Here's part of "Tricky Living," copyright by Russ Walter, first edition. For newer info, read the second edition at

I don’t recognize China anymore

China is far, and China is close. It’s tens of thousands of miles away, and it’s just at the other end of my phone.

Report from the year 2000

It’s the year 2000. On the Internet, I’m reading news in Chinese everyday from Yahoo China and many other Chinese websites. I’m amazed to see how fast China is changing. China now is so modern that I can hardly recognize it anymore.

DVD or VCR When I went back to China in 1998, I saw people using DVDs. I never heard about it at that time. When I said I was using a VCR, my friends laughed and said they weren’t using VCRs anymore.

My mom came to the US to visit us in June 2000. While she was flying across the Pacific Ocean, her photos showing her boarding at Shanghai’s airport were already sent by digital camera to our computer, from my relatives in China.

China is dressy Every time I went back to China, the first things to do were perm my hair and buy new clothes. My dear relatives usually would indirectly suggest I was not dressed well enough, though I was wearing the same dress praised by my American friends.

One thing I like about the US is you feel okay wearing anything you want. Nobody cares much if you’re poor or rich.

In China, city women seem dressed up all the time. Many of them buy expensive clothes & makeup stuff and go to salons every week for hair & face treatments.

Newly rich Though most people in China aren’t rich yet, some did become rich as a result of China’s ex-leader Deng Xiao Ping’s policy: “Let some people get rich first.”

Some Chinese-Americans who went back to China (to work or do business) complained they couldn’t bear China’s lifestyle of “banquet every night.” They missed their quiet American lifestyle, which they feel is better for their kids and families.

People in China criticize overseas Chinese (especially those returning to China from America), saying “They talk fancy (they speak Chinese with English words here and there) but look & act cheap.” The overseas Chinese reply, “If you people who got newly rich by staying in China had to pay high taxes like us, you wouldn’t criticize us like that.”

Open door to outside Between 1949 (when Communist China was founded) and 1976 (the end of the Cultural Revolution), nobody in China had private property: everything belonged to the public. Everybody worked for the “country” and earned some money for a basic life. People gradually forgot about getting rich; they cared more about how to survive political class struggles. Some tried to enjoy a rich spiritual life in arts, literature, and science.

In 1976, continuous political class struggles finally ended, and the country started to open her door to the outside. To her shock, China found a different world outside: in developed countries, people work for themselves and enjoy a wealthy life.

Advanced, rich, modern Western countries aroused China. Smart Chinese, who’d been too proud of their great ancient science, art, long history, and rich cultures to bother learning from other nations, now longed for advanced technology and management.

For a long time, the Chinese government kept arguing about “Socialism or Capitalism?” Finally, Deng Xiao Ping’s famous “cat theory” (“Black cat or white cat, the one that catches mice is a good cat”) led China into today’s economic reform and prosperity, called “socialism China-style.”

Report from the year 2002

China’s “booming economy” and “weak foundation of laws” have caused a lot of bad phenomena: corruption, bribery, smuggling, robbery, and prostitution have become serious problems.

Corruption In the 1970’s, a mayor made not much more money than a factory worker. An official who embezzled 1000 yuan (one US dollar equals about 8 yuan) was considered to have committed a big crime and would face severe punishment. But now corruption cases appear in Chinese news websites every day, some involving millions or tens of millions of yuan. A few high officials were sentenced to death for big corruption, but even the death penalty seems unable to stop corruption.

Prostitution After 1949, the Chinese government prohibited prostitution, and for decades it was dead. The only case I remember seeing was in 1985, when a middle-aged countrywoman was sentenced to death for the crime of “underground organizer of prostitution.”

But the new fast-growing economy has brought prostitution back to life. Though it’s still prohibited, it flourishes in some nightclubs, salons, inns, and streets.

Second wife Another strange phenomenon is “er nai,” meaning “second wife.” A small number of men with money or power secretly live with an illegal “second wife” in a second home, even having a kid.

In the old days (1940’s or earlier), some wealthy Chinese men married two wives or even more. Now some newly rich men ignore the law and try to follow their forefathers. They get a lot of criticism and will have legal trouble.

Sex China used to be very conservative. Up through the 1970’s, I think most people married the first person they dated. A girl who dated more than 3 men usually got a bad reputation. In those horrible “class struggle” years, anybody having extramarital affairs or adultery was treated like a “class enemy” or criminal — and thereafter lived a shamed life, if not in jail.

