ading my way through the annual pre-Christmas best-of lists that newspapers use as an easy way to fill column inches – everybody loves a list – I notice that in addition, and multiplying like Tribbles in a Star Trek episode, are pieces either lamenting or celebrating the end of the decade. Goodbye to those troubled teen years of the 21st century, welcome to the new Roaring Twenties. Or, Roasting Twenties, perhaps we should say, if average global temperatures continue to rise.
So, what has the last decade in China been like for the average resident? In the big cities, we all became experts in air pollution and mask etiquette. My employer even issued pollution masks to staff. I was one of the only people I knew who had air filters at home in 2010, but now they are as common as a sofa or dining table. Luckily, we no longer have to use them as much. After the early days of “Crazy Bad Air” in the first part of the decade, the government moved fast. Almost gone, but not quite, are the days when you had to consult an air quality app before venturing outside. Unluckily for me, I had just invested in a really expensive lycra mask from abroad right before things started improving. I’ve almost never worn it.
A sighting of blue sky used to be so remarkable that my colleagues would rush to the windows to take photos. Now, New Delhi hogs the pollution headlines, as cities like Beijing clean up. Beijing has changed most of its buses to run on electricity. Some cities, like Shenzhen in the south, already have 100 percent electric bus fleets. Others have only electric taxis. There are many, many electric delivery vehicles and bikes. One the one hand, it’s good, as there are no emissions. On the other, they are silent and fast, so ironically have increased the risk to pedestrians and old-school cyclists.
Now that we can go out without arriving red and sweaty from wearing a mask, what’s the dining and entertainment scene like? The biggest change is that China has fully embraced mall culture. Many mom-and-pop stores are gone, as well as traditional street markets. In the new malls, every third shop seems to sell croissants and baguettes. They all pretend to be from France. Many are actually chains from South Korea, or Chinese copycats of the pretend-French South Korean chains. A French person would be surely confused to discover that their croissants are topped with pork floss, or the pastries contain combinations of custard and sausage.
Another third sell coffee or tea. I’ve never drunk tea. Apparently, that is anathema, coming from a great tea-drinking nation, Britain, to live in the home of tea. But as if regular tea were not bad enough, now you have to drink fancy tea. Tea that looks like a frappuccino or a latte. Tea with a mixture of cream and cheese on the top, whipped up and looking like a layer of cheesecake has been dumped on muddy water. People wait in lines of a hundred or more to get this hellish concoction.
Then there’s coffee. Starbucks did not have much competition a decade ago. There were some strange Chinese chains that you only saw at airports, which were extraordinarily expensive. Mostly people went to Starbucks to hook up with their Chinese teacher (at least, so I was told). Now there are artisanal chains which brew to order, and a rapidly expanding Chinese chain, which is snapping at the heels of the Seattle native, called Luckin. The gimmick is that you order by app only, almost like people think it’s a coffee-winning online game. It’s a step too far for me.
The other stores are divided between real estate agents and nail bars, with some hair salons thrown into the mix. If you want actual useful stuff, like food, or trash bags, you need to order it online, but you can do it while holding a cup of cheese tea, a red-bean flavored donut and admiring your nice nails.
In the early years of the decade, it looked like hipsters were taking over the city. Entertainment-wise, it was all improv, fusion tacos and artisanal beer. Luckily, many of them have moved to tourist spots in the south of China for a more authentic experience. Even more fortuitous, the tacos and beer remain.
Things have improved for movie lovers too. From very few cinemas, to now one in every mall (that’s a lot), it’s easier than ever to see a movie. Although sometimes you can’t hear it, due to people still needing to do business while watching a two-hour film. Or constantly checking their social media feed, in case someone posted a picture of their triple-shot latte and prawn-flavored Danish.
One thing’s for sure though. Half the country has got incredibly lazy – with their addiction to ordering everything online, but the other half has got fitter serving and delivering it to them.