04 August 2011

two sides, same country

China is a shifting heap of anything and everything, with a billion people navigating the contrasts and contradictions. In Chengdu’s side streets a Maserati will as likely run you down as a hard-charging old man and his bicycle will — the Maserati propelled by European engineering, the bicycle gathering momentum from the industrial-sized photocopier bungee-corded to its frame.

The corner vendor dredges your tofu from a plastic bucket on the pavement next to the peaches and drops it, unceremoniously, into a thin plastic bag. Or a doorman ushers you into an air-conditioned luxury mall to buy Louis Vuitton and Prada. The corner vendor is lively and fun and nothing she says makes sense the first time because her Chinese is so overcome by local dialect. The luxury mall is sparkling and cool, and desperately empty on a Saturday afternoon.

Someone out there is buying expensive China. Someone is the reason that luxury cars sit in the parking lots and new construction projects boast high-end living in the sky. The bakery at Kempinsky Hotel even sells $5 batches of macaroons; each piece delicate and then chewy, with paper-thin tops and buttery insides. But it was empty there too.

It’s the supermarket that’s always full, and usually with a crowd around the lychees. When I asked a young woman which lychees were good she responded by picking up a single fruit and rotating it for me to see, then putting it in my bag. Again and again she’d pick up a lychee, show it to me, and then put it my bag. Before she left I had a bag filled with perfect examples of the fruit. The lot rang up at fifty cents and each was wonderful: thick, wet and dewy.

This is China. You can eat fifty-cent lychees along sidewalks that are spat upon by shirtless men and treated far worse by small children with no bottoms to their pants. Or you can eat $5 macaroons in empty air-conditioned malls that sparkle and shine. As an outsider you sometimes crave the macaroons, but the lychees have a richness you can’t just whip up overnight.

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