At Home in China: May `01

The City

They said that I wouldn't recognize Canton, but they exaggerated. I recognized several parts of the city, and at its core, on street level, things seem pretty much the same as before.

However, landscaping now brightens much of the city, shiny new apartment buildings now lift the skyline, and the city is now encircled by a highway system where traffic flows smoothly. The outer areas of the city are especially nice (though, at times, disconcertingly suburban); they're certainly no longer the fields or the neverending string of dusty construction sites that I saw before. All in all, Canton is now a very pretty city.

Construction continues everywhere, still more than in any American city (even Salt Lake, which has been gearing up for the 2002 Olympics) but it no longer dominates the city. Even the current construction sites have a neater quality; around the bamboo scaffolding is a neatly installed green construction netting, as opposed to the draped read-white-and-blue striped canvas of the older sites. White tile for building exteriors has been replaced by stucco in pastels that would be at home in San Francisco. All in all, buildings that are a 2-3 years old seem to be of much higher quality than those 5-10 years old.

The pollution has at least not gotten worse, I think, though the city air is certainly bad. Conservation is emphasized in China, now. I hadn't seen or heard birds in the city before, but a few seem to be back. And the area around White Cloud Mountain is prettier, in part because farmers are no longer allowed to cut down vegeation in the park.

Automobiles are about as common as they were before, but half of the bikes have disappeared, aparently made obsolete by the subway system. I didn't get a chance to ride the subway, but I expect that it's like all subways everywhere. In general, getting places is much easier than before. Traffic on the new highways tends to flow smoothly, though traffic jams due to construction are still fairly common.

We spent most of our time, as in previous visits, at the (recently renamed) Guangdong Foreign Studies University. It's still a village of its own, next to White Cloud Mountain, and changes there are more subtle than elsewhere. Underground gas lines were going in while I was there.

Just outside the walls of the university, though, the city seems to have grown right up against it. It may be that the improved roads merely make White Cloud Mountain appear closer to downtown, but I think that the city has actually spread out. I'm told that the population of Canton is now 9 million (others say 4 million; I imagine it depends on what you call "Canton"), but the more astounding assertion I heard is that the population is expected to grow from 9 million to 10 million by next year! This sounds like an exaggeration, but I somehow want to believe it; it would at least explain what all the new, towering apartment buildings are for.


The food, of course, hasn't changed: Canton remains the food capital of China. The food is plentiful, delicious, and nearly constant (or so it seems, since each meal takes so long). Like the rest of the city, the restaraunts have become larger and fancier. More than once we visited an "edible zoo" (my terminology): a restaraunt with a huge menu (fish, chicken, fish, pigeon, fish, snake, fish, turtle, ...) where you can chose your food while it's still in the tank/cage. Still, if you count in American dollars, it's all remarkably inexpensive. The popular dishes seem different this time than last (e.g., small garlic-butter clams instead of medium-sized black-bean clams), but that's probably becase we visited at a different time of year. Lychees were in season, and fresh lychees are far better than any other form of lychee that I'd eaten before.

Dealing with the Heat

Since Wen and I moved from Houston several years ago, I had forgotten precisely what oppressive heat and humidity feels like; our first week in Canton quickly reminded me. It was a heat wave even by tropical standards for May. Fortunately, air conditioning has saturated Canton homes and businesses. Electricity must be more expensive than in the U.S., because everyone seems careful to condition only those rooms that contain people at any given time. The start-up time for air conditioning, combined with the fact that Canton is not yet also saturated with automobiles, means that the heat is more noticeable in day-to-day life in Canton than in a place like Houston (where inter-a/c corridors are minimal for most residents).


Since I was in Canton for a couple of weeks, I made arrangements to give a talk at the computer science department of South China University of Technology (or, rather, Professor Zhiyang Wang made arrangements, after I contacted him at the last minute through one of his students, Shanheng Zhao). My presentation was in English, of course, and attended mainly by students. Judging by the insightful and difficult questions they asked, the students had no trouble understanding what I was saying, and I was generally impressed.

After my talk, many students had questions about applying to U.S. graduate schools. They seemed particularly anxious about having to take the GRE (most computer science departments require or request it). It did not help, in their opinion, that ETS (the company that creates and administers the GRE) had recently sent a letter claiming widespread cheating in China to U.S. schools. As it turns out, top schools here in the U.S. pay little or no attention to GRE scores.

The students have to work hard. S.C.U.T is one of the top schools in the region, and the computer science major itself is especially competitive. Still, the department is huge, with 2000 undergraduates. Multiply that by the number of universities in China of similar quality (20 or 30), and it's easy to see why an indivdual student from those schools have trouble getting into U.S. graduate schools.

TV and Politics

Cable television in Canton provides broadcasts from several Hong Kong television stations. The signal from the station is delayed by 10 seconds, which gives censors time to block out any news stories about mainland China.

The censorship is obvious (a picture of tulips shows up, or perhaps a text message about how preventing fires is everyone's resposibility), and it seems to happen only during newscasts. A panel discussion on US-Taiwan-China relations was not censored, which surprised me. Maybe there were no controversial opinions expressed, or maybe the fact that the discussion was in English made it appear harmless.

In any case, I don't entirely understand the censorship. It doesn't appear to do anything useful. After all, the same information is available through the internet in various ways. (Yes, the government also tries to restrict internet connections, but I had no problem getting to things, so the government controls can't be particularly effective.) And this page isn't blocked, right?

I'm also not sure why Chinese citizens put up with such a blatant restriction on information. Probably life is good enough for the moment that no one is ready to complain.

Acclimation and Isolation

Comparing thoughts on my recent experience to older travel notes, it's clear that I've gotten used to China. Certainly, China long ago got used to people like me.

And, yet, China remains isolated in so many small ways. For example, contacting someone (anyone!) at a university is surprisingly difficult; it seems that you have to know someone who knows someone. Overall, and at least for now, there remains in China something of the differentness and separateness that the idea of "Chinese" has traditionally embodied. Sat Oct 13 11:09:16 MDT 2001