China is the fourth in our series – “…Through the Funnel”. You can read our previous one on Uzbekistan here. It is a way for us to share 12 aspects that stood out to us in our experience of the country and its people. Did we miss something that stood out to you in China?
#1 Spitting is the national sport
Navigating the streets of China is a perilous thing, you have to watch your step or risk having a glob of phlegm land on your legs. Chinese men are capable of making graphic noises of bodily functions that you did not even know existed. Women also put up some tough competition, not willing to let this category defeat them in the war of the sexes. Strictly following the doctor’s prescription of clearing your body of all evil, chinese medicine’s advice is taken on with full gusto on the city’s streets, back alleys and bathroom sinks. No one is going to take the risk of having unwanted mucus stuck deep in their oesophagus. If you suddenly find yourself in a quiet street without a back-shocking, goosebump-raising, thundering throat clearance to jolt you to your senses, there could only be two explanations. You are actually all alone or you have left the country.
Supersize me. For a country that has the largest population in the world, China is not shy about its size. A big endorser of quantity versus quality, everything is done en masse. Mass construction, mass transportation, mass tourism. In a world that was deprived during another era, life has gone from basic necessities to over the top. One house is knocked down and ten buildings are erected in its place. Ghost cities await tenants that have not yet been born on the outskirts of smaller towns. Producing the energy needed to supply a nation the size of Europe, means never-ending deserts of wind turbines, giant dams and countless mines. National parks cater to tens of thousands of eager tourists a day, bussed in on identical blue vehicles. One place we happened to wander into during National Week had a 4 hour long queue…to cross a bridge.
One thing is for sure, China is not slimming down anytime soon.
#3 No inhibitions
You said what?! Chinese culture is direct and indirect. Political correctness is non-existent in the personal and overly cautious in the impersonal. In formal settings what is said does not always reflect what is meant. Hierarchy is big and don’t you dare refuse the drink offered to you by your boss’s boss. But get to know someone and the flood gates of “in your face” are open. If you happen to go shopping, don’t be surprised if the middle-aged woman trying to sell trousers has no hesitation telling you, “Here you go, these should fit you, extra large, extra fat.”
#4 Bicycles no more
Bicycles are no more in China. The country once known for its countless cyclists has lost its dedicated pedalling feet. Save for us, some older people and young children, they have been replaced by cars, rural three-wheelers and the new “silent killers” – soundless electric scooters that pop out of nowhere, quiet and lethal.
Cars are rapidly taking over, foreign brands for the rich and countless local brands we have never heard of. The roads of China are now serenaded by a constant beeping, most drivers seem to assume that other drivers, pedestrians or cyclists are blind, deaf or both. Millions of cars, tractors and silent killers make for busy streets and when I mention to the taxi driver that there are way too many cars in China now and he replies, “no, no, the streets are too narrow!”
China is the king of kitsch. From man-made waterfalls, sparkly umbrellas, multi-coloured cowboy hats to plastic rouge flowers, it has all been done. When it comes to choosing, no fabric is too shiny, no paint too bright, the louder the better. A lesson in “bold is not necessarily beautiful”, aesthetics are approached with fearlessness and pride. At times garish and painful to the eye, there is something endearing and comforting in embracing the country’s full gaudy glory.
#6 Sheer diversity
The images of China exported around the world tend to be homogeneous. Most people see one Chinese face, one Chinese cuisine, one Chinese rice field. But China is so much more. More than Han Chinese, more than Kung Pao chicken, more than the Great Wall. The number of dialects spoken are more than the number of living European languages. While Han Chinese constitute about 92% of the population, there are over 55 other ethnic minorities. We were welcomed in by the Uighur, the Tibetan, the Hui and the Bai. Different traditions and practices vary with the massive changes in landscape. It has some of the highest peaks in the world and some of the lowest land depressions. It is tropical and humid; oxygen-deprived and dry. We have been stunned by its deserts, lakes, mountains and jungles. Our palates never bored, the cuisine changes with its people, with the temperature of the land, with its access to local ingredients.
There are even different “types” of pandas.
The sheer diversity in China never failed to surprise us, delight us and feed us in many ways.
