I feel like a paternalistic culture voyeur saying this, but it’s true — I love reading The New Yorker‘s stories about life in China. (Can I legitimize my interest by mentioning a paper I wrote in grad school, on managing pollution from millions more Chinese driving cars?)
Evan Osnos’s piece “The Love Business,” from this spring, is a perfect example why I love these stories. It looks at how a newly mobile, modernizing society grapples with dating: “…for vast numbers of people, the collision of love, choice and money was a bewildering new problem.” We learn that Chinese can search for a match by blood type, that the new ability to own real estate has skewed the marriage market, and that many dating sites offer rigorous anti-counterfeiting options.
Osnos closes the piece with one of the four hundred thousand young Beijing men caught up in this mess. His name is Wang. He’s the first in his family to migrate to the city. You just have to root for him when he shares “fragile news” about a budding romance.
I similarly enjoyed watching Chinese tourists take a bus tour of Europe (“‘We flew all the way here, let’s make the most of it.’”) and seeing the growing Chinese interest in wine. (“Translating the full Western culture of wine into Chinese has produced erratic results.”)
In all these tales, millions of people respond to rapid change with a blend of tradition and entrepreneurship that’s constantly surprising.
But let’s go back to cars. My favorite “China meets the new century” piece is “Wheels of Fortune,” which Peter Hessler wrote in 2007. His opening line: “The first accident wasn’t my fault.”
Millions of adults are getting behind the wheel for the first time in their lives, and the results are somewhat predictable. But not entirely. My favorite innovation: The way ad hoc juries form at the site of a crash, determining fault and compensation on the spot.
Maybe that’s why I am so drawn to these Letters — they inspire hope of a chance that someone will figure out better ways to handle modern life than we’ve managed here.