Going to Toronto - and Windsor - i felt quite alienated. Toronto was as diverse as i remember, but far less walkable than i remember, even downtown. There were loud and stinky internal combustion vehicles everywhere, and every restaurant was meat and dairy fucking central. Windsor, being a small town slash lily white suburb of Detroit (depending on your point of view) was worse. So much guitar music. So much gluttony. It was a culture shock and i was happy to get back to China.
On this recent trip to the UK, London was meh, but Glasgow and Edinburgh felt like places i could get to like. Lots of vegan food. Cheap beer. House music. Mountains. Parks. Apartments. And freedom.
I mean, the kind of freedom that you don't have in mainland China.
Every newspaper is still blocked. It's not just the newspapers. Most image hosts have been blocked too, so a lot of blogs that do come through don't have pictures any more. Various free shell accounts and other technical sites that could be used to bypass the Great Firewall... gone. Especially with major protests happening just across the bay, coming back to a total internet blackout felt cripplingly repressive.
It didn't help that the coolest, greenest section of my work commute was destroyed while i was away. All the trees have been ripped up and concrete barriers erected. Even if they're just replacing the woodland shrubs with a "high class" manicured greenway, it's still fucked. Every wild thing here is just a prelude to a goddamn bulldozer. No one will handcuff themselves to a tree to protest road construction in Shenzhen. Or if they did they'd just be arrested and sent to a re-education camp.
The trees were gone and no one cried but me.
On the other hand, the lifestyle in the urban villages often makes China feel more free than cities in the west. At night the streets overflow with people. Old ladies dancing to techno music. Old men singing karaoke. Street vendors, many of whom surely don't have permits. People drinking beer and gambling and playing cards or chess. A couple of shops near my house haul pool tables out on the sidewalk and show costume dramas. Kids kick soccer balls around the temple courtyard. Fruit vendors brandish machetes and hack up melons and pineapples and whatever other goodies you desire. There is a sense of community. It's nice to be surrounded by thousands of strangers reclaiming the streets.
I've been thinking a lot about what i like in China, and this is it. The urban villages. The city life. It's what attracted me to this country - i wanted to experience the rapid and unprecedented urbanization first-hand. It's everything i imagined. If you are a city nerd, Shenzhen is truly incredible. It may not have all the cultural perks of European cities (notably vegan food or western-style pubs and nightclubs), but the convenience is unparalleled. Buses go everywhere, and they are all electric. Cheap eats. Share bikes. Mobile payments. Fully furnished rental apartments. Overnight or same-day shipping of anything you could possibly imagine. Fuck. It's great.
This week i got in a frustrating conversation with someone on a comment thread. They lived in upstate New York, and they were trying to make a point that nobody really wants to live in big cities, they only move there because of work. They claimed that literally every aspect of life in the big city was equalled or bettered in small towns. Apparently not only do small towns have superior access to nature, they also have world-class art, theater, food and music.
Which is, of course, ridiculous. I have lived in small towns. It is true that there can be fantastic restaurants in small towns. Some small towns have thriving arts scenes. But come on.
I tried to explain that people in cities don't just want access to one good restaurant, they want a dozen, and they want to be able to walk to each one. I told them that from my house i can not only bike to museums and markets and stadiums and theaters, but also to nature parks with hours-long trails. I said that many people in cities do not drive a car and never learned how. I pointed out that there is a lot more to the entertainment scene than just country music and classic rock, and that for some people finding a club that plays exactly their brand of quirky underground music is exactly why they moved to the city in the first place.
The guy continued to insist that there was a wealth of similar entertainment options in small towns, but admitted that perhaps cities were the right place for the small percentage of people who enjoy going to nightclubs and getting mugged.
Which is when i realized the guy was so out of touch it wasn't worth continuing the conversation. I sometimes forget how many rural people believe that cities are dangerous places. That was one of the most surprising questions people asked me when i was traveling across the US on routes that Greyhound has since canceled due to lack of ridership. For some reason, many rural folk are convinced that just walking around in the city you will get attacked, or that your house will be broken into while you are sleeping, or something. They seem terrified of other people.
Another thing they don't get is that city people don't have a problem sharing stuff.
A separate thread on the article featured some other country guy asking how anyone could have a hobby in the city, because there's no room to set up a proper workshop. Nevermind the fact that plenty of hobbies don't require a workshop, this guy couldn't conceive that there might be such a thing as a shared workshop. It was as alien as the idea that - given the choice - people would choose not to own a car. One guy was convinced that as soon as a person earns enough, they will always buy a private vehicle. As if carshare hasn't been a thing for decades. Or, you know, taxis. Still, to some it seems incomprehensible that millions of people happily spend their entire lives never once getting behind the wheel of an automobile.
I also found myself defending the fact that there are people in the world who legitimately prefer to rent. It was exhausting.
Then, at work, i had to do it again. The Chinese government - like many others - has a tax break/savings scheme for home ownership, which annoys me because i think the government should be building free houses for the proletariat instead of propping up the banking industry and property developers by encouraging the petite bourgeoisie to buy. Payroll thought they were doing me a favor by offering to sign me up for the "benefit", but why would i ever? All that money and paperwork just to own a chunk of masonry stuck in one spot that now needs regular maintainance? God, no. Renting is freedom. Growing up my family always rented. It's not because we were poor and couldn't afford a house, it's not some wacky cult thing, it's just how some people live.
Anyway, i am glad for LiveJournal because here i get to read the stories of people who own houses and live in small towns and other places around the world that are nothing like where i live. I hope it helps me to understand those lifestyles a little better. I don't ever want to become like those country folk who just point blank refuse to believe that anyone different to them could exist.
As for me, i am thinking more and more that i am a city kid. As much as i enjoy visiting small towns, and sometimes i daydream about life in a trailer out in the middle of Saskatchewan... in reality i think i'd miss the convenience. I'd miss the anonymity. I'd miss the freedom. I'd definitely miss being able to walk everywhere. I'll just look at country life through the window of LJ photo posts.
Well, the photo posts that aren't hosted on sites blocked by the Great Firewall. Sigh.