My sister visited me over January, and wrote down a few of the things which impressed her the most. It’s good seeing China again through fresh eyes. After a year here, I take for granted that you never flush toilet paper, that at restaurants water comes to the table hot or at least warm, that everything is eaten with chopsticks, that no one speaks English, and that Chinese characters are unintelligble unless you’ve learned them.
So here are some excerpts from my sister’s Big Aabservations:
Despite a few prior visits to China (Hong Kong and Taiwan, and one other to the mainland–Chengdu to visit Liz last May) there were, believe it or not, still some things that surprised me on this trip, which I thought I’d share. In no particular order:
* Despite being inhabitants of such uber-populous cities, which, most NYers at least would probably agree drives most of us here into greater societal isolation (how many of you really know your neighbors?), China seems to share a much greater sense of communality, a stronger sense of social cohesion. What I saw in nearly every city we visited, impressed this upon me: In the center square of each city, (or on the boardwalk along the beach, or on the sidewalk of a closed-for-the- day shopping center, as the case may be), groups–from dozens to hundreds of Chinese–would gather to do group line dancing. Think electric slide or the lambada. No sexually explicit grinding, no crushed beer cans or 40son the ground, or cliques of the “too cool”, just innocent, mass, line dancing– and of people of all ages. It was really something to see– this is how they spend their weekend nights! A big speaker at one end, and usually a dance leader too, directing the common movements… dozens and dozens of all ages in dancing synchronization. At one such gathering in Hainan, a sub-group of the masses on the boardwalk was being led by an instructor teaching not dance moves, but head massaging– dozens of people standing around massaging their heads in unison according to the leader… it was truly something I had never seen before. Could you imagine this in the US?
* Not as much as in Chengdu, where there were considerably fewer westerners than the cities we were in this trip, but in the cities on this trip, Chinese would still come and ask to take pictures with us. On our first day, in Tiananmen Square, a group of young teens insisted they take a picture with me–presumably for being white– we figured they must have been tourists and not from Beijing, where the waiguoren population was markedly greater than other cities. The worst instance of this transient celebrity was when Liz and I were relaxing in our bathing suits on the quiet, empty beach near where we were staying in Hainan, when an entire Chinese tour group (in the requisite Hawaiian print short and shirt sets) came up and asked repeatedly to take pictures with them. They would not let us refuse–oy!
* Shanghai is a beautiful city, certainly the most western-leaning of them, and certainly more so than Beijing. You can get the best of the best in terms of creature comforts, luxuries, etc in Shanghai. Yet, across the street from our beautiful 4 star hotel on a famous shopping street not far from the Bund, I saw a woman with her pants down, squatting and doing her business in a crowded bus stop. I wasn’t surprised to discover numerous such squatters in less urban areas, such as on Hainan, where I saw a few a few times on the beach; this, however, was in public on a nice street in Shanghai, and in front of an audience. The thing you have to most keep in mind about China is that THOUGH every luxury and comfort you can get here IS available there, it is still a very, very developing country. Not as often are you reminded of that in a place like Shanghai, certainly not Hong Kong or Taiwan, but… even on the streets of Shanghai there are such subtle reminders. Then again, as I noted on my trip to Chengdu last year, they also sell crotchless pants for babies across China so they can relieve themselves freely on the street. And they spit a LOT– constant hocking. I assume it has to do with the smoking, but Liz maintains that it is the pollution that settles in the lungs after a few months there. Regardless of the cause, the point is it is a very obvious cultural etiquette difference. As apparently is defecating on the street.
* A few more interesting things about Hainan island, where we spent 6 days in the lovely tropical clime: Its often referred to as the Hawaii of China (not quite there yet, in my esteem), though in the regard of being a honeymoon/wedding destination, it is. One of the most popular items for sale there are brightly colored Hawaiian-print shorts and short sleeve button down shirt sets– IN PAIRS. Yes, love struck couples are supposed to buy (and don, as many did) these identically matched (one in his size, one in hers) short/shirt sets and continue to frolic on their honeymoon. We saw couples doing photo shoots in these hideous sets, on the beach, in town… it was hysterical. I resisted the temptation to purchase one.
* Should you ever doubt its a small world, think of the following: Flying out late one night from the Sanya airport on Hainan island, we passed a group of what we knew instantly must be Americans, because the guys were all in blue button downs and jeans (literally). We were somewhat interested to know what our fellow-countrymen were doing there, having been surrounded only by Russians and Chinese for a week, but it seemed they were boarding their plane so we proceeded towards our gate– that is, until Liz said “I’ll be right back”, and ran over to the group– it turns out Claire Love, a friend of hers there (made from mutual friends from her Lehman days in NY), was now in business school and had just spent a week in Hainan on a Business School trip (uh, what class was that for?!)– and the group was just returning to Beijing. Mind you, this is a pretty tiny, rural airport, and them, and us were just about the only foreigners in the building. As they say in Spanish, the world is a handkerchief!!
* My final adventure in China was a 3 night stay on a Chinese “cruise” ship down the Yangtze with dad and Liz to see what remains of the famous ‘3 Gorges’, before they are further submerged by the rising Yangtze, as the recently constructed dam of all dams reaches its full capacity. Despite the physical hardships of the cruise (NO HEAT ANYWHERE ON THE BOAT, for example), it was a very fascinating opportunity to spend a lot of time with real middle class Chinese, from which we were nearly entirely insulated at the 4 star hotels elsewhere in our travels. Interestingly, the tour boat was full not of couples, or families, but nearly entirely of groups of middle aged (chain-smoking) men. I posed the question of why to the 3 other foreigners on the boat besides us, and one of them told me: the gender ratio is so imbalanced in China because everyone wants to have a boy that there is a dearth of women, which means a large, unmarried male population– who apparently take trips and do things like this in groups of their peers, smoking their cigarettes, and playing their card games and mah jong and smoking their cigarettes, and spitting their sunflower seeds, and smoking their cigarettes, and spitting phlegm. Seriously however, it was a social phenomenon I had never considered related to the one-child rule and the strong preference for male babies.
* Oh yes: and in China, tomatoes are fruit.
It was one of the trips of a lifetime, and I am so grateful to have had a chance to see China at this defining moment in its development to world power… this is a trip not to be forgotten.