It is perhaps a bit strange that I have thus far avoided the plane discussion on my China trip. Fear not; that discussion is here! The delay is due inevitably to how conveniently (if somewhat unrelated) it served as a segue into this post: it’s no secret that I have a love for planes and spend an inordinate time planning flights in order to fly on certain planes. No matter how hard I tried this time, though, I couldn’t get away from flying on the original jet that coined the term “Jumbo Jet”: the Boeing 747.
While I had flown on the newest iteration, the Boeing 747-8, on my trip back from Germany last year, I’ve tended to avoid United’s 747s in particular because they are old and lack in-seat entertainment. (My trip back to the US was on an electronics-rich United 787-8, in comparison.) My flight from ORD-PVG was nevertheless on a United 747-400, and in the absence of all things luxurious I got to appreciate flight as it was just twenty years ago. (Shout out: the captain did a masterful job landing the plane — it was probably the smoothest landing I’ve ever experienced.) Accordingly, I felt a pang of sadness as I watched a 747-400 push back from Shanghai’s Pudong: the view came with the realization that my inbound flight might have been the last time I fly on a 747-400. Addictions, even so immaterial as one to dated commercial aircraft, die hard.
When I visited Yangzou, the tour of the Shou Xi Hu comprised a walk out along the lake and a boat ride back. There weren’t a lot of tourists the day we were there, so several boats were moored along the dock as the day began. The size of the fleet (docked here and on the lake) gave indication to just how much the tourist industry has grown: a case in upward mobility for those who had the means to get a job.
Our boat oarswoman was a young lady who offered us candy, narrated the trip, and sang to us, but I was astounded at how long she had been in the trade: nine years. In person, she looked my age or younger. I had not expected that the tourist industry could be so captivating, even if it’s good, in this case, for the body physically. I never got the chance to ask whether she expected to try another trade — or if she wanted to escape this one.
China is not the producer of smartphones and electronic devices to the US market that South Korea is, but the phone is a much more common item there than it is in the US. Perhaps it’s simply due to the bigger population. It seemed like at every table and on every chair was someone using a smartphone. This was no exception at the Sòng Chéng show, where a perpetual glow emitted toward the back of the auditorium. I wonder where all the photos and videos ended up.
Perceived needs create jobs and build economies, though the dependence on tourism, my obsession with aviation, and the ongoing electronic enslavement pales in comparison to what is arguably the biggest addiction in China: cigarette smoking. Estimates peg the number of Chinese smokers to be around 350 million, larger than the entire US population. Few pay attention to the rules (or few are aware there are rules), so smoking areas with signs saying, “Please close door!” have doors wide open. Passengers and drivers alike smoke in cars, and restrooms often smell of smoldering cigarette butts. At the 福建土楼, or Fujian Tulou (Fujian Earthen Buildings), I tried to get a picture of a faceless, nameless visitor puffing a cloud of smoke, cigarette in hand and pondering the ancient building in front of her. It took me three shots to get my composition where I wanted it, and in that time, her exhaled smoke had dissipated even though the smell lingered.
I hope China’s fascination with tobacco is as fleeting as the smoke itself, but it’s impossible to consider addiction without its withdrawal: the Chinese tobacco industry is a massive source of taxes for the government and also employs thousands of employees. It gradually became apparent that simple decisions in smaller areas aren’t quite as easy to make — and execute — in a country so large and populous as China is.