To sum up China in a word or two: juxtaposition. Co-existent contrasts.
The brand new and shiny resides next to the old and dirty and worn out with no apologies or attempts to eradicate what might not be pleasing to the Western eye. Sometimes there is a covering over. The concept of “tear down and build new” only occurs when the State determines a change is needed – usually for a big event of some kind. Then the front layer of decay is removed and the street side becomes upscale shops with neon. Directly behind – sometimes attached to - are the original tiny shops and dwellings. I am not sure the Chinese see the disparity or think anything about it. People live there and somehow survive. I saw very few individual homes. Virtually every family lives in an apartment.
The contrast of old and new is most apparent on the street. In any one block we saw vans and buses, tiny taxis and cars, bicycles powered by foot and small engine, scooters and motor cycles, a person pulling a 2-wheeled wooden cart to collect garbage, others pulling heavy loads of furniture, mounts of matting, or stacks of large porcelain vases on two or four wheels by hand or bicycle. When the street gets crowded (or at random) bikes and motor scooters just take over the sidewalk. Flower delivery is motor scooter with the vases or plants held by the person riding in back.
Contrast in family life as well. Each family is allowed only one child. The teachers in the class said in a happy they had a daughter but very proudly they had a son. There are no seatbelts or car seats. All ages ride in the open on the bumper or handlebars of bicycles. Babies are simply carried by the rider; older children stand in front of the driver. Preschoolers wear helmets and pads only for in line skating. Most families include the grandparents who do the cooking and child care why both parents work, but the issue of elder care is being discussed by social groups.
The people, however, are uniformly agreed publically on the policies and directives of the government. The only criticism I heard was of the Cultural Revolution and re-education. They speak factually about ancient events and traditions of the elders while showing no desire to reclaim them. They are hopeful about the future, both with the economic opening of trade and the 2008 Olympics.
I saw no tourists’ sights, had no bus rides or guides, did not get to the Great Wall or Beijing. What I had was enough time in one place to get to know China as it exists and Chinese as they really live.