Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My trip to China

My nine days in China were close to a perfect experience.  I was fortunate to have a tour that provided an individual tour guide and driver in the three cities I visited (Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai). I also gained insight into china, its history, and its current status.  I have a few overall observations about China:

The three cities I visited had a combined population of about 60 million people.  There were cars, motorbikes, regular bikes, and pedestrians all vying for limited street space.  It seems that the bikes and pedestrians are not required to follow the rules established for autos.  Going through an intersection requires great vigilance in order not to be hit.  I continually told my guides that I could not drive in China, and they could not understand how orderly driving in the US is. 

·         There are so many people that the Chinese tend to react to others either as not being there or as an obstacle to be removed.  One is a fool to stand in line and say “you first,” because then people would move in.  Queuing up means being aggressive toward others who inevitably want to move in front of the line. 

·         The Chinese tend to view their government much like we view ours.  Most of the time it doesn’t interfere in daily living, but it does want its cut of your pay. This is so different than what our government has portrayed for us.  There were no pointed rifles and no nationalistic slogans everywhere.   I only saw one portrait of Mao.  This is not the Red China that we have been propagandized to expect. There are few police to be seen, and the military presence is no greater that what I experience in the US.  There are cameras everywhere.  Since no one could possibly be watching the output of each camera, I assume they are there in case something happens and the video is needed for retrospective reviews.  I assume the same is true in the US, where the number of cameras has increased dramatically since 9/11.

·         Apparently 95% of Chinese subscribe to no religion; the 5% who do seem to practice their faiths without interference by the government. 

·         The three cities I visited seemed fairly wealthy, but the emerging middle class struggles with high prices and low salaries.  Of course, the poor struggle more.  Apparently, once outside of the major cities, poverty becomes more prevalent and evident.  The three cities I visited are generally very prosperous but signs of urban poverty are there if you look hard.  Most Chinese live in apartments- individual dwellings are rare.  Most of the apartments have automatic washers, but dryers are few.  As a result, even fairly high end apartments have clothes hanging outside on the balcony.

·         The oldest part of Beijing, the Hutang neighborhood, was almost destroyed in the rush to modernize.  The government has committed to remaining this neighborhood, especially since many elders choose to remain in it rather than to move into the high rises.  The residences are very small with a living room, small dining and kitchen, with bedrooms sometimes on a second floor.  There are common toilet facilities.  I had the chance to eat in the home of a Hutang family.  It was a highlight of the trip.  They were gracious and proud. 

·         The air in all three of the cities was seemed polluted, but Shanghai was better than the other two.
·         Beijing astonished me with its modernism, bold architecture, good urban design, and size.  I was not expecting the city to be as large as it is. 

Th  The area around the Olympic site was particularly striking.  It took about 2 hours to drive from the city center to where there were no tall buildings.  The traffic was terrible, and the distance seemed substantial.  The Great Wall was anything but a private affair.  There were hoards of people in and around the Wall. 

·         Shanghai is a jewel, especially at night when its buildings are lighted with some pretty impressive displays.  There a huge LED screens, as well as lighting systems that flash and dart light across buildings.  There are tourists boats outlined in neon in bright colors.  The boats themselves are styled as a dragon, a Mississippi River boat, a pirate ship, and many others.  I think, in the US, we would consider it too Las Vegas for an average city, but I found it to be exciting and exhilarating.  To see Chinese photographers lined up on the Bund with their cameras aimed across the river to capture the spectacular lights demonstrated to me how much they enjoy the city.

·         Especially in Beijing, the side streets have wonderful tree canopies.  The freeways are also lined with trees, shrubs and flowers.  In addition to barriers, the medians are landscaped with rose bushes, flowers, and shrubs.  The Chinese seem to get how important the landscape can be to provide calm in the midst of the city’s energy. 

·         I was really impressed with most of the architecture.  It is not nearly as garish as the buildings in other “new” cities, such as Dubai.  In fact, there were buildings like the Shanghai JW Marriott and the Central Chinese Television Building and new concert hall in Beijing that are stunning in their simplicity, and grace in spite of being very large. 

·         Clothing seems to be used mostly to cover the body.  It doesn’t seem to have the “status functions” as in the US.  Here we use clothing to cover but also to indicate our affiliations, e.g., social status, skaters, urban, preppie, etc.  Since everyone seems to dress the same in China, there is little differentiation of status, except in the business areas, where suits are typical.   Even with the high-end shops available, I didn’t see much high-end on the streets.
·         Chinese citizens are not allowed to own guns.  This protects them from each other and protects the government from them.  Apparently there is a fair amount of physical violence, however.  I saw two arguments in the street that were escalating to pushing and shoving- both with a crowd of watchers.
W   While not wanting to draw this too broadly, the Chinese culture seems to be somewhat asexual, at least in comparison to the US.  While we proclaim our Puritanism publicly, our TV shows, advertising, and music videos are full of sexually tinged content.  We leer at each other on the streets.  I did not see any of this in the three cities I visited.  I also didn’t see it in Bangkok.  I will admit, however, that I was solicited several times in Shanghai.  Apparently there are great massages to be had.

·         I was surprised that the cuisine in the three cities was very similar to what we call Chinese food in the US.  The dumplings are far superior in China, however.

·         My guides were outstanding.  They spoke English and had a sense of humor, which sometimes is very difficult cross-culturally.  They adjusted their presentations to my level of knowledge about China.  They didn’t treat me like an idiot. 

·         Several groups of young people on the Great Wall wanted to have their picture taken with me.  I think I was a curiosity, being so white an all.  There were other Caucasians available however.  Who knows?

·         Many of the historical sites, e.g., the Summer Place, the Forbidden City, were built in the same era, i.e., the Ming and Qing dynasties.  As a result they tend to look a lot alike- same architecture and coloring.

·         Even in Shanghai, elegant high rises can be located adjacent to old and often run down older areas. 
Th  There is some skepticism among young professionals about the value of being married.  Apparently, they feel that, given the difficulties of living in China, it might not be worth it.

·         There is widespread use of heroin in China.  The government supports methadone maintenance, but there is little in the way of recovery support services, including support for families.  There are self help programs only in the largest cities.  There were none in Xi’an, a city of 6 million.

·         I was surprised when one of my guides made a comment about America losing the Korean and Vietnam wars.  I guess that’s true from their perspectives.

China is a great country whose future seems poised for growth.  Their form of government is certainly more efficient than ours, if less democratic.  Maybe China’s mixed economy with enlightened leadership can pay benefits for the greatest number.  I guess we will see. 

So would I return to China?  Maybe, but likely only to spend more time with my guides.  As important as seeing the country is, I enjoyed getting to know my guides immensely and found them to be interesting and warm people.  

No comments:

Post a Comment