I am now in Beijing. And yesterday, I had a chance to participate in the local version of a traffic jam. I can now say that I have experienced the international traffic jam at several of its locales: Mumbai, Moscow, and now Beijing. How miserable, a waste of time, money and the ozone layer. How shall we fix this?
I was driving back to the hotel around 7:00. Just the right time to see exhausted moms and dads making their way home in one direction passing, in some cases, their own children, beautifully dressed, going out for a night on the town.
It was dusk, always evocative, and the city had an anguished beauty. Glimpses of life on this outdoor patio and that factory compound coming at me with force, like a recollection from my deep past but of course it manifests itself in circumstances that tell me that the sensation MUST be illusional (if not delusional). Strange, someone else’s nostalgia. Jet lag, it’s a very odd thing.
I have been coming to China for 20 years. When I first arrived, the hotel experience was strange. I would place an order for breakfast with room service, and eventually some guy would show up with a toaster, a piece of bread and a look of confusion. He knew something was required of him but he wasn’t sure what. Within 15 years this exercise in amateur theatre had been replaced by note-perfect hospitality. I mean really perfect. And this trip, evidence of the transformation continues. This hotel (the Shangri-La) is actually better than perfect. Everything from service to design is superlative, much better than anything I have ever seen in the West (with one or two exceptions).
So it 20 years, this Westerner has had the opportunity to watch China move from a country struggling to catch up to a country that may now be poised to pull ahead. Yes, the Shangri-la is a hotel with Western connections. Yes, hotels are not the best place to judge larger patterns of change. (And surely an anthropologist of all people should know this.)
But in an imperfect world, we take any measure that presents itself, and by this measure, China is now finished with catch-up and will someday begin to pull away. This is a country moving at time-lapse speed. It won’t be long, perhaps, before it passes us and disappears into the future.
The building pictured is from the software park in Beijing. It was taken through a taxi window. Hence the patina on the window.