When I moved to Germany, I didn’t make any real preparations. I had been laid off in the aftermath of September 11 in a job market that was sluggish and depressed. I had a high rent and a long distance relationship that wasn’t cheap. It took me less than a day in that third week of December to decide what I was going to try next. On Christmas day, I moved out of my apartment and out of San Francisco. I stored everything I owned in my parents’ basement and forwarded all my mail to their house. I handed over the keys to the car that they’d helped me buy and packed two suitcases. They put me on a plane with instructions to keep in touch and go figure things out.
I flew to Munich, figured out a few things and eventually stayed. I’ve been asked plenty of times how I managed the whole thing, but there really wasn’t much more to it. When I think back now about how little thought and planning I put into the decision, I’m amazed I pulled it off. It seems that the less I plan, the greater the chance for success.
When the call came from Oliver that he might be offered a job in China – just three weeks after our move into our new apartment – I didn’t initially do much about it. I didn’t research the city in the Internet. I didn’t ask many questions. I didn’t even really believe that this possibility would grow into an actual reality.
I finally took things seriously when Oliver called me at work and asked me if I could get time off the following month to fly to China and check things out. Reality then caught up in a hurry. All of a sudden it was a flurry of preparations, research, prepping our parents, telling half truths at work in order to get the time off and making lists of things that our life in China would have to offer in order to make this worth it.
That was an interesting list, categorizing everything from cat, balconies and dermatologists into “must have” and “nice to have”. With that list in mind, we flew to China and had our first look at Changchun.
Driving into the city, we first passed donkey carts and small dark houses that looked more like hovels. These gradually gave way to a solid wall of construction sites marking the beginning of the ‘city’ itself. Every once in a while there would be a break in a fence or a hole in a huge drape-covered scaffolding plastered with idyllic images of the future and you would see more of these tiny, soot-covered, windowless buildings surrounded by piles of rubble. Old China was rapidly being consumed by the new. These lone survivors would soon too be executed in the pursuit of modernity.
Everywhere you saw this abrupt jump from 19th to 21st century. This was at first disturbing but quickly became part of our understanding of the city and China itself. Everywhere you saw signs of one or more steps being skipped along the way to becoming a First World country. People with no running water but a better mobile phone plan than mine, not even deigning to having a land line installed because it was too out-dated. That was the China we were looking at. It wasn’t at all pretty, but fascinating. The evolution of a civilization stuck in fast forward.
The message was clear: Get with it or get out of the way.