Now nobody feels strange about seeing a man and woman live together before or without marriage. Changing boyfriends or girlfriends constantly is normal. Many movies are XXX. TV talk shows discuss sex. TV ads claim to make breasts bigger.

Report from the year 2003

China doesn’t look like a communist or socialist country anymore.

Just 5 years ago, the government still insisted it was trying “socialism China-style.” But now it’s stopped mentioning that. Instead, materialism dominates the whole country. One Chinese commentator said, “Beijing’s streets are full of people dreaming of getting rich.”

Privatized From 1949 (when the Communist party came to power) until 1976 (the Cultural Revolution’s end), China had no private business. After 1976, small private businesses appeared. Now most businesses are owned privately (except for a few big government-owned enterprises).

New buildings are built by private builders. Many factories, stores, restaurants, and hotels are owned privately. Real estate is priced 5 times higher than 5 years ago.

Gap The gap between the rich and poor keeps getting bigger. Many people earn just 10,000 yuan per year (1 US dollar equals about 8 Chinese yuan); some rich people earn several million.

Many people in their late 40’s or early 50’s got laid off with a pension of between 2000 and 8000 yuan per year. 2000 yuan isn’t enough for even a simple rural life; 8000 is barely enough to live in a small city.

People in the countryside have no pension. Some country areas are still very poor and get limited help from the government.

A few of the super “newly rich” enjoy the rich lifestyles they never dreamed of: some travel around the world, play golf, ride horses, drive Benz cars, have parties in fancy restaurants & nightclubs, live in fancy houses in different cities, have maids for housework, send their kids to the best schools overseas, and even buy millions of dollars worth of houses overseas, paying cash.

Back in the 1970’s, Deng Xiao Ping proclaimed, “Let some people get rich first.” Now most Chinese folks cynically call the newly rich the “Rich First” and call themselves the “Rich Later,” to kid that they themselves might get rich later according to Deng Xiao Ping’s proclamation. If they get rich soon, China will be the best country in the world.

Most Chinese people think they live much better than 20 years ago, so the reformation is good. But some think it’s worse because, in “Mao’s time,” you all worked for the country or the public; you felt and were called “masters of the country,” especially the working class. But now, suddenly, you must work for a person who used to be your fellow worker or someone who was no better than you except for luck. He becomes a big boss and gets rich and you become his worker and stay poor.

The original idea of Communist society was: all businesses and all properties belong to the public; society should be highly developed materially and spiritually; its citizens should work their shares according to their abilities and get paid according to their needs. That would be the ideal world to live in if it could come true. Unfortunately, when Communist parties came to power (in the Soviet Union and China), instead of focusing on economic development they kept fighting “class struggle.” Meanwhile, since those who worked hard got paid about the same as those who worked less, there was no incentive to work hard. Moreover, some intellectuals were named “class enemies” and lost opportunities to contribute their knowledge; others had to use “half the heart” worrying whether class struggles would crush them. As a result of all that, the economy crashed, and the country plunged into poverty.

The Chinese people and their government were smart enough to change that situation before it was too late. Now they’re doing well — better than anyone expected. The recent success of sending an astronaut into the space and having him return shows that Chinese technology has great potential.

Report from the year 2004

Russ and I went to China on January 19th. It had been 6 years since my last personal visit. It was Russ’s first time to go. Both of us were excited.

Russ said he was looking forward to the long flight, so he could finally sleep without interruption. Poor guy!

Travel through China Our first surprise was the airports in Beijing and Chengdu. They must be brand new. They’re very modern and beautiful, like the great ones in the US.

Then we took a bus through Chengdu. The city was not familiar to me anymore! Workers had constructed tall buildings and huge billboards, all new to me. So many cars, bicycles, pedestrians… The city looked busy, lively, and prosperous.

On the way to Jiangyou (2 hours north of Chengdu), we saw about 35 broken cars, all lined up on the highway and facing Chengdu, apparent victims of a chain-reaction car accident. It was Chinese New Year’s Eve. Drivers were standing by their cars, looking sad, their New Year’s Eve family parties ruined. But I noticed most of the people were dressed well, and some of the cars were fancy. They must be the “new rich.” (Six years earlier, less than 1% of the Chinese drove cars, since cars were owned just by state-run companies.)

