Many destinations reveal themselves in their own way and time. You arrive with eyes and mind wide open. The rhythms of the culture and the ways of its people seep into your soul, at some point and to some lesser or greater degree, between touchdown and departure. Almost by magic, the place becomes a part of you forever.
Not so with China. The average traveler, visiting without an in-depth background in the country’s history, politics and culture, will have to work hard for every nugget of insight. Like the old story of the blind men and the elephant, you will see a different reality from each new angle. The majority of Chinese that I met spoke little or no English but there wasn’t simply a language gap. The universal language of pantomime is a crude but effective means of obtaining directions, names and other basic information with just a small vocabulary of Mandarin to fill in the blanks. Still, every interaction left me confused beyond the mere words I had attempted to share. There was clearly more going on than could be conveyed by spoken language alone. It was a dialogue of attitude, emotion and intention that I could not break through with my rudimentary approach. I frequently walked away thinking, I wonder what that person meant by a look, a gesture, a moment of hesitation or a change in volume.
People were generally friendly and glad to see me and, some, excited enough at the sight of a large white woman that they wanted to touch me or have their photo taken with me. The young people seemed especially curious while the older Chinese remained more reserved. I had to wonder if people there perceived Americans as simple or one-dimensional. On the one hand, the Chinese tend to be blunt without intending offense. They would freely remark on how fat we were or how pale. They would use the term “big nose” in referring to us and it was a simple statement of fact rather than a derogatory name. On the other hand, the Chinese culture is so complex and somehow stylized that you never know how, or whether, a person might be telling you the literal truth or presenting you with a pleasing confabulation. It was at once puzzling and charming. After all, I chose to visit China because I thought it would be an exotic destination. Was it ever!
There is a phrase known to Chinese students meaning “Study hard, improve every day.” These simple words of encouragement are often literally translated into English as “Good study, day day up.” It’s a phrase that you see printed in English on notebooks, pencil cases and other merchandise for sale to students in the many convenience stores. I don’t think the Chinese appreciate irony as we understand it. There was a noticeable lack of self-consciousness in the way the kids would openly encourage one another to do well. To be sure, while ours is a nation of individuals, Chinese people have a more collective worldview. There, it’s important that the group outshine the individual. It’s so important that sometimes appearances might be valued over an unattractive truth.
My visit began in Beijing where there are two airports – one for the regular people and another that is opulent and intended to impress VIP visitors. In one city park, there was a building with an English sign on the door saying “Department of Complaints.” I asked my tour guide if there were so many complaints that they needed a prominent office to collect them all. He told me there were no complaints, that in fact the door was never opened. It was just a gesture to let foreign tourists know that their hosts cared about their preferences and wanted to please them.
China is huge and they consider any city of less than 10 million people a mere village. In Beijing, the historic districts are being paved over at a rapid rate and replaced with skyscrapers. The highways are constructed in rings through and around the cities and you can see remnants of the old neighborhoods beneath the overpasses that rise high above the old-style single story buildings. Change has been so rapid that people don’t seem to stop to consider whether it is good or bad, only that progress has been deemed a good thing and all else must be sacrificed. A large percentage of urban people work for the government and you can see civil servants at work on every corner, giving out information or sprucing up the city. There were ladies in dresses and high heels walking along the roadways polishing the metal retaining rails. They seemed proud and happy to be serving their city.
As an American, I felt a stirring of big-brotherism in all this civic-mindedness. The fact that our government-employed guide had collected all our passports on the first morning of the tour had left me feeling somehow vulnerable. But the truth was, it was far from a city of bland automatons. There were grand shopping malls made up of individual kiosks where each merchant sold his goods to eager buyers. The locals greeted the day at the neighborhood park where they gathered in the early morning to do tai chi or dancing for exercise. They were plainly there by choice and having a good time although one of our local guides, who was an independent contractor, said that there was always someone watching and that a person would be reported to the local government if they refused to participate in certain civic events.
In Shanghai, the buildings were unbelievably tall and modern in style. There were also government buildings sporting the Russian-influenced spires and featuring artwork depicting likenesses of Mao Zedong. Life has changed so dramatically since the Cultural Revolution that capitalism was a way of life even while socialism was still touted. It was no wonder the older people were a bit guarded in their demeanor. Shanghai especially is a city of seeming contradictions between the old and the new.
I visited the town of Suzhou, which is known as the Venice of The East. It was a charming city built on canals and every bit as bewitching as its European namesake. Everywhere you go, there are craftspeople making and selling beautiful silk tapestries. In Suzhou, I saw some of the most beautiful artwork anywhere, made with simple materials and slow manual assembly.
Everywhere hotels and restaurants were decorated for a Western Christmas, complete with Santa Claus and his reindeer. Only the colors were off. I saw a Santa in a gold suit and another in blue. Nowhere was the familiar character clad in red.
Another unbelievable sight was near Xian where I went to view the famous Terracotta Warriors. Unearthed in the early 1990’s by a farmer, the dig had grown into a massive field of warriors, vehicles and horses. So large was the field of study and so important, a giant warehouse was actually built around the excavation.
By sheer force of will, the Chinese people seem to have achieved outcomes not supported by mere facts. Along the outermost ring roads of Beijing, there is a dilapidated hotel complex with weeds growing up through the asphalt parking lot and not a car in sight. The sign on the building proclaimed it, without explanation, The Flourishing International Hotel.
Everywhere from roadside farm stands to The Great Wall, there is evidence of multitudes of people working selflessly to achieve great deeds. It’s all a little bit unnerving to a person from the U.S. where independence is valued above all and eccentricity is an accepted quirk of human nature. I don’t think we can truly understand China with all its contradictions. We can only be awestruck by over a billion people doing things so differently and yet so well.
If you go to China, prepare to be inconvenienced. Prepare to get cold eating a great meal in an unheated restaurant. You will be jostled getting on and off the Maglev, Beijing’s high speed bullet train. Somewhere someone will shout at you for no reason. You will be forced to bargain for goods. When you get lost, no one will speak English. But you will just smile and say “Ni hao” (hello) and you will be among friends.
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Copyright © 2016 Linda Caradine