I once picked up a book at my old college’s free book pile entitled, “The Real Meaning of Life”. It was a collection of answers to the question, “What is the real meaning of life?” from an online forum. The answer that I was most drawn to was a quote from the Maori, an indigenous people of New Zealand:
“Te Tegata. Te Tegata. Te Tegata”.
The people. The people. The people.
My time in the great city of Beijing has come to an end, but it is not the rich history of emperors living behind closed walls or the fried scorpions sold on the street that I’ll remember the most, it’s the people. Notably my colleagues in the Regional Transportation Planning department at China’s Academy of Urban Planning and Design (CAUPD). They have been extremely welcoming from day one: indulging me in the most basic questions about traffic order, inviting me to an international transportation conference, and bringing me to a night out at the symphony. It’s only fair that I share these wonderful people with you too.
Without further ado, my colleagues, my friends.
The best boss you could ask for and I’m not just saying that– my internship is already over so he can’t fire me anymore! Dr. Wang took the time to sit and answer all my questions, talk about his career in planning, and share his overall life. His parents were both farmers before China’s rapid urbanization. So Dr. Wang was fortunate to grow up in the generation that has seen both worlds in China: the natural and the modern. Now he hopes for a different modern world. He believes as China’s urbanization rate slow down, the country will look inward, to its people. The future of planning will shift from building large scale infrastructure to enriching quality of life.
Dr. Wang is also an international man. He is coming to UCLA in the fall as a visiting urban planning scholar. I think he speaks English well, but he dubs his wife the “translator” since she speaks five languages including French and Italian. Welcome the Wang family to the US!
Xiao Ma (Little horse)
Xiao Ma promised me on day one to be my friend. And my friend she has become! She took it upon herself to teach me the few Mandarin phrases I know, show me the Bus Rapid Transit, and take Christine and I on an epic trip to Tianjin.
Xiao Ma is a fellow transportation intern, but she confessed she originally chose transportation for the money. She didn’t know what to do at the time when she was supposed to a choose a major, but chose rail because China was intensely developing its rail and subway system in 2008 . Luckily she realized that transportation does drive her, for all she wants to do is something that is, “close to life”. That is improve the daily life of the Chinese people and bring people closer together. Furthermore, she wants to help reduce inequality, notably the favoritism towards the wealthy who can afford the automobile. She is especially inspired by China’s new president’s, Xi Jinping, “very brave” anti-corruption campaign.
Xiao Ma is a free spirit. She says that “the Chinese live one life”: they find a job wherever they can, get married, buy a house (often in their hometown), and have children. But not her. Xiao Ma has a plan to visit multiple cities with strong transportation companies in the next few months. She will find the city she will thrive in. But she won’t stop there. She wants to travel, meet people, and gather knowledge because “I want to have stories to tell”. She held up one hand, parallel to the ground, and kept raising it. “I want to become stronger”, to keep building as a person.
I told her, we have the same dreams. We want to help others, see more, be more. “Yes, but I have more risk here”. There are more fingers being pointed at her if she doesn’t follow the “one life”. And this is why she is the brave one.
There is no shortage of bravery here either. Carrie set out to achieve the “Chinese one life” plan: she went to a top university, received her Masters, and found a great job. This has recently provided her with a Beijing Hukou, an extremely coveted residency status that provide access to social services such as healthcare and education. The Hukou is also a main source of contention as several million migrants without a Hukou suffer without basic services. So life is good for Carrie right? Well.. sometimes like all great master plans, life doesn’t go according to plan.
Like Xiao Ma, Carrie confessed she kind of just fell into transportation because..well…that was the most reputable major at her university. She said she didn’t even know what “transportation engineering” was at the time. Carrie also admitted that when she studied for her Masters Degree in the United Kingdom, she barely left her room. She felt so much pressure to do well, especially as a foreign student. She was afraid of judgement from other students and Chinese society. Furthermore, she spent the last year working 12-14 hour days, six days a week.
Now as as she looks back? She says, “I would have left my room”. She would have tasted fish and chips, talked to people, and took time to find herself. To find the joys in life that she feels many in China have not been lucky enough to find. She has done what many have not— she has reevaluated her course in life, decided she doesn’t like what she sees, and despite society’s pressure, she will get hers. Carrie, at the age of 25 with a Masters degree in Transportation Engineering, will open her own art school next month. A facility near a college campus for the everyday student, not the professional artist. For she hopes that this generation can learn to look inwards, paint, draw, and create their own world.
Carrie says urban planning is an interest, but not her passion, I’m arguing that in fact it is. Like Dr. Wang suggested, what Carrie knows as planning, this technical/ mechanical version, may not be what planning is evolving into in China and the world. Alas, Carrie still has a heart of an urban planner- a will to improve the quality of life for her people.
We, as planners, try so hard to create a sense of place and belonging by changing the use of space. However, more often then not, a place is its people. You know that feeling you get when you first meet someone and it’s like you’ve known them for years? Like one of your girls? That was Carrie. She was like finding home.
So as you can see, the heart of all my experiences here in China are:
The people. The people. The people.
Thank you my friends.