I just returned to the States from a trip to China, where I toured Beijing, Shanghai, and surrounding areas. I climbed the Great Wall, walked through Tian’anmen Square, “ate” a cup of tea at the plantation where the leaves grew, visited a jade museum, a silk factory, and a handmade carpet factory. I saw vacuum-packed chicken feet, got an herbal prescription from a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor, tasted “trotters,” used a squat toilet, sailed on a dragonhead river cruise boat, and did my best to circumvent the “Great Firewall.” It was a good nine days.
After a two-hour drive to LAX and a 13-hour flight to Beijing, my group’s tour guide greeted us on the ground at 6 a.m. China time with a Confucius quote that stuck with me the whole visit: “What a joy it is to welcome friends from afar!” Frankly, I dreaded having a tour guide droning into a microphone my whole vacation, but Julia’s enthusiasm and teaching style made getting herded around town with a bunch of Americans on a giant bus worth it.
My first impression of Beijing and Shanghai was how freakin’ huge they are. The enormity and scale of the cities are insane. As a native New Yorker, I come preinstalled with the notion that there’s no bigger or better city in the world. But by at least one measure, Shanghai is the #1 most populous city in the world, followed by Beijing at #9, with NYC at #14. There are bodies everywhere, especially in places like the world’s largest city square—which, unsurprisingly, also features the world’s worst-smelling public toilet. The Chinese concept of personal space is much reduced from what we Americans are used to, save those of us used to pushing into a rush hour Manhattan subway car. It was 90 degrees and deathly humid everywhere we went in China, but we got nudged, bumped, and pressed up on in every crowded tourist spot we visited. Beijing’s traffic and smog rivaled Los Angeles, and made our photos from the Great Wall and every other distant scenery look very hazy.
I loved China’s mix of ancient and modern in their architecture, culture, and way of life, and the rich history behind it all. Everything in China has meaningful symbolism associated with it, and the most beautiful names, too. I fell in love with more than a few palaces, temples, Buddha statues, pieces of dragon art, and jade trinkets.
I also deeply appreciate the Chinese emphasis on family and community over the individual. Hearing about the one-child per family policy from a native, for example, made it seem sensible, responsible, and even ethical rather than smothering and oppressive. (Propaganda? Yup. My tour guide surely echoed the Chinese government’s messaging to its people. But once you’ve pushed your way through thousands of bodies in Tian’anmen Square, you gain a new appreciation for the necessity of the one-child policy.) Many young Chinese couples and their baby live with their retired parents, so the single grandchild lives “like an emperor or a princess,” with six adults fawning over them.
If the stories we heard from our tour guides are any indication, China is a country in rapid flux, with very different perspectives from the “older generation” and younger, progressive Chinese. Our first tour guide, a 40-something mother, presented Chinese life, culture, and government policy as matter of fact and mostly with pride. Our second tour guide, 20-something Sam, was much more open about its shortfalls. Sam pointed out that the Chinese government is one of the richest in the world but the people are poor; how he thinks the Chinese people should be able to elect the highest government officials (right now they elect local officials, and those officials elect higher government officials). He told us about his frustrations with his mobile phone bills: for 10 years, the two major state-run mobile phone companies, China Telecom and China Unicom, overcharged subscribers for long distance calls. Because there was no competition, people had to pay the inflated rates until the two companies dropped the charges. (Incidentally, the New York Times ran a story this week about corruption in China’s mobile industry.) Sam also discussed how women’s roles in China are changing. Many young Chinese women are choosing careers and postponing marriage, and when they do get married, the “the older generation” expects the husband to support the family. Sam, however, said he’d love if his wife was the breadwinner. “I’d stay home and do chores,” he said, to much laughter on our bus.
At times being in China felt like being in an episode of Mad Men—you’d say to yourself, “Oh, they’re still doing that?” Smoking is still allowed in restaurants and hotel lobbies. Credit cards have only been in use for 20 years. Retired parents gather in the park to swap photos and business cards of their unmarried adult children, desperate to make a match and live to meet their one potential grandchild.
A few more quick notes: Shopping in China is a sport which involves cutthroat bargaining skills. You cannot actually see the Great Wall from space. While it wasn’t on our official itinerary, my posse broke away from the tour bus to visit Summer Palace in Beijing, and that was entirely worth an intimidating day of navigating the giant city ourselves without speaking the language. After all that bumping and nudging, the gorgeous, peaceful, and spacious “Garden of Harmonious Pleasures” at Summer Palace won the title of my favorite place in China.