Condo My family welcomed us with a grand meal and a brand new condo!

3 months before this trip, my mom told us about the condo being for sale, so we’d bought it: 3 bedrooms, 1½ baths, on the 5th floor of a 7-story building. Now we finally got to see what we bought!

Upon entering, after lots of hugs and greetings, we were awed by the beautiful floors, windows, ceilings, fancy lights, and outside views. Russ said this was as beautiful as New York City’s best! But it cost just $22,000, even including major furniture! (That’s because it’s in Jiangyou, a medium-size city. Housing prices are more than twice as high in Chengdu, and more than 5 times as high in Beijing and Shanghai.)

Living it up Basic life is wonderfully inexpensive in Jiangyou and even in Chengdu. Every other day, my brothers and sister took us out for dinner. Then Russ wanted to treat my whole family. We reserved a dinner for 20 people in a private room in a nice restaurant. Two huge round tables (each having two layers, the top one turning) were piled with delicious and beautiful dishes to share. There was so much food that we could hardly finish half of it. It cost just $85 to feed all 20 of us. Jiangyou is still a paradise of bargains for consumers like us, though fancy restaurants and hotels in Beijing and Shanghai can get as expensive as in the US.

But even in Jiangyou and Chengdu, a few stores are expensive. A shirt can cost $200 in some foreign-influenced clothing stores and department stores, which are so beautifully modern that I thought I was in America.

Street scenes Traffic was a mess. Every time I took a taxi, I was scared to see that the driver constantly drove across the yellow center line to pass other cars.

Some streets weren’t clean. Trees, flowers, and plants were covered with dust. You’d just have a desire to grab a hose and spray water on them.

In front of our building was a huge new park inside a traffic rotary, about the size of a football field. At night, colorful lights shone on the grass. In the mornings, people did all sorts of exercise there — walking, dancing, Tai Chi boxing, Chinese traditional swordplay, Chinese drum-team practicing, and colorful Chinese fan dancing.

The first morning, when Russ looked out our window, he was so excited to find activities there even in winter. I asked him, “You want to go?” He said “Sure,” hurriedly put on his coat, said “Maybe too late,” then looked out again and said “Some people are leaving. Too late!” We ran downstairs, crossed the road, and were still in time to join a group doing swordplay. Seeing Russ, a “foreign guest,” they stayed longer and show us their fan dance. Russ even had a photo taken with them!

People dance there every night also (except when unusually cold). Anybody can join and learn to follow their steps.

On sunny days, people come to sit around the flower gardens, take a walk, and fly kites. Too bad there’s some litter.

Retiring I have some “retired” relatives and friends who used to be teachers, accountants, and officials.

They look too young to have anything to do with retiring. They’re smart, professional, full of work experience, and full of energy. But they were “early retired” from organizations that downsized.

Every morning, they get up late. Some take a walk, then breakfast. After breakfast, they shop for lunch groceries, then cook lunch. Playing mahjong (a popular 4-person gambling game resembling poker) becomes their major activity.

They don’t feel good about themselves. They envy me because I work and I’m still “useful.”

Happy farmer Sichuan has a new kind of eatery, called a happy farmer.

Those eateries started in a farmer’s house but got bigger and fancier. Some are as big as a school and include many buildings, open areas (with tables for tea and mahjong), natural beauties (plants, flowers, and ponds), and restaurants. One in my hometown includes entertainment like the “Tibetan bonfire dance.”

Those eateries charge a lot less than regular restaurants. You can spend a whole day there, drinking tea and playing, with a meal, for just $3 total.

Is China poor? I visited a happy-farmer eatery with my former colleagues, who were teachers. We talked about America and China. While playing mahjong, one retired teacher complained, “An unemployed person in America must get more money than me.” I laughed and replied, “Look, you’re wearing nice clothes and own a nice condo. You have pork, chicken, fish, rice, bread, vegetables, milk, and eggs on your table. You have health insurance. And you don’t have to work at age 55!”

Some Chinese think everybody in America is rich, and some Americans think all Chinese are poor.

Some regions of China are still very poor. Many people who got laid off are still poor.

Today the gap between the rich and the poor is very big, among the biggest in the world. China needs to work on it. That’s what I bothered me most on this trip.