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Ten observations from a month in China

 Ten observations from a month in China

Chinese flag

China is changing! And you don’t need to have been there more than once to know that. The presence of construction sites everywhere, the freshness of the metro systems in major cities and the fact our 2007 guidebook had a hard time keeping up with the new streets, buildings and ever increasing prices are all clear evidence. Everywhere you get a sense of vigour and purpose, of reinvention and creation and of a people incredibly excited that the great China dragon has arrived on the world scene and more importantly that the world is paying attention and looking to China. In my opinion the next 20-30 years belong to China. I just hope in some way I can grab onto one of the dragon’s scales and be taken along for the ride.

Elizabeth and I spent a month travelling in China, long enough only to see a fraction of what this vast land and enormous body of people have to show. It was an amazing experience; one that has left in us a determination to attempt to learn some Mandarin and to return soon. As with the other countries we have visited on this trip I have compiled a list of ten observations gleaned from the visit. As I always say, these observations are my own and may be wildly inaccurate, were obtained not speaking the language and have been made after visiting a fraction of the country for a short period of time. I welcome all comments and responses to this list and where appropriate am happy to make amendments or corrections.

So let’s begin:

  1. Rapid pace of change – As I noted in the intro, China is changing and reinventing itself at an enormous rate of knots. There are construction sites everywhere. Today major cities exist where less than a decade ago stood sleepy villages, malls where only a few years ago vendors gathered at small market stands and highways everywhere are replacing dirt tracks. Of course you knew this, but one could not make a list of observations and not have this listed in the number 1 spot. From the people I spoke to I get the sense that this change is an incredible sense of pride, and who can blame them. Of course like with all emerging economies the flipside of all these changes is the risk of creating homogenised cities and towns and the loss of of traditional values in the race for modernisation.
  2. Excessive sharing of saliva - as noted in the first point China is rapidly changing, but this does not mean that it is reshaping itself into a western country with all the western ways. Chinese customs and habits will no doubt remain a novelty and mystery to westerners for many years to come. The one that stood out most for me was spitting. The Chinese it seems are terribly afflicted by phlegm, so much so that they need to almost continually hock at it and spit it out regardless of their location. Spitting at a restaurant, whilst waiting in a crowded queue, whilst admiring a beautiful view or on the carpeted floor of a train are all fair game. Apparently in in the wake of SARS and in the lead up to the Olympics there was a big drive by the authorities to encourage the end of this practice though seems they have their work cut out for them. Quite disgusting for us, though I am sure the behaviour we exhibit, whilst perfectly normal in our society, is equally abhorrent to them.
  3. Active old folk – forget the concept of retirement homes and wheel chairs, China’s old people act as though they are preparing for the 2012 Olympics. During the morning and evening hours parks, alleyways and quiet streets are besieged by old people stretching and hitting their muscles, practicing Tai Chi, using exercise equipment or even performing dance routines in groups of 50 or more. In the rural areas it is not unusual to see a senior cit hauling the huge piles of wood on their backs or toting laden carrying poles  to sell their wares in the villages.

     Ten observations from a month in China

    Elderly Naxi woman with laden carrying pole

  4. Online and media censorship – being a fairly voracious consumer of the internet and online media, dealing with ye olde great firewall of china was a challenge to say the least. We were in China over the auspicious 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square masacre; Hotmail, BBC, Flickr, Twitter and likely many other other sites were blocked during this period. That is of course in addition to the sites that are constantly blocked like Youtube, Blogger, Wikipedia and WordPress.com (which hosts this blog). There are ways around it (as this post helpfully outlines) but this censorship and the absence of free media are highly questionable and in my opinion should be addressed if China wants to be truly recognised as a free world power.
  5. Self awareness – perhaps it is due to the size of the population, or the legacy of a socialist society, but the Chinese appeared to be less focussed on the self/standing out. Joining in and being part of a larger group appears to still be the norm in the places we visited - it was amazing to see teenagers join middle aged and elderly people to dance in the parks without a hint of self-consciousness or need to look ‘cool’.[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shdLBqaOX6o]
  6. Friendliness – everywhere we visited people greeted us with friendliness, excused our language shortcomings and made allowances for our enormous level of  ignorance. I fear the reception the Chinese receive in Australia, or for that matter most western countries, is rather different.
  7. Road rules – China is the nation where car ownership is growing fastest in the world (check and reference stat). Highways are springing up everywhere and the automobile seems to be the ultimate symbol of success. However, road rules haven’t kept adapted to this change. Overtaking on blind corners, driving on the wrong side of the road, or completely ignoring traffic lights and road signs are the norm. As more and more Chinese cars appear on the roads this will surely have to change if road tolls are not to rise exponentially.
  8. Local tourism – tourism is big business in China and by far and away the biggest segment appears to be local tourism. As China’s middle class has grown so to has their desire to visit and appreciate their vast nation. Tourist locations like Lijiang, The Great Wall and the Yangshuo to name a few are inundated daily by tourist buses packed to the rafters with souvenir buying, SLR camera toting locals keen to have their photos taken in front of the sites and lap up the vast attractions of their country.

     Ten observations from a month in China

    Lugu Lake – a top Chinese tourist hotspot

  9. Food – it is impossible to compile a list of observations about China and not mention the food. Not that this was unexpected, but the Chinese food available in western countries in many ways couldn’t be more different to the food available in China. Chilli and spices feature heavily making many dishes impossibly spicy (especially in Sichuan) for our western tongues. The etiquette also takes a little bit of getting your head around. It is good manners to leave food uneaten, so as to show the generosity of the host and not only is leaving an enormous mess over the table cloth and table ok it is thought strange if you do not.

     Ten observations from a month in China

    Sichuan hotpot – painfully spicy

  10. No nappies – nappies (or diapers for any American readers out there) appear to be non existent in China. Instead children are dressed in crotchless trousers to make for an easy evacuation. I never quite worked out how the parents knew when the time was ripe for said evacuation, but what I did work out was how to move quickly out of the way when I saw a child, being carried in front delicately, like a cocked and loaded weapon, to the toilet.

With this post we have finished our China section of the trip. With my new job and China’s proximity to Australia I sincerely hope it will not be long before I am back.

For those interested all of our China images can be seen here.If you enjoyed this post why not subscribe to my blog via RSS or email by following this link. Also whilst you’re at it why not follow me on Twitter .