School one: As I approached my very first classroom now I am back in China, some children saw me through the window and let out a whoop as the bell rang. They surged out of the classroom ahead of their smiling teacher to swamp me with their bodies, hellos! and thumping my hands and arms with attempts to get a handshake or just to make sure I was for real. “Fame at last!” I cried to the teacher in Mandarin and she burst out laughing, welcoming me to the school and giving the traditional compliment about my spoken Chinese. When I got home that day, the missus, Marion, AKA Chookie, was glowing from her first day of school and carrying beautiful handmade cards with “Welcome to China” painstakingly written in a rainbow of colours by the children and a large box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates. It was Women’s Day and she had received gifts from children and teachers alike. I managed to get a paw on just one of those chockies.
School two: I teach at two schools and two days later I stood outside a building which looked more like the entrance to an apartment block, which confused me. I was slowly mouthing the Mandarin characters emblazoned on a turret-like slab of granite, Loufeng Xuexiao … (Loufeng school) to make sure I was at the right place and the cheery security manager marched up to me and asked in Mandarin, “Are you the new foreign English teacher?” Foreigners (non-Chinese) stand out like pretty, pink-skinned thumbs as we are still as rare as orchids here. I still find when I catch buses and walk down streets I am the only laowai (foreigner) among the hordes. So the gentleman was hardly even guessing as he saw me dubiously approach the school. “Yes I am,” I replied in Chinese and he snatched my hand with his large warm one and nigh pulled me over the threshold into the school, nattering away in Mandarin at top speed, assuming I could understand him when I was only getting maybe 60% of the hearty gush of words.
There is media talk of strikes and riots because of the recent food price hikes and a grim picture is painted of China, showing protesters hauled off by police in Shanghai and other cities. Indeed, just as I have read and seen in the news while on a year’s “sabbatical” in New Zealand, the prices of food and some other basics have definitely gone up. In fact, here in Suzhou, a city I had only visited before, I was mildly taken aback by some prices when I went into one of those wonderful “wet markets”. These are gaping caverns on street-sides among apartment villas and resemble at night the glowing embers of a dragon’s jaws with their gas-lights fizzling on long rows of vegetables, fruits and a variety of eggs. A toothy light pierces purple onions the size of small pumpkins and that strange fruit I had not seen before China, dragon fruit,longguo, a plume of bitter-sweet succulence resembling the fiery breath of a dragon. I was delighted to see once again the hopping bags of orange netting shuffling about because they contain enormous, rugby ball-shaped frogs, and then there are the fish plunging out of tubs on to the pathway only to be thrown back by the cigarette smoking, squawking merchants. Your produce does not come any fresher. And the people are happy, friendly and often so serene in their dealing with me and one another. Grim picture?
The reality on the ground — like my last five years in China — is simply not what is shown in the blip footage on the news. Am I now a propaganda mouthpiece for a country that is once again my home? No. The real grassroots China that I have experienced in several of her provinces is just edited out of the news.
A Jasmine Revolution for South Africa and, perhaps to a lesser extent in comparisons, China, appears to be all the rage in columns and email conversations at the moment for South Africans home and abroad. Moeletsi Mbeki recently wrote a strongly worded piece, “South Africa: Only a matter of time before the bomb explodes”, predicting a revolution of sorts in South Africa by 2020. The huge difference between China and South Africa is that the masses in SA are angry. Bitterly furious. The Chinese are not. One reason is that service delivery is woefully inadequate in South Africa. In China the service delivery is excellent on all the basics: utilities, a superb, cheap, safe transport system and school education with hot, nutritious lunches served for all children at schools; it’s awe-inspiring.
The Chinese will revolt against … what? A mild price hike? It won’t happen. Certainly the Han race by and large is too happy. Slightly intoxicated by a mix of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism in their culture, which even shows in their often somnambulant manner of strolling, so unlike the cracking pace of the Kiwi or British (pub time, mate), the Chinese have a joie de vivre and a serenity I have never seen elsewhere in my globetrotting. I am not saying that it is right or wrong that there will be no serious civil strife and I am not sure if such a simple binary opposition applies in China. It is just how it is. But in SA, to repeat the cliche, it has not become a question of if, but when there will be a revolt. Though that revolt may also just be a slide into an even deeper apathy.
This article first appeared on Rod’s The Mocking Truth column on NewsTime