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.
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.
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.
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.
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