China... the other side of the
world... emperors... dynasties... the great wall... the place where
you end up if you dig a deep enough hole... delivery boys on
bicycles with your sweet and sour chicken in a little white
box. There are many images that fill your mind
and tickle your imagination when you hear the word
“China.” What is this place really
like? I’ll do my best to explain my experience of
this vast country and its people.
I’ll begin this post with two
notes that I wrote three years ago about my experience in
I am in China right now, and it
blows my mind. This place is
incredible! It took everything I expected to the
extreme. I knew the cities were big... but
they're bigger than just big! I knew there'd be a
lot of construction... but there's more than just a lot of
construction! The big cities are unimaginably
large and full of lights and signs and people.
Random people approach me just to talk to me; everything about this
experience is new to me. I love being
The traffic here is
crazy. Lanes mean nothing to these people — a two
lane road can have three or four cars driving next to each
other. Lanes will just appear out of nowhere and
sometimes disappear. It's just fine if you want
to drive on the left side of the road too.
Pedestrians will just wade out into traffic all the time, dodging
cars and barely escaping death while not caring at
all. One of my favorite things about China is the
snack vendors that come out at night. They fill
up the street with their little stands and sell all sorts of meats
and drinks and any little thing that you could or probably couldn't
imagine. Walking up and down the road, buying
snacks is a great China experience.
While many things about China
have changed since I came here in 2007, most of the things I
observed in these two notes have remained constant.
The only American driving
experience that compares to this is New York
City. Lots of weaving, generally slower driving
because of the chaos, and excessive use of the
horn. People honking at me or flashing their
brights at me still drives me totally crazy.
People also drive at night without their headlights on to save
money, which also bothers me. I’ve gotten used to
the driving here, though, so I’m no longer afraid to walk into a
busy road and I don’t wet my pants every time I take a
My theory is that in the US,
the road system, driving laws, and cars all developed slowly and at
the same time. This allowed the roads and rules
to remain organized. In China, however, a million
cars just fell out of the sky one day, and suddenly a system of
roads had to be built and driving laws had to be
created. The result was too many cars driving
however they pleased with roads and laws trying to catch up (but
I’m just some guy. What do I know?).
The food here is
incredible. The best meals here are also the
cheapest: street food and hole-in-the-wall restaurants are quite
delicious, and though the Chinese always tell me that they’re
terribly unhealthy, they seems healthy enough to
me. The food at most big, fancy restaurants or
cafés is overpriced and insipid, so I stay away from
them. I can get a delicious wrap with egg, meat,
and veggies for about 50¢ or a banana smoothie for 75¢.
Two big differences between
food here and food in the US is what animals and what parts of
animals are considered to be food. In the US,
when we think of meat, we’ve got beef, pork, chicken, turkey, or
fish. Lamb and duck are a bit adventurous and
anything beyond that is avoided. In China, people
eat everything! EVERYTHING! At
the supermarket, you can find turtles, frogs, donkey, various types
of bird meat (but no turkey), snakes, sea
cucumbers. Going to the supermarket is kind of
like going to the zoo for me; I like to look at all the
In the US, we cut out the bones
and cook the biggest chunks of meat, throwing the rest
away. In China, they eat...
EVERYTHING! The head, including eyes and brain,
the liver, the heart, a fish’s air bladder (What’s
that? Who knows?), the feet, the cartilage on the
bones, the marrow in the bones. The bones are
left in the meat and the shells are left on the shrimp making it
almost impossible for me to eat, but Chinese people just toss it in
their mouth and a couple seconds later, they spit out the shell or
bones — incredible.
In my previous adventure in
China, I exhausted most of my wild desires for weird
foods. I ate live shrimp, donkey, snake, turtle
shell, cow genitalia (they wouldn’t tell me what it was before I
tried some), gelled pig and duck blood, fried scorpions, boiled pig
brain, dog, and probably other crazy stuff that I can’t think of
now. However, there was one final frontier that I
refused to explore in 2007, and I finally took the plunge last
week: I ate a duck head. It’s a difficult process
of taking apart all the bones of the skull and eating every bit of
meat you can find. I wasn’t terribly impressed
with the taste and it was so difficult that I doubt I’ll order one
The Chinese also have a very
different view of personal space than Americans.
