The real China

The last time I went to Shenzhen to join the company’s New Year dinner I went out with some colleagues. In the taxi to the restaurant a foreign guy from another department sat by my side and we started chatting. He told me he had lived in Shanghai for several years and asked me where I lived in Suzhou. “The Industrial Park”, I replied. “Do you know the place?”. “Yes”, he said, “I went there when I visited Suzhou”. Then he pronounced the following sentence: “But that is not the real China”.

I wondered what kind of place would this guy consider “the real China”. Then he said his favourite place to live was the French Concession in Shanghai. I don’t really know if with that he meant that he considers the French Concession to be “the real China”. I hope not, because… you know, French? Concession? Not exactly typically Chinese.

“The real China” is a mysterious place which no one seems to be able to pinpoint. But those words are frequently heard indeed. You want to study Chinese in China? Don’t go to Beijing, that’s not the real China, there are too many foreigners there. Shanghai? Too westernized and too many foreigners. It looks like one of the essential requirements to classify a place as “the real China” is that there are no foreigners.

I am not sure why my colleague considers Suzhou Industrial Park as not the real deal. Is it because this district was planned and built in cooperation with Singapore? Is it because it’s new, clean, with wide avenues, parks and lakes and no crowds? The real China has to be dirty, crumbling and crowded? Poor locals then! I will regretfully have to tell the approximately 2 million people (99% Chinese) living here that, contrary to what they believe, we are not in the real China!

Definitely not "the real China"!

Definitely not “the real China”!

When I wrote a post about this in my Spanish blog, a friend commented that her sister in law was definitely disappointed when she visited China. She was expecting to see small alleys, rickshaws, beautiful women wearing qipaos. I think she should have travelled in a time machine to the 1920s instead of on a plane to Shanghai in the 2010s! But my friend’s sister in law was not the only one having these thoughts. When I was in my previous job and colleagues from Spain came to visit the Suzhou factory they would invariably say: “I wasn’t expecting so many tall buildings!”. And when we visited the old streets of Pingjiang Lu and Shantang Jie they would confirm that yes, this was what they were expecting. The China of the past.

Ok Shantang Jie, you passed the realChinaness test!

Ok Shantang Jie, I guess you passed the realChinaness test!

Whether a foreigner considers “the real China” to be the countryside (with no foreigners) or the China of the past, it seems this is not a new phenomenon. I did a Google search for “the real China”. Turns out it is a very popular name for Chinese restaurants abroad. I tried with “what is the real China”. Then I found this article by the Council on Foreign Relations, which was aptly named “In Search of the Real China”. It talks about a book called “My First Trip to China”, with several accounts by China experts remembering their trips to China in the 80s: China scholars and average citizens alike still cling to their own personal notions of the “authentic” China, deeply rooted in the soil of their imaginations”, says the article. But my favourite part of the article is this:

My wife runs a travel company in China and marvels at the discomfort that her American counterparts feel toward this different China. She once suggested that one of them advise her clients to visit a Starbucks in our neighborhood, Sanlitun, one of the hipper corners of Beijing, and people-watch as eager shoppers stream through the cavernous Apple store next door. “Why should I send my clients to see that?” the agent asked. “That’s not the ‘real’ China.” Everyone wants his own personal rickshaw and rice paddy.

The thing is, in 2015, 56% of the Chinese population lived in cities. Crowded cities with skyscrapers, bustling malls, and bad traffic are more commonly “Chinese” than little villages in the middle of the countryside. But, don’t get me wrong, both are the real China. And the amount of foreigners in a place doesn’t make it more or less real, except maybe if we are talking about a bar full of expats drinking cocktails. Besides, if it’s not “the real China”, then what is it? A parallel reality? A theme park? The Truman Show?