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10 Thoughts About China

Napoleon Bonaparte, “When the dragon awakes, she will shake the world.”

Almost 200 years after Napoleon’s prediction, the dragon known as China is waking up. In the late 1970’s China opened its economy to the rest of the world. Since then, the awakening dragon has experienced the largest economic explosion in the history of the world. America defined the 20th century, China may well define the 21st.

For this reason, my mother and I were on a mission to better understand China. For 25 days, we went on a wild cultural adventure into another civilization. Here are 10 thoughts about our experience:

1. China is older than the Holy Roman Empire. It is one of the world’s oldest continuous culture. Around 250 BC, Emperor Qin Shi Huang was the first leader to unify China (for which he is famous and the Terracotta Warriors). China has been a country ever since.

What else was going on in the world around 250 – 200 BC? The Punic Wars were being waged and the first Indian traders visited Arabia.

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2. Mandarin. I badly underestimated how difficult it would be to mutter a few words or phrases in Mandarin.

For example, ‘good morning’ = zao shang hao.

I would say this every morning and to everyone. Still after 25 days, only 35% of the people understood me. So I’d repeat it until they understood me. Sometimes this would take several minutes.

3. Very little English is spoken in China. By very little, I mean almost zero. In Japan and South Korea, my mother and I could get around with English spoken a single word at a time and by sprinkling in a few words of the local language. This was frustratingly futile in China. Communication was all done by hand gestures and my cheat-sheet of Chinese characters.

4. The masses. China is home to 1/5th of the world’s population. Many of its 1.4 billion people are migrating from the countryside to the cities on the coast. It is the largest migration in the history of mankind.

It’s very hard to describe how overwhelmed we were by the sheer number of people. The metro station in Beijing has dedicated workers to shove passengers into overflowing subway cars during peak hours. Public buses are so jammed packed that the doors can barely open. There are so many people sitting on the floor at the train station that it feels like the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina.

There are so many people in China. Everywhere and all the time.

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4a) The magnitude. China’s enormous population requires it to build super-sized structures. The greater Beijing area is the size of the entire country of Belgium. Terminal 3 at Beijing’s international airport feels like it could easily fit a few American airports inside. The new high-speed train stations built all over China are the size of NBA basketball arenas.

The scale of China is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Yet, the structures should still be bigger.

5. Exotic food. Chinese cuisine is the most exotic food in the world. Local restaurants cook up spicy rabbit heads, crispy chicken’s feet, ox tongues and silkworms. The most exotic item my mother and I saw on a menu was deer blood. It was served in the form of pudding.

6. Different social norms. Pushing people out of the way is not considered rude. Spitting and shooting snot rockets on the sidewalk is not considered disgusting. Little children peeing on a tree in public is not considered unsanitary. Bartering for almost all goods and services is considered commonplace.

It takes time getting accustomed to China’s different social norms.

7. Air quality. 1 out of 4 people who die in China die from lung disease. This statistic is not surprising after taking a single breath in most parts of China. The World Health Organization states that air quality worse than 101 is severely dangerous to a person’s health. On most days in China, we experienced air quality in the 150-250 range. The worst we experienced was 292.

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292 air quality is alarming. The coal dust in the air turns white shirts pale gray. Cars and plants are caked in soot. The sun looks apocaliptic and is difficult to see. The air was so bad that school had to been canceled for the day.

8. China’s firewall. The country tightly controls information. It blocks almost all social media including Facebook, Youtube and Twitter (but strangely Instagram is allowed). I found that even as unthreatening a webpage as my federal student loan page was blocked. China’s firewall is a son-of-a-bitch.

9. Confucius. The Chinese scholar was born 551 B.C. He was the Chinese equivalent of Socrates. He wrote about how an individual should act. A good citizen should respect the power of the state. A wife should respect her husband. Children should respect their parents. Confucius’ teachings institutionalized hierarchy.

Confucius was a scholar, not a religious figure. Yet, his teachings have had as much effect on East Asia as Jesus has had on the Western world. Understanding Confucianism is fundamental to understanding the Chinese and East Asia as a whole.

10. Chinese worldview. It’s foolish to attempt categorize the views of 1.4 billion people. But here I go:

1) The majority of Chinese still harbor tremendous resentment towards the Japanese for the atrocities committed during World War II.

2) The majority of Chinese believe that America infringes on China’s sovereignty by not allowing mainland China to reclaim Taiwan.

3) The majority of Chinese believe that France has the most sophisticated Western culture. Unsurprisingly, France is the most popular European destination for Chinese tourists, with around 900,000 flocking there in 2011. This number is expected to quadruple in the next decade.

4) The majority of Chinese believe that their culture and country is superior to all others. They have the most people and have one of the longest continuous culture in the world.

I’ve urged travelers to visit Japan because the country is a treat. I strongly urge travelers to visit China but not because traveling to China is pleasurable. The country is rough. Rather, Westerners should travel to China to better understand the dragon that may define the 21st century.

China is not just a different country. It is a different civilization.

This post was written by

Evan Terry Forbes – who has written posts on Eye On The Road.
I'm working on my third book, Travels With My Mother. It's the story of our trip around the world.

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  1. Señol Quielo-Comel-Aloz

    Hello Evan! Thank you for sharing your intereting experience in China. I envy you the chance to travel around the world with your mom and as a native Chinese here are some of my thoughts on your article.

    Basically I cannot agree with you more on the GFW. It IS a son a bitch. Even now I’m using VPN to read your blog. Costs me three dollars per month. And you’re right about the air pollution in China. It’s very grave now and should be dealt with immediately.

    Different social norms….Nope! Those behaviors as you described them are absolutely frowned upon in Chinese cities and in some cases the perpetrators are fined. However we all have to be patient with them since many of them are migrant workers who came to cities only a few years ago. I guess it’s normal to behave that way in their home villages so it will take some time for them to fit in. Still, that’s no excuse for being rude and I’m sorry you saw what you saw. That could be quite a shock for people from developed world. Just know it’s not considered OK here, either.

    The masses…I’m curious about how you view China’s draconian one-child policy now, now that you’ve witnesed the masses with your own eyes…Well, anyway, China already has a very low birth rate (me and most of my friends are the only child of the family) and a rapidly ageing society, its population expected to reach the peak in a few years and then inevitably begin to decline…It’ll always be crowded in Beijing, though.

    As for the tremendous grudge between China and Japan, lo siento mucho. I think both countries’ government are to blame. The Chinese government likes inciting nationalist sentiments againt Japan in order to divert people’s attention from domestic issues while Japanese politicians keep giving China ammunitions by doing stupid things like denying wartime atrocities and visiting a controversial shrine dedicated to convicted war criminals…a vicious circle, as you can see, and might be an equilibrum Uncle Sam is glad to see…I hope people of both China and Japan stop allowing themselves to be manipulated by the selfish politicos. Why hate each other when we can be friends just like we were for two thousand years?

    And some advice in case you visit China again: go to southern cities like Shanghai, Hangzhou and Guangzhou which are cleaner,far more beautiful and more ‘feminine’ than the macho rough Beijing. Ask young people if you need help. Most of them should be able to help you since English has been a compulsory course for students since 80s. And skip the ‘exotic delicacies’ if you want to enjoy real Chinese cuisines. Those things you mentioned are only for niche market. 22 years in China and I have never eaten any one of them,lol.

    Keep up the good work! :)

    Señol Quielo-Comel-Aloz

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