As Americans, we like people to keep their distance when walking
with us or talking to us. When walking with a
Chinese person, you should be surprised if your arm brushes up
against theirs. If talking to a person, you will
have to get used to people being a little closer than you might be
comfortable with. When on a bus or train, forget
about personal space — it doesn’t exist. Pushing
and shoving are commonplace and expected of you.
Don’t be scared; there are more than a billion who are used to it,
and you can get used to it too.
Do you like
yelling? You’ll be in good company in
China. People love yelling
here. Face-to-face conversations look like
shouting matches, patrons and employees alike yell as loud as they
can across restaurants and shops, and don’t even get me started
with phone calls. They don’t even need the phone
— they could just yell and the other person might hear them on the
other side of the city. This bit of life here
amuses me but sometimes startles me when I hear a shrill cry behind
me and irritates me when some guy parks himself right next to me
for a cellphone conversation.
The Chinese are very proud of
their language and culture. A few phrases you’ll
hear a million times if you come here are “5000 years of history
and culture,” “the most difficult language in the world,” and “55
minority groups.” I have a little beef with these
things, but I won’t go into it here. The Chinese
separate the people of the world into two groups: Chinese and
foreigners. I am not “an American” nearly as much
as I am “a foreigner.” Even in the US, I’ve had
Chinese people call me a foreigner (but aren’t they the
foreigners? Oh well...).
Learning Chinese language or culture is greatly appreciated by the
Chinese, and they love to teach you or tell you about
One crazy thing about China is
that everyone is Chinese. I mean EVERYONE is
Chinese. Besides the foreign teachers at my
school, I could go a month without seeing a single non-Chinese
person. The only blondes are bleached, Nobody has
brown hair. There aren’t any white or black
people. EVERYBODY is Chinese.
This also means that 99 percent of the restaurants are Chinese and
the foreign restaurants tend to be slanted towards Chinese
tastes. One thing that I miss about the US is the
ethnic and culinary diversity.
A related thing that amazes me
here is the number of doppelgängers that I see.
In the US, there are about 300 million people spread out over the
country. People in the US are all different
colors of skin and hair. In China there are 1.3
billion people all clustered by the East coast.
All of them have similar skin tones and the same color
hair. Do the math. I’m telling
you that some people I pass on the street look so similar to people
I know that it’s scary.
The uniformity of entertainment
and tastes here rocks my world as well. I good
sign of this is instant messaging. In the US, I
know people that use yahoo, hotmail, AIM, skype, and other programs
to communicate. In China, people use
QQ. Period. EVERYONE uses
QQ. It weirds me out when i think about
it. As for music, pop or hip-hop is EVERYONE’s
favorite genre. I know some Chinese people that
prefer rock, and I like that, but rock is not popular in
China. Obviously, there are exceptions the
stereotypes that I am so uncouthly flinging in every direction, but
the uniformity here is much greater than that in the US.
Philosophically, I see the
worldview of this place as predominantly modern.
The modern worldview and I don’t get along well in many respects,
so sometimes it grates on me here. I’m more
comfortable with many aspects of postmodernism, which is now
spreading in the US to replace modernism. In
China, modernism is now in full force in the middle-aged and young
generations, while the older generation still seems to think
according to... whatever came before modernism (I actually have no
idea what I’m talking about). Postmodernism will
spread here eventually — humans always react against the status quo
— just like postmodernism will eventually be replaced by something
else in the US.
The Chinese display all of the
virtues of modernism (most of which I lack). The
first and most obvious is the hard-working nature of the
Chinese. The students here are unbelievable when
they have a test coming up; they spend all of their free time in
the library or in an open classroom with a pile of books next to
them, silently studying. People here value math
and science to an incredible degree and because of this, students
here learn much more advanced math and science than students in the
US (besides math and science majors, of course).
Any student here could rock me so hard on a math test (maybe even
when I was at my math prime in high school).
To conclude this parade of
baseless stereotypes: I love living here. I like
making friends with the people here, learning from them and
hopefully teaching them a little too. Eating the
cheap food and walking out into busy traffic are great, but my
favorite thing is the constant contact with other
people. In America, I feel like an island: alone
in my house or alone in my car. In China, there
people all around. This gives a sense of
community and warmth that is less common in the
US. There are more faces to smile and more voices
to say friendly words here, and I like that.