The postgraduate student is unusually chic. The top button of his black shirt is undone, we can see a flash of gold chain. "Wuhan is a city of fakes," he declares, "so I always buy in department stores". My brain does a cultural double take, and then understands.
My watch, the one that cost Y60 (US$7.50) assures me on the faceplate that it is a "Rolex, Oyster Perpetual Datejust, Superlity Chronometer Officially Certified". On the back I learn that it is "Water Resistant 18K Gold Peated Japan Movt". The first night I put it by my bedside an astonishing, eerie glow lit the room. The watch's dial was putting off enough luminescence to run a small nuclear power plant. Now I'm torn between naked fear of radiation poisoning and a wary admiration for the convenience of a watch that doubles as a torch. Unlike the postgraduate student however, my honour is not affronted, especially since it successfully tells the time. On the other hand, I don't live with the bitter realization that my culture has the world's longest and most massive record of political unity, but in the modern world can scarcely claim an original product or a workable idea to its name.
I arrive home one evening to find a small man squatting outside my apartment, a cigarette pasted to one side of his mouth, surrounded by wood chips. He is hacking away at a second hand screen door with a primitive saw that has come from some pre industrial era. My father was a carpenter, so I have this perverse habit of measuring civilizations by the fit of their door jams. The saw might not signify much if it is used with skill, but when I look at my visitor's handiwork, it seems that China has a problem. The workman encapsulates the undocumented face of Chinese life, the face that gets by to the next meal somehow, that keeps things just working with make-do fixes, but somehow never excels.
The fakes, the poor workmanship, the settling for second best ... are daily reality in China. So is the desperate scramble of new moneyed elites for "genuine", usually meaning imported goods. Each is a flip side of the same cheap coin. In comfortably "developed": and stable countries, the snobbery encapsulated by the postgraduate is also ever present. But used as a marketing weapon, even snobbery has an economic value. Snobbery can be an engine for quality, to finance the best in production and achievement. Instead, in China we have a vote of no confidence in the society itself, which even the loud rhetoric of nationalism cannot disguise. But this is an historical condition, a moment in time extracted from the whirlwind of social change. I would be astonished to return in twenty-five years time and not find this moment of imperfection lost to the memory of a newly confident and more capable generation.