If, 25 years ago, you had asked a local in Beijing for directions to, say, the Forbidden City and wanted to know if it was far, he would probably have said something like: "Not very, just 20 minutes' walk." If you asked the same of his son today, the younger man would probably laugh at the fact that you were walking and advise you to get a taxi instead: "It's really far! At least five minutes' walk!"
China now has the highest rate of diabetes in the world. The usual culprits - a Western diet high in sugar and animal fat, and a lifestyle that is not just sedentary but proudly supine - must take the blame.
I find this ironic because I lost weight as soon as I arrived in China in 1988 and it has stayed off - thanks to a traditional Chinese diet and lots of exercise. Now mainland Chinese send their children to fat farms (it's as though they've become a status symbol!), whereas simply living more like their parents did would take care of the problem.
Chinese food is truly wondrous; not only does it taste heavenly and look divine (with a few exceptions such as tripe and chicken's feet) but it is put together with the utmost regard for what's good for the body. Lots of vegetables fresh from the market (meaning they're just out of the ground); chicken and pork from animals that were happily running around just a few hours ago; and very little wheat or sugar - these are the real secrets to being slim.
So when there is all this, and each province has its own fantastic cuisine, why even bother with "Western" food?
Last weekend L, yet another friend soon to desert me (for the browner grass of Sydney), and I went to Shenzhen for a nostalgic slide down memory lane. Because she loves coffee I grudgingly agreed to go for the Western breakfast in the hotel, included in the room price.
Included? I wouldn't go near it again even if the hotel paid me to stay there. There was indeed coffee, but first we accidentally poured Lipton's tea - so densely black it looked as though it must have been brewed in another century - instead. The coffee with milk was a sinister, scummy grey and tasted of socks. There were some cucumbers half-heartedly cut into long sticks, a couple of sad cherry tomatoes … and the one saving grace: fried eggs. Apart from that, there were only cake-crumbs and some morsels that may or may not have been cornflakes. Baby food!
Mad with hunger, I was ecstatic to light upon some noodles with bean sprouts - but even these had been "westernified" (fried in castor oil, I'm sure of it) into inedibility. China is changing at a dizzying speed but its "Western" food is every bit as crap as it was 25 years ago.