Saturday, March 11, 2006

Beijing gets ready for its close-up

24-hour party people, Beijing version

Sometimes staying in a nice hotel gives you a very limited view of reality. But in Beijing staying in a nice hotel gives you a pretty accurate picture of one aspect of contemporary China, its headlong rush to the future.

Staying on the sixteenth floor of the Hilton, I had a very clear view—literally—of China on the move. From my room I could gaze down on a giant construction pit for one of the zillion new skyscrapers being erected all over Beijing. Lines of men in hardhats hammered away underneath two giant yellow cranes swinging their cargo back and forth. (These looked scary and oddly friendly at the same time, bringing to mind a favorite book from my childhood, "Mike and His Steam Shovel."”) Perhaps classical Chinese paintings done a thousand years from now will feature the motifs of these industrial cranes, replacing the swans and mountains of Guilin that have represented ChinaÂ’s essence for the past few hundred years.

"I'm ready for my close-up, Max"

China has been on a roll for a while, now, but preparation for the 2008 Olympics has given things a whole new push. China is getting ready for its close-up and it wants everything to be perfect. There's a lot left to do--—building several new subway lines, opening a new airport, eliminating air pollution--okay, we might put that last one on hold. But things are happening. We read about this all the time in the states but it's quite another to be in the thick of things, watching construction gangs move piles of pipes at two in the morning.

China has many problems and challenges, but laziness and a sense of entitlement do not figure among them. If American parents are pressuring their kids to achieve now, that'’s nothing compared to how they would be if they could actually see the competition up close.

And speaking of American parents...

One night in Beijing I had dinner with an American friend from business school, her husband and her two daughters. I'll call them Susan and Todd.

Susan and Todd have lived in China for about 18 months now. They used to live in Palo Alto and one day decided to move to China. That was basically the decision process. They didn'’t know what exactly they would do, and their kids were not thrilled, but it was an idea that had been percolating for a couple of decades so they did it.

From my brief visit, I concluded that they have created an extremely fabulous and meaningful life in Beijing. They started a media company that appears fun and successful and their daughters, who are ten and eleven, speak Chinese fluently with perfect "biaozhun" accents. They can read and write as well. The kids never watch television, except for Chinese-language shows. I know what you'’re thinking, and you're right: two fewer places for everyone else at the top colleges when these two girls apply.

Their house is gorgeous and totally reflects their own esthetic and experiences. And perhaps most significantly, the experience of living together overseas and creating a new life seems to foster a kind of intimacy among parents and children that I rarely see back home--what people are thinking when they talk about quality time.

Of course, not all expatriate families are like this. Having seen many over the years, I can accurately assert that many are somewhat paranoid, critical of local cultures and get little out of the experience. But Susan and her husband show how wonderful this kind of international experience can be.

Though their move seems dramatic, I think that it's much more possible than most people would think. In the past 20 years, world travel has become about 10 times easier than it used to be, thanks to email, ATMS and better flights.

And there are clearly opportunities in one of the world's fastest growing economies. Things are happening here--I am not sure exactly what they are, but they're definitely happening! Talented people who are comfortable with a certain amount of risk and uncertainty can find a much more ample space for expressing their interests and skills than might be the case back home.

Next stop: Shanghai