The Price of Progress in China

by Rhonda Richford   <Submit your comments to the author>

At first I didn't notice all of the obvious signs around me, too busy straining for a glimpse of traditional Chinese culture I wanted to find in the shadows of fluorescent lights. I frequented marketplaces, got intensely into the bargaining game with my basic Mandarin, adjusted to the crowds. I took cliched pictures of kids roller-blading in front of ancient temples, of tiny old men in Mao jackets sitting in the expansive parking lot of Price Mart. I marveled in the coexistence of old and new, assured in my belief that the Chinese had a respect for tradition that we lack in our hedonistic homeland. I understood the political situation clearly, but was amazed at how much more "progressive" the country was than I imagined.

Once I started to really examine my new neighborhood, I noticed small things. I became curious. Why were there so many hair salons? Rows and rows of girls sitting on sofas seemingly bored stiff, only one sink and lots of small curtained nooks. The "wash-foot" parlors with pink fluorescent lights that went on at opening, around early evening. When I started asking questions my friend just laughed: "Those are for hookers!" Call me naive. She did.

What I hadn't imagined was how China's newfound openness to all things Western and the improved economic prospects of its people would create a burgeoning prostitution economy.

A few nights later I met Xin, a friend of the family who owned an Internet gaming parlor. An ambitious entrepreneur, the 23-year-old had built his business right out of high school. A few hours later, we went to a nightclub with some Chinese mobsters. I was the main attraction, even in my jeans, T-shirt and unfashionable Avia cross-trainers. But my attention was focused on the girls on stage, gyrating to some early '80s selections. Above the beat I learned this: The Chinese aren't as conservative about sex as I thought. The girls have access to Western clothes now, so they wear them and like to look sexy.

Later, in quieter surroundings, Xin told me about the Karaoke, or KTV, bars. Each bar hired about 50 girls to sit by the front door. Upon the arrival of each male customer, they were trotted out for inspection. A few were selected to sing with the men, making about 100 yuan for the evening, equivalent to about $12 -- enough to buy a day's worth of food. (The exchange rate for the Chinese Renminbi is set by the government and thought to be artificially high.) If they were particularly gifted, um, singers, they were invited to go home with the men for a few hundred more yuan depending on their talents. Xin said it was by far the best opportunity available to the girls, and quite a prestigious job to get. He estimated that 50% of the girls in his high school class went into karaoke.

My host family had planned a trip planned for the following weekend. The family had also invited some friends along, so when our motley group of 10 piled into the tour van I was too busy vying for some leg room to notice who else got in the car. It wasn't until lunch that I was formally introduced to Ellen (her English name, she proudly told me). Immediately I knew she wasn't the granddaughter of the wrinkled old man next to her, nor his paid nurse -- although he could've used one. Over the next two days I watched her intently. I don't know what I wanted to see, but I didn't like what I did. I watched Old Man serve her food, despite her protestations, and I saw the pain in her face when she resigned herself to those bites. I watched her follow Old Man downstairs while the young people played cards on the deck. I watched her face sink as the women of the group scolded her for not eating with the required etiquette. Finally, I watched her face light up when I finally pulled out my English-Chinese phrase book and uttered a few cursory words to her. And I saw it sink again when Old Man came over and led her away.

Over the next few days. Ellen and I snuck in a few moments to talk, me in basic Chinese and she in the few words of English she knew. She told me that English was her favorite subject in school. She loved to talk with people and to read, and because of this she wanted to become a teacher. She was the oldest of four girls from the countryside and had been in the city for a few months. She liked the Celine Dion and dogs. She was 20.

I discovered that Old Man was 72 from the women in the group, who saw him as a benevolent grandfather. He usually had a girlfriend for a month or two, but he'd had Ellen longer and paid her a good wage for her company. She was a lucky girl, they told me repeatedly, because she was also a stupid one and was doing quite well despite that. They disapproved of her with a fervor usually reserved for a sinner, and Old Man being the married one didn't seem to matter. He was good to her, they told me, although I couldn't help but wonder how good he would be to her when he tired of her and told her to leave.

Fei, my friend, grew up in the States and moved back to China five years ago to take advantage of business and export opportunities. Instead of business opportunities, she said, most Chinese women take advantage of other types of arrangements. "Chinese girls are lazy. They don't want to work. They just want to find a man to take care of them, to buy them nice things. They are looking for a husband, but if they don't find one, they will settle for a married man to keep them. It is good for them because then they also get some freedom, and most have their own boyfriends. The boyfriends don't mind because the woman is bringing in money. They want nice clothes and the men provide it.

"The only men who are faithful to their wives are the poor ones," she explained. "As soon as they have even a little bit of money they go and get a mistress. It is a status symbol." And the traditional reverence for the family? "The wives know. What are they to say? It is expected. They cannot get divorced because then no one would take care of them. As long as the husband pays for his wife and children, and provides for them, the wife cannot complain. He is not neglecting his duties as a husband, as a caretaker."

As Fei and I debated, discussed and argued about the status of women in China, something inside me simply hurt. I hurt for the girls sitting in the "hair" salons, I hurt for the teens whose first and most likely best job was in a KTV, I hurt for my young friend whose family needed her to make money.

The Chinese want a chance at a better life at whatever cost, and I can't blame them. They have a desire for material things and nothing else. Although they couch it in the non-political phrase "better economy," that really translates into "big houses and lots of cars." In true capitalist fashion, many of the women have found the most efficient way to chase after the dream. Sadly, it's the only way they can.

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