Friday, 18 January 2013

China on my mind: final reflections


What can I say? I have enjoyed getting to know it, and it has been good to me in return.

One thing that will always stand out in my memory is the kindness of the people. They were never cross, mean or unpleasant when I had a question. If they didn’t understand English or speak it well, they were apologetic, embarrassed by their failing, rather than being annoyed that a foreigner didn’t speak Chinese.

When I did try to speak Chinese, they attempted to understand my strange accent and were thrilled – and surprised – that someone had made the effort.

Yes, there were scams and overcharging for cab fares, and my uncertainty about when to bargain was a liability, but overall, people dealt with me in good faith.

As for the history here, it is so long and rich that it is hard to absorb all at once. To think that Westerners condescend to a people who were creating and inventing thousands of years before North America was inhabited, and whose light was shining brightly as Europe went through the Dark Ages. Was England’s class system any kinder than Chinese feudal society?

We judge China based on an understanding of today’s Communism, but there is much more lurking beneath the surface. And it’s worth a look! The art, the food, the gardens – all derived from an outlook and way of life so different from our own.

Visiting some of the historic sites in Shanghai – the site of the first Communist party congress and the home of Soong Ching Ling – made me realize how little I actually know of China’s more recent history. Something to explore further.

 It also was a revelation to see that these sites were jammed with Chinese, proud of their country and its history. What did I expect? Disdain, the lens through which the West views the country? As I said, I’d be interested in talking with some real people in more detail. The few I encountered – tour guides, generally – seem to have accepted the “One country, two systems” approach without bitterness, and it’s hard to tell what they think of the West, but they are proud of their country.

And don’t let me get started on comparing things like public transit here – comprehensive and cheap --and at home, or the waterfront in Shanghai versus Toronto’s sorry efforts. Yikes.

That said, I would like to know more Chinese language when I return. It would make it possible to have real conversations with people. It would also ease the way in cities like Xi’an, where I was clearly an oddity among the local population and felt like an object of curiosity wherever I went.

Travelling alone has been an education. Luckily, money makes it easier than worrying about fitting things into a tight budget. In a rush? Take a cab. Unhappy about a hutong with no heat? Stay at a luxury Western-style hotel.

But, I must say, it is rather odd to go for days without having a conversation with anyone. Thank heavens for Skype.

Sure, I could have sought out more tours, but that takes work, and it’s usually not my style.It just would be nice to occasionally talk with someone speaking English.

Things that struck me, more specifically?

Shanghai is, indeed, a more Westernized city than the others I visited, and I felt quite comfortable, almost as if I were in Hong Kong. Beijing has a large Western population, but it felt very Chinese nonetheless. And in Xi’an and Suzhou, Westerners are almost invisible. It will be nice to be in HK again, where people are used to seeing expats and don’t stare – or pester me to buy things or urge me to hire a cab, although it’s nowhere near as bad as someplace like Jamaica. The word “No” is understood.

The traffic in China is crazy! Cars are such a relatively recent addition to the culture, and it seems as if everyone is still adjusting. The streets in Beijing have bike/scooter lanes, but Shanghai! What madness to have all of them on the road together, along with a right-on-red law that puts pedestrians in jeopardy. Not to mention scooters and bikes riding the sidewalks, too. Yowza!

The scale of China’s cities is amazing, too. Shanghai has 19 million citizens, and three or four million workers from outside the city/country. That’s about two-thirds of Canada’s population.

I don’t think there’s a melting-pot concept here. Minorities seem to be Other. Not sure that they are treated badly, just that there’s a verbal recognition of difference.

Cities in China don’t seem to have the Hong Kong strolling disease. People actually move with purpose. What a pleasure! However, on Shanghai’s escalators, there’s no “stand right, walk left” rule, so you can’t be in tooooo much of a hurry.

Despite the veneer of modernity, in many ways, China has some work to do. The infrastructure needs help. In Beijing, at least in the hutongs, many homes don’t have indoor plumbing, and throughout China, the sewer systems are fragile. One is asked to throw toilet paper in the wastebasket so as not to clog the drains. And squat pans are still very popular and common, although perhaps that’s preference, not modernity.

But for such a massive place, with a massive population, the country is moving right along. In fact, the slogan should be, China: Under Construction. My guide in Xi’an, Bryan, told me that the national bird of China today is the construction crane, and he’s not kidding. Roads and buildings are springing up everywhere.

Another thing missing here – for the good – is anti-Semitism. The Chinese don’t hate the Jews; they seem to respect their strong family ties and a reputed ability to make money. It’s a relief to find a culture where anti-semitism isn’t ingrained. Way to go, China!

Now, if they’d only allow people to criticize the government without fear ...

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy your perspective and you possess such a wonderfully descriptive writing style.
    There's always room for improvement but it takes time and concerted efforts. Your ability to create visual perspectives while not being critical is an excellent way of creating change.