Kevin Bjorke
Kevin Bjorke
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Shanghai (C)2004 K. Bjorke

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome to an area of turbulence” announced the hostess, just a few seconds after the Air China 777 had lurched and shuddered, prompting gasps and exclamations from around the plane. Enroute from Shanghai to Beijing, sitting next to a 40-something woman in ocelot-patterned tights, her eyes closed as she was lost in the synthpop from her MP3 player, the hostess’s sentiment seemed perfectly apt.

China’s scale is hard to grasp — thinking of it in terms of statistics reminds me of those diagrams showing how many earths can fit inside the planet Jupiter. We’re coming up on the Chinese National Holidays, conveniently coincident with the time of the Autumn Moon Festival. While in Bejing, I was astounded by one of our hosts’ assertions that during the 2003 holidays, China Telcom has transmitted over six billion SMS messages between pagers and celphones. This in a country where 70% of the population is still rural, and (three decades after the Cultural Revolution) the top 5% of citizens own over half the wealth. 6 billion in an urban population of 350+ million… 18 messages each? Busy!

Beijing and Shanghai have both seen massive surges in population over the past decade — as much as 30% of the population has arrived in those years, mostly imported from the countryside. Most of them work in low-level jobs. A friend in Shanghai commented that she didn’t feel confident speaking Shanghainese dialect to most staff at restaurants any more — all they ever seemed to understand was the nationalized putonghua Mandarin. I couldn’t help but think that this language difference could spell a durable class distinction within the city, just as the French and English concession areas once defined language-based barriers of their own, many decades ago.

Yosemite Villas is the name of a new luxury housing project in the Beijing suburbs, an “American-style gated community.” Hard to imagine anything on those flat plains gaining the name of “Yosemite,” but then again there’s no shortage around here in Santa Clara of just as unlikely street names.

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