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The View from China

April 10, 2015          

Episode Summary

In this episode of The Digital Life, Dirk Knemeyer reflects on the unique cultural intersections of the first and third worlds in China, in his report from Asia.

Hey Jon, it’s Dirk reporting here from Beijing, China. I’m just wrapping up the Chinese leg of my trip to Asia. I’ve been here about a week and a half and getting ready to fly out today and China’s really incredible. I’m much more impressed with China than I expected to be. There’s a few different themes that I’m thinking about as I reflect back on these days. The first one is the way that China is really the first world meeting the third world, and not just meeting but sort of being totally intertwined with each other. In the big cities, you have big city infrastructure, big streets, buildings, cars. Things generally are moving the way a big city would in the US.

Now, here there’s also a lot of scooters, a lot of bicycles, pedestrians, and there’s a certain chaos factor to how the transportation moves, to how people move. It has a whole of the infrastructure look and feel of the first world but there is also this anarchy to it, very loosely controlled anarchy, let’s say, which is a little different. You’ve got these big cities, I’ve been to a few of them now, with big city infrastructure, but right beside them and even right as part of them is third world farming. China’s full of farms. When I would take a train over a long distance, it is rural for long stretches, but basically all of it is full of farms, other than when the terrain in the form of hills or mountains was inhospitable to farming. There are just farms and farms and farms and farms, and there, I did not see a single tractor.

It is all people on their knees and hands farming. There’s oxen who are pulling older, sort of pre-tractor, pre-combustion engine equipment but then you’ll have these farms and they’ll be on the edge of or even part of a bigger city and a certain part of that city in a certain way. The interrelationship between those things and the juxtaposition between those things is really, really very interesting. You will in the city as well, see signs of the third world rural areas. You’ll have an old Jalopy truck that is just full to bursting with garbage or full to bursting with bamboo or something else.

Even though in the most modernized and the more wealthy sections of the large cities, there still are these reminders that the country as a whole is in different stages of development, very different, very interesting. Another thing that really I’m taking away is that the scale here is really unimaginable. We talk about it a lot, the 1.3 billion people. Surely on the show, we’ve talked a lot about the size and the opportunity and threat that China offers to the west, but it’s only in being here and experiencing some different things that I’m really, I can fully understand. The one that sticks out the most in my mind is I saw a performance.

It’s called Impression Sanjie Liu and it’s an outdoor performance, so there’s sort of an ultra amphitheater. There’s maybe, I’m going to guess 10,000 seats in this thing. Apparently, the show goes everyday and some nights, three times a night. Every week, let’s just call it 10 times but it could be up to 20 that this performance happens. Now, about 10,000 people, it’s in a rural area. It’s way out in Western China. It’s not near the biggest cities, and the stage, first of all, the stage is inclusive of 12 hills that locals call mountains, these sort of steep jutting but relatively short although obviously really, really tall, many stories high, natural, natural structures, but this stage has also a lake or at least part of a small lake that is in front of and framed by these hills and mountains and then a lot of stage they built on the side as well.

I was trying to estimate, compared to a show on Broadway, how much bigger the stage was, not just what you could see but what they were actually using, whether it be people on it or with lights. It was at least 300, 500 times bigger than a Broadway stage, a large stage, probably the largest I’ve ever seen. That was awesome and magnificent and breath-taking, but then what made it all work was the number of performers. I think there were over 1,000 total performers. They were certainly in the high hundreds, and they would be coordinating in these different, I want to say pieces but I don’t think that’s the right word. They would coordinate in these different moments where they would cover collectively huge amounts of this giant stage and they would be using silk material or they would be using lights or different things to integrate it all into itself.

There were at least four moments in this performance, it only lasted about an hour, where what happened on the stage, the whole crowd just gasped, just a-ha. It was unbelievable. It was awesome. Compared to something really tight like a Broadway performance, the quality wasn’t as good from the performer’s coordination standpoint. In a Broadway show, it’s pretty close to perfect most of the time. Here, there were some timing issues back and forth, very small though. It was really well done. It was so impressive and in total, I’ve seen a lot of different things over the years, it was the most impressive performance I’ve ever seen of any kind. It was just awesome and awe-inspiring. It all came down to the scope and the scale, and Mike, one of the people I was there with, commented that this is only possible because this is the first world and the third world at once.

He was absolutely right. The scope and scale and audacity and all of these consumers coming in to watch it is very first world but you can only have hundreds or potentially thousands of performers if you have rural third world individuals who are interested and excited and part of this at what would be a much lower compensation rate for people, people in the West. That’s certainly something that I saw all throughout the trip, different moments where it’s seeing people, whether it be a van driver or a tour guide or someone else, who’s obviously pretty well compensated relative to their peers there in the different communities that we were part of, but by US standards, the pay was trivial. It was very negligible.

For a traveler, for someone from the first world coming in, there’s a lot of very affordable opportunities to explore and experience and to compensate the people in ways that make them very happy as well. It’s this moment in time that I’m guessing in 20 years isn’t going to be possible anymore, where we are able to live pretty high on the hog, pretty affordably. It’s all this giant scale and the first world and third world kind of crashing together, really enjoyed China. I came on this trip. I expected that China would be an experience that I would learn and it would be later on the trip, like in Japan, that I would really enjoy myself and I really enjoyed myself in China, as well as really learning a lot.

I just scratched the surface here today, but this morning, I’m getting ready to board a plane to North Korea. I’ll be visiting Pyongyang, which I’m looking forward to. That will be a very different experience, and then to Japan for a little while to look around there, and then back home. The next time you hear from me, it will be in Japan. I hope you are doing well and I look forward to returning to the States and joining Jon on the show per regular. Thanks and take care.

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Jon Follett

Dirk Knemeyer


Co-Host & Producer

Jonathan Follett @jonfollett

Co-Host & Founder

Dirk Knemeyer @dknemeyer

Minister of Agit-Prop

Juhan Sonin @jsonin

Audio Engineer

Michael Hermes

Technical Support

Eric Benoit@ebenoit

Original Music

Ian Dorsch @iandorsch

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March 24, 2015          

Episode Summary

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