Finally, I’m not much of a museum person, but the ancient Buddha statues exhibit at the Capital Museum in Beijing was mesmerizing.
Chinese Nationalism and American Perception
Most of our interactions with locals were limited to our tour guides and hotel staff, all of whom were polite, helpful, and patient with our questions (when we could make ourselves understood). On the street, especially at tourist stops where local Chinese were visiting from other parts of the country, we Americans received many curious stares and requests for photos. My wife, 5’8″ and blue-eyed, took dozens of photos with locals, especially with Chinese schoolchildren who were confident enough in their English to ask. More often than not, they’d make a peace sign in the photo with us. A blonde, blue-eyed 10-year-old girl in our group also fielded many requests for photos. Both of our tour guides explained that the Chinese are fascinated by how Westerners look, especially our “big eyes.”
A few Americans of Chinese descent were in our tour group, one who got to visit the orphanage from which she was adopted in China. One of our tour guides jovially referred to “American-born Chinese, or ABCs” as “bananas”: “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”
Several times, local Chinese parents and grandparents approached us with their young children, prodding them to greet and converse with us to practice their English. Once, walking through Summer Palace, a Chinese family called out “Hello!” We responded, “Ni hao!” Then we all laughed. (Luckily, smiles and laughter are understandable in every language.)
In China’s big cities, Western influence is apparent everywhere you look: not only chain stores like Starbucks, McDonald’s, Apple, H&M, and Papa John’s, but in bathroom stalls that gave you a choice of Western or squat toilets, and street vendors in tourist areas willing to accept American dollars.
Even tourist shop name cards acknowledged American politics.
There was much less hostility shown toward our herd of weird-looking Westerners than I expected, with two minor exceptions. First, once we spotted two men obviously gawking and gesturing about one of the heavier-set people in our group. (There are no fat people in China.) Second, at the Beijing airport, my travelmate spotted a young man wearing a t-shirt with a picture of the Statue of Liberty on it, which read something like “Broke, hungry, and trying to pay our debt to China.” Ahem.
Getting online proved to be a much more difficult task than I expected while travelling through China, and that was partially my fault for not being prepared. I went on the trip armed with an iPad for casual browsing and watching TV on the plane, and a Chromebook for posting photos. First, only one of our hotels had in-room Wi-Fi, so using the Ethernet port-less Chromebook meant I had to camp out in the hotel lobby. Second, I should gotten a VPN set up before I left. Even using my stateside web server as an SSH SOCKS proxy, Twitter and Facebook were unreachable. The Google services I could get to, like Gmail and sometimes Google+, were slow as molasses in winter. Every night I’d come back to the hotel with dozens of photos, ready to caption and upload, and it would take an hour and several failed attempts to post a single shot. So frustrating.
Most of my Chinese followers told me that they hack around the “Great Firewall” using a VPN. My travelmate came equipped with a VPN, and he had more luck reaching sites than I did—but the network was also dead-slow for him.
At the Beijing airport’s newest Terminal 3 (opened in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics), there is free Wi-Fi. However, because the government does not allow anonymous internet access, you must scan your passport at a kiosk to get a username and password to log in. This very regulation is prompting many small businesses like coffeeshops to stop offering Wi-Fi access at all in China.
I also brought along an unlocked Nexus S phone, and on day 1 in Beijing bought a China Mobile SIM card, with visions of a Foursquare check-in on the Great Wall in my future. No such luck. The shopkeeper didn’t speak English and neither did the packaging or the support line voice menus, so I wasn’t able to enable a data connection on the card. Next time I’ll buy a SIM or rent a phone at the Beijing airport, where I’ll insist we get it working before I hand over yuan and walk away.
The whole experience was a hard lesson in how much I depend on an open, fast internet connection on a daily basis. Having it taken away felt like not having electricity—I got along okay, but really missed it.
Home from China. Will never, ever take free and open internet access for granted again.
Every single meal we ate in China was family style dim sum. Yes, it was more delicious and authentic than any Chinese food you’ve ever eaten outside China.
At meals we were tour guide-less, and most wait staff didn’t speak English, so much of what I ate I was unable to identify—until I posted it to Google+, of course. Thanks for letting me know I tried pig’s feet, internet.
The best part about traveling to a faraway land and learning about a different culture is that you get to see your own way of life through fresh eyes. This was my first time to China, but I hope it wasn’t my last. Here are the rest of my photos from the trip.