the lack thereof) in China. I guess its kinda natural for a journalist to discuss about freedom of speech. I had an eventful Olympics period in Beijing, and if I had to write something on it, I’d probably write about ticket scalping and the Chinese people’s sense of entrepreneurship. I’d also probably write about how the Chinese made the Olympics not the international event it was supposed to be, but instead a local, coming-out party dedicated for the Chinese people. I was so surprised at how little foreigners were in some of the Olympic events, and how easy it was for Chinese people to get tickets compared to foreigners.
In his account of the Wenchuan earthquake, Fallows chose to write about corruption and the complex relations between central and regional governments in the Chinese system. His perspective on this issue was something that I shared. But just to be different, I maybe would’ve written about the time when I witnessed Chinese solidarity in the middle of traffic in downtown Beijing. A week after the earthquake happened, at the exact same time when the earth had shook Wenchuan, everybody in Beijing stopped their car, got out, stood still, while honking the horns of their cars. It was a magical moment of solidarity, which, I (of course) didn’t have a chance to record on my mobile phone.
So, maybe Fallows did write about some of the things that I never really thought of or experienced. But, then again, there were things also that I experienced which Fallows didn’t pen down in his book. I knew what I had done those summers in China, and I knew what they meant in terms of China analyses. Maybe Fallows and I just saw China differently.
This all leads me to (at least) these conclusions:
- There are so many perspectives with which to observe, analyze, and understand China and the Chinese people;
- While many prefer to treat China as one, the truth is that China must be one of the most diverse, complex, and dynamic countries to analyze (definitely more so than, let’s say, Canada, where I lived for 9 years, and saw changes that were mostly “Chinese-looking”);
- I should learn more Chinese so that I could understand Chinese reality shows;
- I should’ve written a book describing my 3.5 year experience in China;
- I must write this book if I ever get a chance to live there again; and
- Damn, that was Rp. 35.000 really well-spent.