I first arrived in Qingdao in July 2002. As a young teacher beginning her international school career, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from my new home. I was astounded by the natural beauty where the mountains meet the sea, but I was even more inspired by the artistry and innovation of Qingdao and the people who live here.
In 2002, Qingdao was a sleepy, seaside town from October to May. You would be hard-pressed to find a shop open any later than 9 or 10 pm each evening. But as the sun rises early, so do the people. Each morning on my way to school, I would travel past locals completing morning exercises along the seaside, and you could always rely on the "polar bear club" – the men who met on the beach across from the iconic Sea View Garden Hotel and plunged into the icy ocean to swim every morning of the year.
In the early 2000s, Qingdao was already internationally known for its most famous export – Tsingtao Beer. The city always seemed to come to life in the summer months when tourists descended upon the Qingdao International Beer Festival and other seaside activities. People of all ages could be found outdoors enjoying meat-on-a-stick, Qingdao gala (spicy clams), and beer-in-a-bag at late-night pop-up restaurants. Music and art were never far away, and the comfortable summer climate meant that most people enjoyed the entertainment outdoors.
The pace of life was slower then. Only a handful of people had personal vehicles, very few people had cell phones, and weekends and nights were spent in the markets bargaining for dailyessentials. The fabric market was always busy as most clothing was specially crafted by tailors for each customer. Locals were always proud to own a Qingdao-made Haier refrigerator or a Hisense television.
The safe harbor, picturesque mountains and fresh sea air, coupled with its temperate climate, made Qingdao an ideal place to host the 2008 Olympics sailing competitions. In the years leading up to the Olympics, the city grew rapidly.
Young Chinese graduates looking for opportunities and foreign businesses looking to leverage the global platform rushed to find their place in Qingdao. The old shipyard in Shinan district was reimagined into the Olympic Sailing Center. The government did an excellent job of keeping pace with the city's growing needs for convenience and transportation. Shopping malls and high-end retail stores soon began to replace the night markets.
In preparing for the Olympics, not only did the entire city come together, but the entire country.
Riding on country roads throughout Shandong province, signs boasted the excitement of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Taxi drivers and wait staff in restaurants studied different languages to best communicate with arriving foreigners.
I witnessed the beauty of a collective nation, celebrating a countrywide event with enthusiasm and support. There was no other commitment quite so moving as seeing thousands of Qingdao's citizens on the beaches collecting the green algae that threatened to disrupt the sailing events. Coming from a very individualistic society, I am so thankful to have seen what can be accomplished when people in China work towards a shared common goal.
While Qingdao is a young city in terms of history compared to its other Shandong neighbors, it is nevertheless a center for both art and innovation.
Creative sculptures and mosaics dot the coastline and major thoroughfares, and Sculpture Park, located in Laoshan district near Shilaoren Beach, draws locals and tourists alike. Sculpture Park and the surrounding seaside area also inspire evening performances of drums, woodwinds, and brass horns. You can always find music in Qingdao – whether in one of the several performing arts venues or in a small jazz club.
As the home to two of the top global home goods brands – Haier and Hisense–Qingdao has greatly benefited from both the sponsorship and competitiveness of each company's technological innovations and the shared economic impact on the city's rapid growth.
I'm amazed and astounded at the development of the city. Technology has brought about great advancement in the last 20 years. The buildings have only gotten taller and the lights at night now seem so much brighter. The city has continued to become more and more convenient to live in.
My first apartment in Qingdao was in a building that did not have an elevator, and the only delivery man I saw back then had to lug the large bottles of Laoshan water to my home on the eighth floor. Now I live on the 23rd floor in a very modern complex where with the convenience of my smartphone, I can buy not only my bottled water, but groceries, dinner, furniture, or a television that would be delivered the very next day.
Food preparation has changed dramatically with pre-cut meats, pre-cleaned vegetables, and deli foods available at every grocery and convenience shop. I've adjusted from being paid in cash to exclusively using WeChat and Alipay, and I was most excited when the Qingdao Metro first opened as I was able to travel to the CBD in record time!
While I can talk about all the ways that I've seen the city change, I also know that I have changed too.
I deeply love my China home and the friends and family that I have found in Qingdao. I've attended both weddings and funerals of the people I've loved. I've held newborn babies and watched them grow into young adults raised by the entire community. I've shared laughter and tears with my Qingdao family, so I know that the important things remain unchanged and why we love our city by the sea: the people are friendly, the seafood is delicious, and the weather is just right!