During both of my previous stints living in Hohhot (2002-04 and 2006-07), every time I took a taxi the conversation between the cab driver and myself was largely the same. He or she would ask where I was from. I would respond that I was from America. He or she would then say that America is so prosperous and developed—why would I come to such a backward, undeveloped city like Hohhot? I would generally respond that I thought it was developing very quickly, he or she would agree, and then move on to inquire about why I wasn't yet married.
I hadn't thought much about the conversation I used to have with taxi drivers because so much is different now. I'm older and graduated. I no longer have a "job" in the Hohhotian sense of the word. My two small daughters attract most of the attention now and divert the conversation to other matters. I've also improved my Chinese language ability to be more in control of conversations than before, which means fewer of them follow the same rote pattern.
But recently, something has dawned on me. Since my family's return to Hohhot in August 2012, not a single taxi driver has referred to our fair city as "undeveloped," or "luohou" in Chinese. I can't remember even one time I've heard that word in reference to Hohhot since we've been back. I believe this place has become a developed city in its own right and that locals now also think of it that way.
In the five years I spent living back in America, a clear sea change happened in the local mindset. Hohhot residents no longer saw their city as a backward and undeveloped overnight stop-over for tourists hoping to ride a horse and see the grasslands. They no longer saw it as a dot on the map of China's frontier.
From my perspective, vast progress was made between 2007 and 2012. The condition of personal residences improved greatly. The average salary and amount of expendable income increased, as did the number of individual material possessions. People began to own private cars. More international brands and companies began relocating to Hohhot. There are more skyscrapers now and the city has expanded outward.
However, none of these changes happened overnight. I had been out of the city for half a decade yet could still find my way around quite easily. My first dorm room and both previous apartments (in six-floor walk-up buildings) were easy to find, minus a few changes to the surrounding neighborhoods. Though there were new buildings, only a very few areas had become unrecognizable.
It makes me wonder when the residents of the city stopped seeing Hohhot as "luohou." During my absence, I didn't get to see or hear the shift. At what point did the word stop being used? Was the shift gradual or immediate?
Not only do the residents no longer see their city as "undeveloped" or "lagging behind," the second change in the conversation is that they've also stopped commenting on America's development. Just as I no longer hear taxi drivers refer to Hohhot as "luohou," I also don't hear them refer to the prosperity and advancement of America. I doubt this change means that they no longer see America as developed; simply that there's no longer such a stark contrast between the progress of their city and that of the Western world. I also see ideas about what they want from life changing. Now that the city has achieved a greater level of development, it seems Hohhotians desire greater personal freedoms and more opportunities for advancement.
Another interesting addition to the conversation I have noted just in the past few weeks are comments regarding America's comparatively sparse population. A few times recently, when I've stated that I'm from America, the taxi driver or other stranger will ask the population of America and express surprise at the low number. Less populated means greater opportunities. Perhaps the drift from "prosperous America" to the United States having a small population displays a desire for advancement and personal freedoms, freedoms which they don't think can be achieved in the highly competitive nature of society here.
The conversation I'm having with taxi drivers has clearly changed over the last several years. It makes me wonder what changes will happen to the conversation in the next five. I hope to be here to find out.
The author is an American living in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region