Impressions of China
Impressions of China
When we summarized our itinerary of the countries we were going to visit a good friend of mine who had been to both Japan and China told us that we could not choose two more different countries and I know now how true this statement is.
As we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, Japan was a perfect introduction into our new lives as international citizens. The cities are immaculately clean, the people are incomparably polite and its reasonably easy to fulfill your basic needs. In contrast, China is gritty, launches a full-out assault on your senses and is completely unapologetic about it.
We chose the popular overland route of Hong Kong to Guangzhou. On the train ride we sat beside a young family. I was absolutely taken aback when I noticed that the little child of perhaps a year and a half appeared to be wearing what I could only describe as assless-chaps. Now before you go conjuring up images of X-tina, I have since learned that these so-called split pants are used instead of the traditional diapers that we are used to in the toilet training of infants. Our fellow passengers played music and talked loudly, the little boy was incredibly unruly, taking breaks between screaming and tormenting his doting grandmother and aunt for an occasional feeding or a few minutes of sleep. The grandmother brought an enormous amount of food for the journey which they loudly inhaled. The father who sat apart from the other three talked loudly on his cell phone and clipped his nails on the train, seldom providing any support in caging the little monster.
As we entered the train station the differences become glaringly apparent. Hordes of people clamoring to get into “lines”, a term I use extremely loosely. The language barrier and inefficiency was going to prove to be a challenge at this point and we shuffled with the group, taking up an inordinate amount of space with our packs trying to gain some semblance of orientation in the huge city. The streets were filled with people yelling at each other, men horking up their internal organs with their shirts rolled up to expose their characteristically undefined bellies. Horns blared and stepping into traffic was an adventure in itself; with bicycles, motorbikes and cars coming from every direction. People cleaned dishes on the streets beside prominently displayed live snakes, chicken and seafood ready for slaughter. A parent would hold their child donning split pants over the sidewalk enabling them to relieve themselves on the curbside. When we went to public places we would catch locals covertly and sometimes insultingly obviously sneaking pictures of us walking around. The pollution was nearly insufferable. In short we knew we were not in Kansas anymore. Ross shares his challenges of travelling in China in “Culture Shock in China”.
But there is a strange unrefined beauty to this vast and diverse land I have difficulty articulating. We knew going in we weren’t destined for a month of comfort. Luxury is certainly available if you’re willing to pay the price; the number of inexplicably expensive sports cars and name brands was far more than we had ever expected for a so-called communist country. Although the middle class is growing and enjoying their new-found purchasing power on domestic travel and restaurants, the gap between the rich and poor is glaringly apparent. Seeing an adult without legs and arms was an all-too-common experience; we later learned that these people are often purposely maimed as children to evoke the sympathy and cash of passersby. Although it is quite popular today to stipulate on the emerging superpower of China, all things said, China’s per capita GDP puts it just marginally better than that of Namibia. While many of the country’s staggering 1.65 billion citizens live in the audacious capitals of Shanghai and Beijing, the other half live largely agrarian subsistence lifestyles passed on for generations.
All said, regardless of the alien environment we had injected ourselves into we had committed to spend a month in the iconic landscape of China, and that’s when the magic happened.
“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people feel comfortable.”
– Clifton Fadiman
I was lucky enough to go into China feeling a bit like a removed bystander at a circus, this distance cushioned the overwhelming emotions the environment can draw out of you. I struggled in Japan with the lack of emotions the people seemed to display and the difficulty it created in having meaningful connections with its people. This was not the case in China, the people made sure you knew how they were feeling whether or not you could understand the language and I think I found something very real about that. A trip to the washroom where we would all squat in doorless stalls into a trough was by no means even a remotely pleasurable experience, but it was very real and removed of any euphemisms. When food is served there is no mistaking the animal it came from and it’s fully acceptable to use a toothpick from the jar on the table to get any bits stuck in your teeth, and any bones from the meat can be piled directly on the table or floor. I’m not saying that I’m ready to start cleaning my ears at the dinner table but there is something kind of refreshing (no pun intended) about unabashedly dealing with your most basic of needs.
I referred to the toddler with split pants earlier, once we learned that this was the standard method of toilet training for children, we asked ourselves if this really was so wrong? Putting a baby in a diaper and forcing it to sit in its own waste, depending upon an adult to change it seems perfectly normal to us. But teaching a child to learn from a very young age to tell an adult that it needs to go to the bathroom, one could see how this might create a more hygienic comfortable condition for the child and avoid the myriad of issues associated with wearing diapers? Either way it forced us to reconsider what we assumed to be ‘normal’. I will tell you however that when asked to hold a child wearing split pants so the parents could take a picture, the discomfort I was feeling was pretty damn apparent. Let’s just say this was not the first or last time I was asked to hold a child or senior for a photo opportunity, totally bizarre.
Ross and I got a true taste of the legendary Chinese hospitality as soon as we headed west into some of the smaller cities. People everywhere tried their best to help us with directions and ordering food. They were nervously eager to practice their English with us, something we were absolutely thrilled to do.
One experience will be ingrained upon us both. When we arrived in Ya’an to start our volunteer work at the Bifengxia Panda Reserve, we found ourselves wearily wandering around the city, exhausted after nearly 22 hours of travel and unable to find our hotel. A beautiful Chinese girl approached us to try and provide some assistance. She then proceeded to walk us to our hotel and as we approached our destination it appeared her entourage had grown by at least half a dozen people curious to see what she was doing with these strange white people. When we reached our hotel we offered to take her our for dinner in appreciation for her help.
At 6:30 she arrived family and friends in tow except instead of us taking her for dinner she invited us both to join her and her family at a special Sunday family gathering at a local restaurant. We were absolutely overwhelmed with the generosity and tried to bring a gift but were refused. We then met all of her family members at the restaurant where a ridiculous amount of food was placed on the tables for everyone to enjoy. We spoke with those who could speak some English and did our best with gestures and pop-culture references with those who could not. We truly felt like honoured guests as they each hung on what I assume were incomprehensible words for the majority of them and took pictures to post on the Chinese equivalent of Facebook.
After an incredible filling of local Sichuan delicacies, we were invited join a few of the original group for a walking tour of the city at night. We continued soaking up as much as we could about the beautiful people and the cultural importance of hospitality to guests. Western impressions of the Chinese culture immediately being dismissed as blunt and rude must have been something they were aware as they humbly tried to ensure that our impression of the Chinese was a warm and positive one. We will not soon forget the incredible generosity and kindness that was shown to us by the Wang Family. This experience signaled a shift in our perception of the people and left us open to many other authentic experiences we would share during the remainder of the month.
So in a sheepish attempt to summarize our impression of China that will certainly not do her or her people justice but at the risk of this post going on forever, I would say that China is an incredibly challenging but rewarding land to discover. Exploring the history gave us an opportunity to appreciate the trials and tribulations of China’s past and glimpse into the complicated social environment. It’s a place to challenge your assumptions, lighten up and enjoy the ‘organized chaos’ that is everywhere, somehow it just works.
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