#7 The personal bubble does not exist
The Western bubble is pretty big. Space is required between you and someone you do not know. The Mediterranean one is perhaps smaller than ones in the North, but in China it does not exist. Not in a touchy feeley way, hugs are precious currency not to be dished out, but your business is my business and a stranger will not think twice before physically moving you to the left in the supermarket aisle. In a queue, physically touching a stranger or shoving someone aside is far from taboo and falling asleep on your bus seat neighbour is the norm. Anyone doing anything in public is free game and curiosity justifies most interaction. If you go to a public toilet and someone squatting right next to you stares you in the eye and starts asking questions as you do your business don’t be shocked, they just feel like a chat.
#8 China is a control freak
China is a bit of an obsessive compulsive. It wants its country tidy and predictable – cities, villages and nature are compartmentalised into orderly little boxes. Residential areas shall have plenty of pleasant trees, fake lakes and clean streets. Urban roads must be clearly marked and well-paved, highways smooth and fast. Industrial areas shall be just outside town, the grey smoke only visible from the highest floors. Natural parks shall have entrance fees, shuttle buses, designated pathways and 10 minutes of photography time at a specific platform, no less, no more. Sand dunes shall stay within their demarcated area and clouds shall rain when iodine is shot into the sky. It is the master of environmental control. At a time where conservation and preservation are more present in mainstream discourse, China will make sure it keeps it lakes and rivers, whether they simply move them and “build” them again depends on whether they are in the way of the new high speed railway or an up and coming real estate project.
#9 Urban vs. Rural
In a country where big cities have a larger population than Belgium’s national count, urban is huge in China. And so is rural. For every big city there are a hundred small villages, but the cement frenzy is catching up and everything in between is a large construction site.
Until recently, the hukou registration system, dominated the separation of rural and urban households. The hukou you were born with, sticks with you for life and determines the location of the social services you are entitled to. Since rural hukous were not interchangeable with urban hukous (except at a hefty price or exceptional circumstances) the large rural-urban migration was burdened with bureaucratic inequalities, social discrimination and unequal access to services. To ease the increasing social pressure on megalopolis and develop rural areas, lost villages at 4000m are being turned into concrete jungles, narrow gorges filled with skyscrapers and airports link them to the outside world. But, just 10 minutes outside most rural towns you can still find places lost in time, for how much longer I do not know.
#10 The Flash Mob
Not a flash mob in the conventional sense, the piazzas and squares of Chinese towns come to life at night with women and a few men dancing to the beat of a small radio. And to the left we raise our arms and to the right we bend our knees. Synchronised dancing, an evening public workout in the fresh air. Inevitably there are several little dogs yelping about as everyone moves in harmony, seemingly all previously informed of the moves, with a few exceptions on the edges flapping about to their own tune.
China wakes up and goes to bed with food. It eats, breathes and lives for food. China caters to the hungry traveller. It is impossible to explore this country and not experience a delicious meal in one of its many many many versions. Food is always piping hot (Chinese cooking has not hopped onto the Raw Food bandwagon), fresh and fast, anytime, anywhere. An extended period of travelling in China spoils you for future destinations, food is ordered and presented five minutes later if not twenty seconds, conjured up miraculously in record time. As our friend Tony from Xian put it, “if I go to a restaurant I am obviously hungry, why should I have to wait?” The streets of China are filled with temptation, leaving us wishing we had space for at least ten meals a day.
#12 Please Mind The Gap … doot doot doot
China is changing and fast. In its own unique way. With access to internet, the gap in cultural references is narrowing, north american media dominates the increasingly open country. “Have you seen the last season of Breaking Bad? What about The Wire, isn’t that amazing?” The latest episodes translated overnight, ready to be downloaded with Chinese subtitles the next day. Increasing capitalist consumption means more and more popular overseas brands are making their way to mainland buyers. North Face, Columbia, Canon and Nikon adorn the backs and necks of the well-heeled middle class tourists. Red wine is ordered in fancy restaurants, Great Wall brand for colleagues, french imported to impress a guest. Maybe one day, the gap will close even further, when the outdoor-geared crowds will come to actually enjoy hiking in their outfit and red wine will be savoured without the addition of Sprite.
Thank you China! We love you!