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Earth Sense: Memories of China seen in snapshots
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The first thing that one notices when arriving in China is the population. Wherever you go, lots of people are already there.

But claustrophobia warnings from well-meaning friends about crowded buses and packed stores were exaggerated. Traveling at rush hour is no different than being on a full MARTA train. I’ve had much tighter squeezes on trains and street cars in England, Germany and France.

Checking out at the Wal-Mart in Wuhu, China, is the same procedure as the Wal-Mart in Gainesville, and on Saturday afternoons the lines are equally long in both stores.

The differences in daily Chinese life come to mind in the form of snapshots, rather than a complete movie.

Crossing a city street, for example. The pedestrian light turns green, but caution is required.

License-free electric motor scooters cut through traffic from any direction, including the sidewalks. Cars and buses stop at red, but even more scooters roll past them. People on foot are expected to yield to anything on wheels, including cars that are turning and passing through the pedestrian crossing.

Another snapshot: food. If you have just a minimal amount of money, say the equivalent of 50 cents, you don’t need to starve. Street vendors are found at most corners in the city. Fried pancakes, bread rolls and waffles fresh from the griddle are delicious, although heavy in saturated fat and calories. In other words, the same as American junk food.

Snapshot again: water. In the U.S., federal law requires all tap water to be clean enough for drinking. This law doesn’t exist in China, so it’s advisable to buy bottled water. At the residence, the ever-present teapot serves as a tool for boiling it.

Yet another snapshot: urban landscapes. The eastern provinces of China, including megacities like Beijing and Shanghai, are going through an incredible push of urban renewal. Rundown apartment buildings are being torn down, dozens at a time. 

Messy back alleys are disappearing in favor of wide boulevards. New high-rises are coming up in the business districts, as well as the suburbs. One of the most striking features is the amount of plantings on medians, road sides and vacant lots. The boulevards are lined with thousands of new trees, neatly trimmed shrubs and miles of flower beds. This attention to detail lends a unique appearance to China’s modern cities.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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