|Ski and shop: Chinese children holiday in Europe (top) to learn on Kufstein’s ski slopes (Photo of children by Pallavi Aiyar)|
BRUSSELS: On a blustery February evening in the Tyrolean town of Kufstein, pandemonium reigned inside the usually lugubrious Thaler Hotel. Gaggles of Chinese children swarmed the corridors. “Hi!” one called out. My Chinese was rusty, but adequate. “Ni hao,” I replied. “Have you had a fun day?” Nonplussed, the boy fell momentarily silent.
“Are you Chinese?” asked another bespectacled child with braces flashing silver across his teeth. “Do I look Chinese?” I countered.
“You speak Chinese,” he parried. A girl with bobbed hair and grownup expression sighed. “Don’t you know?” she said with a frown. “These days it’s normal for foreigners to speak Chinese. It’s no big deal.”
And it’s also increasingly normal to see hoards of Chinese children hitting Europe’s ski slopes, shopping malls and chocolate shops. If it’s school-vacation holiday in China, then it’s study-tour time in Europe.
I joined one of six groups of children visiting Europe for the Chinese New Year break in late January, a trip arranged by a German company, ECS Tours. Run by a young couple – German lawyer Rudolf Reiet and Xing Li – ECS is a new player in the lucrative market for Chinese study groups in Europe.
In a country where many workers earn an annual income of around $1,500, parents paid up to RMB 60,000, or US$9,500, to send their children on whirlwind tours of the continent’s sights. In addition to holiday photos, the children were expected to bring home skills like eating with a fork and knife and learning the appropriate time to clap at a classical music concert.
If it’s school-vacation holiday in China, then it’s study-tour time in Europe.
Chinese tourists, some 3 million of whom visited Western Europe in 2010, have already remade the traditional European Grand Tour according to their own tastes and consumer culture. Typical stops include Paris for romance and Louis Vuitton; Switzerland for mountains and chocolates; German towns like Trier, the birthplace of Karl Marx; and Metzingen, home to several factory outlets and the headquarters of Hugo Boss.
Chinese travelers have also emerged as the travel industry’s knights in shining armor, riding to the rescue of Europe’s industries suffering the effects of stagnant economic growth. In 2011, Chinese travelers accounted for 62 percent of Europe’s luxury goods sales according to one estimate.
The 35 children in my group were from a primary School in Chongqing and receive a truncated version of the new Chinese Grand Tour with a few days each in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Talking with them offered a glimpse into the attitudes and aspirations of the country’s future workforce. These children were born in 2000 amid anticipation of China’s imminent rise to superpowerdom, an idea that would have seemed improbable even a decade earlier.
Collectively, the children provide a snapshot of China’s new elite. Many are sons and daughters of officials of China’s ruling Communist Party. “They talk just like little lingdao [leaders], ready to launch into a politically correct speech at the asking,” Reiet said. Others are children of entrepreneurs. Reiet smiled, recalling a child who had brought along packets of instant noodles to sell to classmates bored with European fare at the inflated price of €5 each.
Over dinner, the conversation at our table was about money. One jolly, plump 11-year-old grinned and pointed to her friend: “Do you know how much cash her father gave her for this trip?”
Chinese travelers are the travel industry’s knights in shining armor, riding to the rescue.
“Stop it, stop it!” gasped Xue, trying to put a hand over her friend’s mouth.
“€4000!” the girl exclaimed, undeterred. “Can you believe it?” Fan then happily explained that her father had given her €2,000. The children were comfortable talking about money, but ask a question about politics, even something as basic as whether their parents were party members, and they immediately went quiet.
Another girl at our table had looked on, disapproving of the conversation, and when others demanded to know how much spending money she carried, she refused to tell. I asked what her father did. Reluctant to answer, she finally confided that he was a bank executive. One girl let out a whoop. “You must be really rolling in it!” she laughed.
China’s per capita GDP might still be about a sixth that of the United States, but these are China’s children of privilege. The West would not automatically associate the professions of some parents– including policemen, municipal government officials, army officers and investment bureau bureaucrats – with wealth.
Despite decades of economic reform, China’s state-led capitalism has created a murky, often corrupt world, where the line between government officials and entrepreneurs is blurred. Local officials still have power to dispense patronage and lubricate business deals.
The result is scenes as when the scrawny 11-year-old daughter of a police officer waved a platinum credit card a Swarovski Crystal shop. She had picked out a crystal-encrusted watch that cost €2,800 and explained she was buying it for an auntie. Over the course of the next hour she spent a total of €4,200 on gifts for her family.
Another son of a policeman joined children snapping up crystals like candy and held up his crystal dog. “You know what I like about this?” he said. “It’s not ‘made in China!’”
Half the staff at the Swarovski shop were Chinese, and some of the local Austrian clerks had even learned basic Mandarin. Most of the children took this in stride. And for children of an emerging superpower, first impressions of Europe only confirmed their childlike sense of cultural superiority. There was a distinct touch of condescension when I asked the children how they had enjoyed Europe thus far.
For children of an emerging power, first impressions of Europe confirmed a childlike sense of superiority.
“The hotel rooms are rather small here,” said the bank executive’s daughter. Another 11-year-old girl was critical of the traffic. “So many rules to follow on the road. I’m not sure who gets right of way. It must be scary to drive here!”
Another girl, whose father is an engineer and mother a housewife, dissed the breakfasts. “All that ham,” she muttered darkly, missing the typical morning fare for Chinese, hot buns stuffed with pork or a rich bowl of congee, rice porridge. “But,” she continued, “it’s a lot more peaceful out here than in China. Quiet.”
I thought about the children’s hometown, Chongqing, a municipality in China’s southwest and one of the largest urban centers in the world – home to 32 million people, four times that of Austria’s population.
What I remembered most from my own visit to Chongqing in 2008, was the ceaseless aural assault: churning cement mixers, sizzling spicy noodles at roadside stands, spluttering exhaust pipes and heavy thudding of wrecking balls. Everywhere were sounds of trade and movement, the old giving way to the new.
“You mean it’s a lot more boring out here,” giggled another girl. Both grinned in agreement.
For a vast, emerging country like China, defined by continuous change and a headlong rush towards trade and infrastructure development, Old World Europe could understandably appear a tad dull. And while the children did accomplish their mission of learning proper use of fork and knife and filling cameras with pretty pictures, they took away more – a conviction that China is more developed and urban than Europe, though Europe is cleaner, quieter, with plenty of expensive crystals and watches to buy. And yes, foreigners speaking Chinese is normal.