The Return of the God of Wealth: The Transition to a Market Economy in Urban China
by Charlotte Ikels
now reading: The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry ed. by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping
now also reading: Lonely Planet Phuket Encounter by Adam Skolnick and Austin Bush
I just managed to get the heck out of Guangzhou, and my so-called friend makes me relive it all with The Return of the God of Wealth, which, while about "urban China," is specifically about Guangzhou as a representation or even trendsetter of the aforesaid transition to a (socialist) market economy. This so-called friend (I kid, I kid) is living in Shanghai and working and getting a master's and learning about China things for his classes, and he loaned me the book because, he said, it was "good" and "interesting" and it intrigued him and taught him a lot about Guangzhou.
Guangzhou...sigh. So interesting from afar. So full of bodily fluids from a-near.
All right, I'll admit that it was kind of fun, in a schadenfreude way, to read perfectly objective, factual sentences written in social science, clinical description, I'm-not-capable-of-judging-you-I'm-here-only-to-report-human-behavior speak about the hygiene (or more accurately, the lack thereof) in Guangzhou. And the public confrontation/problem solving amusements. And the traffic jams, and the trash, and the spitting, and the lack of heat source in apartments (WTF?!, as I have mentioned) and the horrible dietary practices of eating every animal that comes along (including domestic ones that are often stolen--since THEY AREN'T SUPPOSED TO BE EATEN so of course there's no dog/cat/hedgehog meat industry to legally raise and acquire them, you mother!@&**$rs!!!) and about how Guangzhou people are willing to slaughter and eat anything. Except that's not fun at all, actually. Because it's pretty fucking terrible. So I'm not really sure that I wanted to relive the past year by reading all about it in this book, even if there is a tiny bit of satisfaction to be had in having it documented all professional-like for anyone who was maybe thinking of not believing me.
For me and China, it's like the Mormons all over again. You people have got it all wrong; you dislike them for all the wrong reasons. People are always on about Mormons being weird or "cult"-like because they "wear magic underwear" and "have lots of wives," neither of which are accurate descriptions. Now, if you want to talk about history, that's fine; I do think we have to be responsible for our history (see, e.g., Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee), and I definitely think it should be discussed and that leaders should not gloss over it. However, to say "Mormons are weird because they have lots of wives," besides being such a blatantly male-identified statement, interesting in someone who wants to critique a wholly patriarchal religion, is basically the same as saying "People in the U.S.A. are assholes because they have African-born slaves." I mean, we just don't. Anymore. Was the country founded and built on slavery? Yes. Did slavery disappear with the snap of a Constitution-amending finger, making life happy and joyous and hunky-dory for all the slaves? Of course not. And are there dire, lasting consequences that should be addressed by politicians and others in power, as well as masses who think, simplistically, that "those days are over so be quiet and move on"? Yes. And yet, if you said, "Ewww, the U.S. is so weird and creepy because they have slaves" you would sound very misinformed, and that's how you sound when you talk about the Mormons and the wives.
ANYWAY. The point is, there are soooo many good reasons to dislike and/or leave and/or never participate to begin with in the Mormon church (or any Christian church), in my humble opinion, and I've always been amused by all the "reasons" people have for thinking the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is so weird when they fail to even address the real issues like lack of critical thinking, more sexist double standards than you can shake a stick at, condescending discussions about womanhood and motherhood (basically equated in the religion), and obsessive avoidance of super-mundane pleasures in life like coffee, wine, and R-rated movies. Not to mention the fact that the three hours of weekly church and the general conference sessions that roll around a few times a year will basically bore you to tears.
And so it is with China. People stateside are ready at the drop of a Tweet to unleash their scorn: blah-blah pollution, blah-blah piracy, blah-blah human rights. No, I don't mean to suggest with my "blah-blah" that these are not important issues. I mean to suggest that people are not saying anything important about them. They are jumping on a bandwagon ("Oooh, I heard China is bad! China is totally bad, it's like armageddon and doom and it's totally Communist, right, so it's bad!") and repeating things they know very little about and also buying a WHOLE lot of goods made there while lamenting the loss of "made-in-America." Actual conversation that took place between me and a neighbor of my mother's in her Phoenix condominium complex's pool:
Neighbor woman: If we don't watch out, pretty soon we're all going to be China.
Me, admittedly a little puzzled about what it means to "be China": Well, maybe that's true, especially if everyone keeps shopping at Walmart.
Neighbor woman: *speechless uncomprehending face*
Part of why I was looking forward to living in Guangzhou for a year was that I wanted to distance myself even further (and farther) from the people who could never imagine themselves living in China. The people who assure you that they've read all about it...in the cable news scrolling headlines...but can't necessarily name the third and fourth largest cities there (which each have higher populations than most U.S. states). And having traveled and lived there, I find myself shaking my head at all the apocalypse-now doomsaying, when I'm just fleeing the egregious daily life issues. You want a real disaster? Try going to the bank. Try exiting the subway via escalator. Or, just enjoy a stroll through the city streets, with spit hurtling at you from every direction and children urinating and defecating on the sidewalks as a matter of course ("induced" even, by their adult guardians, to do so, as Ikels so clinically describes it--true story!) And let's not ever overlook the fact that they cage, tie up, and eat cats and dogs. (No, not everyone does this. One instance of it would be too many, but no, it's not everyone.) These are really great reasons to dislike China, but everyone's too busy tsk-tsking their human rights abuses, which are like most countries' human rights abuses (i.e., they deprive people of their human rights; see, e.g., Guantanamo), but a lot easier to call out in others than in oneself.
You are never going to address human rights issues by making it a competition between nations or acting as if some countries (imaginary lines drawn in the sand) are blame-free. We are all one big global humanity, and we need to act as such when we claim to want humans to live freely and prosper.
But what is divided up country by country is our one big global economy, and for that reason, it's interesting to read books such as The Return of the God of Wealth: The Transition to a Market Economy in Urban China. Although the author's research took place from the late '70s through the mid-'90s, much of it still rings very Guangzhou-true.
Although it would have been nice to get some of her matter-of-fact depictions of the debacle that is a ride on the Guangzhou Metro, but that wasn't launched until 1997, so we'll have to wait for the sequel...