I’ve been in Liaocheng a little over two months now, and with the exception of my weekends in Beijing and Laiwu have not left county limits, which is both good and bad.  While I enjoy the ability to slip into a place, developing a more intimate relationship with it, learning how to think of it as my home, at the same time I’ve been missing out one of the most fascinating aspects of 21st Century China, its incredible socioeconomic diversity.

Jinan is the capitol of Shandong Province, and with a population of 6.3 million (Los Angeles is closer to 4 million for contrast) it stands as only the 17th biggest city in China.  Shandong University calls Jinan home, and as one of the largest schools in Mainland China attracts a wide array of international students.  Jinan has a Wal-Mart, a Pizza Hut, a foreigner specific grocery store, and a McDonalds every ten blocks, (by the way, McDonalds serves lamb sandwiches in China.  How awesome is that?)  While Jinan is not high on the list of must-see tourist destinations in China, it still offers a handful ofhistorical and religious sites, as well as being the major city closest to Mt. Tai and the hometown of Confucius, perhaps the most popular destination for Chinese Tourists.

To say that Jinan offering more than Liaocheng is a symbol of China’s socioeconomic diversity is a bit of misnomer.  Everyone knows that bigger cities mean more people, means more culture, means more ammenities and opportunities.  Everyone knows that New York City offers more than Cedar Rapids.  But coming from the perspective of someone who’s fallen into the rhythm of what I believe the most common form of every-day life for most Chinese people, the shock of hopping on a bus for an hour and suddenly having access to such modern western amenities jolted me, more than I ever think a trip to the Big Apple would.

I stayed with my friend Dean, whose school asked him to help fill in at they’re other location in Jinan, and a fellow teacher of his.  The apartment building was in the Muslim quarter of Jinan, a cramped, dark, damp, wonderful place, where at night the restaurants set up tables in the street, neon tinted clouds of smoke from the barbecue vendors swallowed up the air.  Buskers carried amplifiers on their backs like knapsacks and walked from restaurant to restaurant, barraging the patrons with a warped and distorted wall of sound.  We ate lamb kebabs, chicken wings, and cartilage for dinner, as well as something cubed, white, and mushy that none of us could discern.

We went out for drinks at a bar called English Corner (guess what they’re target audience is), and met a few other teachers living in Jinan.  A few drinks in Dean and I got into an existential argument about fact and the existence of Jesus Christ, not that the two of us really had any clue what we were talking about.  It felt to argue, a skill I cherish and don’t get to use much here in China, especially things beyond where we should go for dinner.

My Cheeks red and my brain clicking, I set off with the group, (all dudes, a big problem for expat life in China) set off for Soho, officially the craziest nightclub I’ve ever been to.  We walked past beefy Chinese dudes with headsets and business suits at the door, and entered a pulsing, pounding, writhing ball room, packed to the brim with foreigners and trendy, wealthy, westernized (?) Chinese people.  Club singers sang Beyonce songs and a blonde girl showed her Chinese friends the Single Ladies dance.  At one point the lights went down and the bar tenders lit off a series of fountain sparklers, and then proceeded to juggle flaming bottles of liquor while the DJ free-styled.  It was like being on the set of ‘Jersey Shore: China,’ without so much hair jell.

I had a lot of fun in Jinan, perhaps more fun than I have had in any one night in Liaocheng, and it crossed my mind more than once that I might have been happier had I gone to school there instead of Liaocheng.  But I came to the conclusion that had I gone to Jinan I probably would have eaten at McDonald’s, shopped at Wal-Mart, and gone out to the English Corner every Friday night. In a lot of ways it makes me proud of myself to think that I’ve chosen to live in a city where western amenities go as far as a few coffee shops, a restaurant that uses ketchup to make pizza, and KFC.  The CIA World Fact Book shows that 57% of the Chinese population lives in non-urban areas.  The majority of Chinese people don’t have access to a Jinan, but the majority of foreigners living in China do, and take full advantage of it.

But does that mean that I’m experiencing the real China of the the 21st century while foreigners living in major cities are not?  Of course not.  It’s impossible to say that cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Jinan, and all the other multimillion population cities in China aren’t real China, even the parts of town that are heavily influenced by the West.  43 percent of the Chinese population live in cities, and that number is growing, while at the same time Western influence is starting to reach the smaller cities.  Even Liaocheng has recently debuted its first proper martini bar, and at night you can spot trendy youngsters on their way to the disco, a site you would rarely if ever see a year ago.

The question of what is real China is unanswerable one (the best kind), partly because it’s so vast, partly because it’s so ethnically and culturally diverse, partly because China constitutes one fourth of the world’s population, but primarily because its changing so friggin’ fast.