If home is where my heart is, it's Hangzhou

Mar 19

A foreigner demonstrates how to make a cup of genuine Longjing tea.
A visitor learns to pack herbals in a Hangzhou traditional Chinese medicine pharmacy.

WALKING around Hangzhou, it’s not hard to find lingering signs from the G20 Summit in 2016.

Even a year and a half later, it’s all over buses, billboards, meaning that the G20 still marks a major moment for Hangzhou, placing it on an international stage like never before.

“International” is the buzzword taken away from the G20, and Hangzhou has definitely been taking big strides to become this. According to several article listings of the “best Chinese cities for expats,” Hangzhou is now up there, alongside bustling cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Chengdu as a top spot to live.

It’s been mind-blowing to witness Hangzhou’s transformation into an international city, with companies like Alibaba and better infrastructure, or “Ease of English,” as I like to call it. Even just this year there have been changes to the visa policy to encourage international students to pursue startups or careers in Hangzhou. And yet there is something about the word “international” that sparks both awe and anxiety for some people. “International Hangzhou,” key words during the G20, has become part of the continuing goal of improving Hangzhou. It means a more diverse array of opportunities and definite changes. But with these changes comes the fear that Hangzhou could lose what makes it Hangzhou.

As a friend of mine put it: “If Hangzhou becomes too international, it might not be my Hangzhou any more.”

Of course, as an expat, I welcome and applaud everything Hangzhou has been doing these past several years, and look forward to seeing it continue to change in the years to come.

But it’s got me thinking: What does it mean to be an “international city,” and how might it affect Hangzhou?

For those living in bigger cities such as Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou, the idea of an international city is nothing new. For a city like Shanghai, a simple walk along the Bund confirms its international flair; for every local Chinese shop, there’s a bakery or a bar not too far away.

I doubt this is what Hangzhou will look like in the near future, but change has already been happening.

When I first came to Hangzhou in 2012, Metro line 1 hadn’t been built yet, and there were only a few expat hangouts downtown, like Vineyard or Maya Bar. Now, almost six years later, Hangzhou has three Metro lines and restaurants from all over the world.

For more traditionally-minded citizens, the idea of becoming an “International City” does come with some anxiety, namely in that Hangzhou would lose its “Hangzhou-ness” and become a generic big city found anywhere in the world.

What would it mean to have English everywhere? Wouldn’t that discourage people from learning Chinese? At what point do international elements overtake local culture?

When do bars and bakeries dominate local cuisine?

There is of course a chance of these fears being realized, but I don’t think it’s a very big chance, mostly because what makes Hangzhou so appealing for expats in the first place is how it still retains its feel of Chinese culture, despite being so big.

You can walk down the bustling Yan’an Road, amid malls and modern venues, but then you can walk along Beishan Road and be caught in the beauty of the camphor trees and old villas as they lead you to the hills where plaques describe their history amid the aroma of Dragonwell (Longjing) tea.

Hangzhou has already been balancing modernization and tradition for decades, and so I don’t think it would be all that different when it comes to balancing cultural relations.

“Internationalization” probably has different connotations for everyone.

For some, it means “becoming like the West,” but I don’t think that’s what will happen as Hangzhou continues to grow.

When I think of Hangzhou as an “international city,” I don’t think of it as a compromise of Chinese culture, but as an opportunity to add something new to a very grounded place, just like the mixture of both urban sprawl and mountain crawl that already makes this city so unique.

For me, an “international” Hangzhou is one with cultural exchange opportunities, such as those restaurants popping up that have become additions to Hangzhou’s cultural landscape, rather than replacements.

It’s a place that welcomes events and performers from all over the globe to show its citizens something new, while also offering venues for its traditions.

It’s a place that has “Ease of English” without erasing the Chinese. In short, my ideal “international” Hangzhou is a place where expats like me feel like we can make a home, despite it still being different from our former homes.

I think about my hometown sometimes when talk of “internationalization” comes up, because I grew up in a city that wasn’t quite sure what it would become: would it be a suburb of the nearby big city, or would it become a small town with a walkable downtown and local cafes?

In the end, it did both, offering big chain restaurants while still holding onto its more local charm.

I’m confident that Hangzhou can do this even better than my hometown.

And as more and more international talent comes to settle in this city, my friend and those worrying about Hangzhou’s Hangzhou-ness need not worry.

Hangzhou will always be Hangzhou: It’s why we expats have come to live here.

And it’s why it’s a great place to be.

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