There was much rejoicing and jubilation the day Doritos came to China. I remember it vividly because my fingertips were stained orange for weeks. I was deep in the trenches of my first battle with culture shock and longing, begging, aching for something . . . anything, remotely American. Seeing those crispy, cheesy ultra-hydrogenated triangles smothered in powdered, cheddary goodness tripped my switch like a Pavlovian dog and I drooled puddles all over aisle three of the Changsha Wal-Mart. The bags were half the size of the ones from home . . . so I had to buy ten of them. The next day my stomach hurt . . . but I’m pretty sure I bought ten more.
People like to talk about the pros and cons of the rapid fire changes that are reshaping China. Are they good? Bad? Ugly? Can an ancient civilization withstand the impact that comes with freakish economic growth? Is Urbanization offering new hope to the impoverished countryside or creating uncontainable social disturbances? Is Westernization breathing new life into a struggling system or slowly corroding a magnificent, ancient culture? If you said yes (or no) (or maybe) (or how should I know?) (or I don’t give a whoop) to all of these, you are probably right.
When we first moved to Qingdao I went on a walk, with my family through Flag Square. Flag Square embodies the very heart of the new, globier China more than any place I’ve seen. 204 beautifully displayed national flags representing the 2008 Olympic gathering of the entire world in a nation that has barely been open for business with most of those nations for three decades. From the square (which is actually a circle) you can see the enormous Olympic rings overlooking the harbor that hosted the sailing venue and the four-story torch is rarely not surrounded by picture snapping tourists. On the right day you can even catch the inspirational Olympic anthems like One World One Dream and I Love Beijing blaring through the loud speakers although these days it’s more likely you’ll hear Taylor Swift or Randy Travis (seriously . . . Randy Travis . . . in China). This one spot is a picture perfect emblem of China gone global.
I was pushing my baby in his stroller (pram, buggy etc.) with my 6 year old daughter and my wife when right in front of me two cars pulled up (where cars are not supposed to be mind you). Car number one? A cherry red Porsche driven by a doe-eyed, teenage girl. Number two? Maserati. Teenage boy. There was nothing about this picture that was even remotely thinkable a generation ago in China. They stopped for just a moment. She looked back at him and gave a flirty little, “can’t catch me” giggle. Then she drove away. You could physically see the testosterone oozing out of the Maserati. He was trying to play it cool but any man who had ever survived puberty could see exactly what was going on.
What happened next defines the paradox of globalization for me. He stomped on the accelerator, spinning this gorgeous machine into a perfect, screaming circle. The stench of burning rubber was thick and in a flash he was off like a hormone driven teenage Cheetah in pursuit of the gazelle in the cherry red Porsche.
I was furious. He spun dangerously close to my 10 month old baby. I threw up my arms in disgust and pointed to my son as he zoomed past. I tried to think of something mean to say in Chinese but I didn’t get to that lesson yet so I just growled . . . like an angry lion whom as you know, eat Cheetahs for breakfast (it’s true, I think I saw it on the National Geographic Channel).
My daughter sensed my frustration and tried to be the peacemaker. “Dad. I don’t think he made such a good choice, did he?” Still fuming I barked, “No honey, he sure didn’t.” She came back with a reassuring, “Dad. If I had that car I would never do that.”
She got me.
In the middle of my disgust and anger I was forced to admit that that was absolutely, 100% the coolest thing I had seen all day. $120,000 (maybe double with import fees) worth of pure Italian perfection, driven solely by pubescent, Chinese machismo smokes its tires into a flawless donut (that I swear was on fire for just a moment), surrounded by the flags of countries who, just 30 years ago, were vehemently uninvited to even stand in the very spot that it was happening. In the interest of an vulnerable, teachable moment I responded to my daughter, “That’s great honey. I probably would do that . . . but I would make sure there were no babies around first.”
New China is both amazing and infuriating. It’s exciting and maddening. It’s thrilling and painful. It is the best bits of Western culture that came over on the same boat as the worst bits and now live together with the best and worst bits of the East. It’s a wonderfully challenging mix of “Are you kidding me?!” and “That was incredible!” It’s jubilation and a stomach ache. It’s Doritos.