Reporter’s Notebook: Turning Heads in China

BY Ray Suarez  May 13, 2010 at 12:51 PM EST


At five-and-a-half feet tall, with brown hair, brown eyes and a beard, I can walk unnoticed in great big chunks of the world. On the streets of Lima and Mexico City, throughout the Mediterranean, across North Africa to the Middle East, I fall within the margin of error almost everywhere.

During a visit to Rome, a cab driver demanded to see my passport when I mentioned I am an American. On a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, Israelis assumed I was Palestinian, and Palestinians assumed I was Israeli.

That street-level unobtrusiveness has been a handy tool in wandering around the world for the past 30 years and in my work as a reporter. So really, really sticking out here in China has been an unusual feeling for me. In the biggest cities, and in farming villages, little children have been struck dumb, shopkeepers and customers fall silent, and policeman walking the beat seem immediately aware… take a look at this guy.

A smile and a wave usually breaks the stare-off, but sometimes even that’s not enough. It is a reminder of both how few outsiders have visited many places in China, and how many rural people have poured into the cities. But China is an increasingly open door to the world, and Chinese with a little more money in their pockets can now be seen on organized tours in the United States, Western Europe, and the rest of Asia.

What visitors to China will see now is that commercial streets have burst out of the old grid, in megacities like Beijing, and regional capitals like Kunming, where we traveled later in the voyage. There is a hunger for novelty, for the latest fashions from South Korea and Japan–for today’s China, America is still a style exporter, but not the influence it once was–and international sporting brands like Adidas, Nike, and Reebok fight for the best retail space and the splashiest windows.

It is important to remember that the Kobe Bryant and LeBron James basketball shirts, Adidas shoes, and Reebok sweatpants may be designed somewhere else in the world, but they’re all made here. It seems like everything is made here. Factories line the highways from the urban fringe running deep into the countryside.

The people I’ve met along this trip have been ready to roll with the punches, the guarded modesty, the unwillingness to talk I expected on the long plane ride over has simply not existed.

The citizens here seem to have a mix of pride in the country’s accomplishments and security about its future, and an awareness that the country is still poor compared to the earlier Asian Tigers, Europe, and the United States.

The gap we saw between urban areas and farm country was vast– rural incomes are a fraction of many in the cities, the people are smaller, and the farms are a place to be fled if you can manage it. One farmer I spoke to, even after concluding that last year was a pretty good year, hoped his own children would not be tied to the land.

But in both urban and rural areas there are people who laugh easily and well. Simple moments of decency, generous courtesy, and a frankness about their lives had made an already fascinating trip even more rewarding.

More of Ray Suarez’s reports from China will air later this month on the NewsHour.