China Changes, Kazakhstan too?

Will Kazakhstan change for the better or worse, like China? Kazakhstan has high goals to be in the top 50 developed nations in the world by the year 2030.  Will the Kazakh people succeed?  I’ve been going through old notes from my files about my time spent in China. Perhaps there are some similarities with the Kazakhs and the Chinese, see what you think.

Not sure how many Chinese currently live in Harbin, Heilongjiang, China. Back when I lived in this fine city, in the late 1980s, there were three million Chinese and very few foreigners. However, it was often referred to as the “Paris of the East” or the “Moscow of the East,” it just depended on who you talked to.  This massive city was once a slumbering fishing town on the Song Hua River just sixty years before I arrived in 1986.  The Russians had helped to build it up which could be noted by the architecture.  The river traffic on the river ranged from ferry boats, motor boats and rowboats.  An old Russian yacht club had been turned into a R & R place for Chinese government officials called “cadres.”

Harbin is known for at least two things: Sun Island and the annual Ice Lantern Festival.  Sun Island was made popular by a song every Chinese seemed to know and you had to cross the SongHua River on a ten minute ferry boat ride to get to the island.  You would see remnants of the old, Russian dachas with their distinct architecture and trimmings.  However, the festival is most notable because of the ice carvers who would descend on the area to mold ice chiseled from the river into fantastic figures of animals, people and building structures.  Walking through the brightly lit lantern festival was like going in a HUGE open air icebox.  COLD!

The train in China is heavily used and the most reliable for the everyday people. One of the routes for the Trans Siberian started in Harbin. Back then, there were still steam locomotives and I rode on one to a restricted area once.  An all-night endurance test of stopping every 15 miles for more fuel or water. You knew it was a stop because the engineer would slam on the brakes and you felt like you would fly off your berth to the floor.  Sleep was impossible.

They also had electric buses but I would rarely use them because they were always packed.  Especially in the winter when the windows were frosted over, you couldn’t see outside to find out whether you had reached your destination or not.  You had to count each stop to know when to get off.  But getting to the door was like playing the game of Twister with little hope of getting to the exit in time before the doors slammed shut.  I preferred walking or if need be, taking the taxi as a last resort.

Bicyclists had their own lane along side all the buses and cars.  It seemed that everyone in China owned a bike and parking lots for bikes were huge.  How to find one’s own bike was always a mystery to me.  They all looked alike.  Some people would rig up carts in front or behind their bikes to haul things.  I remember seeing one guy having about ten dead chickens hanging upside down on his handle bars.  I guess he was going to market with them.

Sometimes I would see blue “Liberation” trucks that had come in from the farms with their produce (cabbage, watermelon, etc).  They all were of the same model and style since Liberation in 1949.  Even into the 1980s, they hadn’t changed much in thirty years.  I wonder if they are still making them?

I also wonder if the older Chinese people are still wearing the ubiquitous Mao suits. That was considered THEE fashion of its day, everyone looked alike in their dark blue, buttoned up the front uniformed outfits.

A Muslim presence was evidenced in Harbin even though originally built up by the Russians. How did one know this while strolling down the busy streets of Harbin?  You just had to know that restaurants, which didn’t serve pork, festooned the blue paper lantern and blue trimmings in the windows and doors.

Billboards wouldn’t compete well with the Stateside ones.  Some billboards encouraged the populace to stick with the one-child policy. Others exhorted people to use good traffic safety.  Funnier ones would advertise auditorium chairs, copier machines or other essentials.  A whole different concept of advertising happened in this non-capitalistic society.  I wonder what the billboards look like now in China.

As was true in the former Soviet Union where I lived for a total of ten years in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, it was rare to see apartment complexes that exceeded 5 or 6 stories. That way people walked up those flights of stairs and they didn’t need to put in elevators.  Win-win except for those who felt winded by the time they carried their groceries to the very top floor.  Built in work out times.

To me, there was nothing aesthetically pleasing with about 99% of the homes in Harbin. There were no yards with grass, no flowers.  You would see t.v. antennas attached to little dwellings with sheds in front of the homes. It seemed lifeless except for occasional trees.  However, it was important for every apartment complex to have a balcony porch to put up the laundry to dry. So you knew people lived in these places as the clothes waved in the wind.

The PRC (People Republic of China) flag still waves the same even if everything else has changed since I lived in Harbin over 25 years ago.  The flag has four smaller gold stars in a crescent shape outside of a larger gold star.  I didn’t master singing their national anthem but I did get on national t.v. singing our American national anthem with two other American teachers.  But that’s another story.  We heard from teachers we knew in other parts of China who saw us on t.v. at different times.  Yes, we were rare as foreigners back in the 1980s.

The building I taught in was the main part of the Harbin Institute of Technology campus. The foreboding appearance of this place seemed to call back memories of when the Russians dominated the Heilongjiang area.  H.I.T. was founded in 1920.  Back when I was there in the 1980s it had a teaching staff of over 1,500 to 10,000 Chinese students.  It was and still is considered a key university, like the M.I.T. of China.

The emphasis of the university was engineering.  Twelve departments were in Management, Precision Instruments, Computer Science, Radio Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Automatic Control, Applied Physics. I lived in a Foreigners Guest house with people from Japan, the Soviets and a woman from Ireland.

Hindsight shows what I didn’t know then but do now. There was a fierce nationalistic pride among the Soviets who ate at the same table every noon meal with us Americans.  The “Soviets” were conversant in English in different degrees. Larissa was from Estonia and was the Russian teacher, her English probably was the worst.  However, she was the first I knew who had a VHS player for videos, her English improved markedly over the two years I knew her.

People like Isa (means Jesus) was a Muslim from Azerbaijan and Nick from Latvia (don’t EVER call them Russians) spoke the best English even though they also spoke Russian (and their native language).  Tomas was from Georgia and there was another physics guy. From where, I don’t remember but he didn’t believe in dreams.  I learned that each Soviet was proud of his own country and ethnic background. Very proud and now I realize that the time we spent together at meals was when the Soviet Union was starting to have huge fractures in their structure as a monolithic country.  Who knew?

Things have changed dramatically for the Soviet Union and they have also for China. One student asked me this very perplexing question: “Today the U.S. is a very modernized, advanced country, science knowledge has already been taught to most of the people. In the eyes of science, there is no God, but WHY some of you believe?” Another variation of that question was “The U.S. is such a young country (250 years) and China is a very old country (thousands of years), why is the U.S. so much more advanced?”

To many of my H.I.T. student their “god” is science, Marxism or communism.  China was referred to as a sleeping giant. Their goal that was uppermost in my students’ minds was to advance in technology by the year 2000 so they would be equal to other western countries.  Maybe they have succeeded…maybe not.

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