American David Gleit was studying Mandarin in Taiwan when the mainland opened its doors to the outside world. He took the opportunity to visit in April and December 1978 and again in the 1980s and has returned periodically ever since. Luckily for us, each time he was armed with a decent camera and documented the changes over the decades.
"The two three-day tours I took in 1978 were restricted to Guangzhou, Foshan, and a People's Commune outside of Guangzhou (they still had those back then). At that time, the Open Door Policy was just starting, and China was starting to issue visas for short-term tours arranged by the China Travel Agency. The tour leaders were surprisingly lenient in allowing us to depart from the tour and do some of our own sightseeing after we had assured them that our Chinese was good enough to get around on our own."
"On a visit to Sun Yat-sen University, we met with students who were in the first class since before the Cultural Revolution to be admitted on the basis of academic performance, not class background and ideological correctness. Hotels were arranged for us, but we were allowed to move around unchaperoned for whole days. In 1986 and 1989, we were allowed to make all travel arrangements ourselves and move around completely unchaperoned."
"In 1978, there was nothing in Shenzhen, except a little village, and you could see the farmers from the train station. In 1986, Shenzhen was already a bustling city, having been declared a Special Economic Zone in 1980. Another big change was the attire and appearance of people, especially women! In 1978, there was simply no one wearing skirts or dresses, no one wearing make-up, and no one in a permed hairdo."
"A girl we met in Nanning in late 1985 who took us on a bike ride out of the city actually went to the U.S. to study a few years later and I met her, completely by chance, in a Chinese restaurant in Las Vegas in 1993. She was my waitress and looked familiar, and I asked her where she was from. When she said Nanning, it suddenly clicked in my brain, and I said "I know you." She was in shock, as was I."
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 22 ("china"). To see more of David's Gleit's photos of China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, from the '70s, '80s, and '90s, see his Flickr profile