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The Pagoda Seekers

Last updated by meganeaves at 2008/9/29; Destinations:

China is a country of paradoxes. Nothing can really prepare the average, self-respecting foreigner for the reality of modern China. I'm currently sitting on a hard seat in a double-decker train berth between a young woman studying Korean and an older gentleman whose tattered brown leisure suit and threadbare navy polo shirt give away his meagre income. Around us sit the average people of this country - blue collar workers and students - while dirty, over-used luggage and plastic bags are shoved and stuck hastily into the small overhead shelving. One disgruntled train attendant roams the aisle, her messy bangs falling lightly into her eyes as she scans tickets and notes down passengers. Although we are on a train between the two largest cities in one of China's richest provinces, I am still a foreign anomaly here, which speaks volumes about the average Chinese person's day-to-day reality. Nothing I do is uninteresting to my onlookers, from scribbling in my miniature notebook to adjusting the headphone in my left ear. It's not that mp3 players are uncommon - I can count at least four within direct eyesight - it's that I'm uncommon.

Foreigners come to China for different reasons, but the variety of expats here is somewhat categorical and easy-to-predict. Generally, there is a group (of teachers, businessmen, and the like) that lives in a foreign bubble, never straying to the more "Chinese" corners of the country. They run in expat circles, go to western bars, and remain stuck on their home-currency ideas of cheap (meaning 65 yuan for a train seat is a bargain!).

Another group, I've taken to calling the "pagoda seekers." These, too, come in a variety of forms.? But their common thread seems to be a pre-formed idealisation of China, which they obtained prior to arrival, inevitably from an ivy league education in Asian studies, a historical novel, or a glossy-cover coffee table book on the idyllic scenes of this country. These people have a kind of inspired belief in what China is - or more, what they believe it should be.

In some ways, I feel for those who arrive here and inevitably face a crisis of identity as they realise that all their former conceptions of China were simply misguided. I've also observed, on one or two occasions, cases of individuals who spend all their time trying to make China into the country that exists in their fantasy, usually by frequenting places that are, in their minds, "more Chinese."

I can understand the pagoda seekers' motivation. Certainly, it is, in some way, easier to go to expensive, Ming dynasty-themed tea houses and dime-a-dozen, non-functioning temple pagodas, than to admit defeat. But the China of today has more to do with shopping at Gucci in Shanghai than it does with "restored" (e.g. rebuilt) Buddhist caves, more to do with temples converted into kitch-markets than serene mountaintop pagodas, more to do with cell phone providers than Peking Opera.

In trying to understand what drives the average Chinese person and, in turn, what really drives this mass of a nation, I have resigned myself to the realities here. China isn't without its charms, let me say. The food is divine, but you must be willing to sit in the dingiest, open-air restaurant with loud TV soap operas and spitting men yelling in local dialect as your soundtrack. You have to prefer your tea served out of a huge, tin teapot into a cup you need to wipe down first. And you have to find some kind of ironic beauty in the fact that, driving down a rural road, you are likely to spot a man in a pointed straw hat hoeing a field while chatting on his mobile and smoking a cigarette.

If you're searching for the real Chinese experience, you're unlikely to find a serene hilltop temple anywhere. But go stand in line for hard seat tickets in Suzhou Train Station. It's here, amid the farmers carrying bundles of cabbage, and shopkeepers toting huge red and white canvas bags full of cheaply assembled merchandise, university students chattering, with wildly innocent faces about the newest Jay Chou rap song or the prices of PDA units; amid the common men in cheap, black dress shoes, and small families of three buying cotton candy and KFC meals for their spoiled "little emperor" sons - here exists the real China.

Yes, something about pagodas and dragon dances and rice paddies cloaked in misty fog got us here. But here is really the China of now - the China where the rich live on millions and the poor on just $90 a year, and where everyone in between creates a massive racket of turmoil and trash and beauty just clamouring for a way to co-exist.