August, 23, 1994. That’s the date of my first entry stamp into China. It was some time ago, and back then I was a lot fitter, and had a full head of hair. Things then were difficult. Getting a cold beer, for example, was something I had to plan for well in advance. I had to go down to a xiaomaibu, ask the man to turn on his refrigerator, and put the hot beers inside of it hours ahead of time to get something that was even drinkable. Taxis were a nightmare. They had doors as thin as papyrus, and the cabbies drove like maniacs through the newly installed red traffic lights as if they were paid more to get there quicker. Not to mention their feeble, at best, air-conditioners. Then there were the banks, where absolutely everything seemed as if the tellers were doing the things they were asked to do for the very first time. A bank account in a foreign name? Fill out another form, and go to the end of the line again. It took a day to open one, let alone have any money transferred anywhere. And finally there were the train stations. The time I missed my train to Kunming, had to wait another 24 hours for the next one, and only, after nearly coming to blows with the ticket checker, finally was seated on the dining car for half the journey. All because nobody could tell me where to board the train the day before. On another occasion, I was trying to get a ticket out of Beijing, the most “cosmopolitan” city at the time, and was refused back to back to back, until after the lady behind the counter had her lunch or something, was in a better mood, and eventually relented, and sold me a stand-up ticket.
But then again, I think of all the stuff that we have to go through today, and though things have advanced, they seem no less frustrating. Nowadays, though we’ve got cold beers, we’ve got to pay more for them than we do back home, unlike back when they were three kuai per big bottle. Taxis are certainly air-conditioned, but that does us little good if none of them are available, and we’re standing on the scalding street for an hour trying to hail one. Aside from lining up at a bank, the tellers are more than fluent for any transaction that’s needed, but trying to set up a Taobao account can still be a nightmare, not to mention attempting to put some credit on it. Then finally, once again, are the train stations. The system changes more than a newborn does. First you need your passport to buy a ticket, then you need the dingdan haoma when picking up a ticket at the desk. The last time I was at an iron rooster enclave, I had to get on that monstrous line four times before I could figure it out. Back in the old days, my ass.
By Tim Hoerle