Among longer-term expatriates in China I think there’s a bit of a tendency to downplay – or downright denigrate – the observations made by first-time visitors and newcomers. I’m not immune to this tendency. Indeed, I think the worst offenders might be members of my own cohort: turf-sensitive journalists and writers. Quite frankly, I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been in the company of China-based writers as they sniff proudly at the idea of “fly-in” journalists with no experience in China, writing about China (full disclosure: I’ve sniffed, too). It’s a natural tendency, I think, but also an unfortunate one insofar as it deprives jaded eyes of fresh ones.
A humbling example:
I spent the better part of the morning and early afternoon with an American ob-gyn on her first visit to China. She’s in her mid thirties, very well educated and very well traveled, particularly in India (she speaks Hindi). She also has a strong interest in the care of low-income women. In any case, prior to meeting up with me, she spent two days wandering the city (well, my neighborhood, mostly), taking in whatever she could see. And what she saw, she told me, was a city lacking in pregnant women and children.
I immediately took issue with this observation – “I see pregnant women and children all of the time,” I replied with a wizened expatriate’s confidence. But she wouldn’t hear any of it: instead, she just shook her head back at me, and shrugged: “It’s my job to notice these things. And there are fewer pregnant women and children around than there should be. I notice this stuff.”
I didn’t give this much thought until, just a few minutes ago, I came across Dune Lawrence’s Letter to China in today’s NYT. It concerns China’s “coming wave of elderly” and points out that:
The world’s third-largest economy is aging so rapidly that by 2050, there may be only two working-age people for every senior citizen, compared with 13 to one now.
Now, these trends are not entirely new to me or – I’m guessing – many of my readers. But I know about them because I’ve spent many years reading and listening to lots and lots of material related to China. Meanwhile, my friend, the American ob-gyn, has not; in fact, I think it’s safe to say that she’s not even particularly interested in China. And that’s why it’s all the more humbling to realize that – in the space of 48 hours in my neighborhood – she picked up on something that I failed to see in 6.5 years.
[UPDATE] I received a number of interesting responses to this post, both in comment form and emails. One very knowledgable respondent agrees that there are fewer children and women on the streets of Shanghai, though this correspodent ascribes the phenomenon to cultural factors that encourage the coddling of pregnant women and children – and not population factors (an email mentions the advent of cell-phone proof overalls for pregnant women!). Similar comments below.]