Sunday, July 22, 2012

China in a Nutshell

A very flexible Chinese man at Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing

Sara's Top 4:
Hiking the Great Wall
Biking in Yangshuo
Cruising the Yangtze

David's Top 4
Hiking the Great Wall
Shows in Yangshuo and Beijing
Eating Peking Duck
Exploring the neighborhoods of Shanghai

I have been putting off writing this China in a Nutshell post for quite awhile.  In China we saw and experienced one reality, heard about another from locals, and then saw an entirely different one being presented by the media.  A few weeks ago my sister sent me a link to a broadcast of This American Life about Americans living in China. I listened to it last week and it finally gave me the motivation to sort through my thoughts and write this post. 


Impressions:  China is complicated.  We were surrounded by beautiful scenery, interesting culture, and some wonderful people.  It would have been easy to just chalk China up as a fantastic place to visit.  Yet we knew that we were in a country with serious civil rights issues including no government transparency, no freedom of speech, censorship, and a strict one-child policy, just to name a few.  But if we focused only on those negatives, we would have missed much of the beauty that China has to offer.  The real China has large doses of both the beauty and the repression.

People:  We had nice talks with a few locals who were very eager to tell us their views on life in China.  We also met some Belgians who had worked in Shanghai for three years.  We heard some really interesting things that gave us a bit of insight. 

A Chinese man in his 50's
  • China is 100 years behind the US.
  • The Chinese government is a feudal system.
  • It will be at least 20 years before the one-child policy is loosened for anyone living in cities.
  • Our President is an emperor and he lives in the new Forbidden City (referring to Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Communist Party of China and official residence of the President).
  • It is an open secret who our next President will be.
A Chinese woman in her 20's:
  • It is difficult to be accepted at a university due to a lack of space and the education system needs to be improved.  
  • Housing is extremely expensive and this is causing a real problem for young people who want to buy houses.
  • China is 40 years behind the US.
A Belgian couple in their 50's who lived in Shanghai for 3 years:
  • Young people who graduate from universities in Shanghai must have jobs immediately after graduating or they will sent back to the villages where they are from.
  • A woman at my office was pregnant with her second child and was forced to have an abortion.  Our employer gave her a two-week paid vacation for the procedure, but she was very upset.

The Chinese people as a general rule are very nice and friendly, but there certainly is a language barrier that often makes in depth communication difficult.  We also found missing some of the social norms that we take for granted back home.  Littering is rampant.  Cutting in line, taboo at home, is accepted in China.  We often found ourselves physically blocking others from cutting in front.  We also found people a little "pushy" getting off subways, even before arriving at a station.  Another especially dangerous example of this phenomenon is the driving in China.  Chinese drivers in Shanghai and Beijing routinely run red lights, and we absolutely could not count on a car to yield to pedestrians.  We did not find out an explanation for these observations, but with such a large population, perhaps people find it necessary to be a little "assertive" in order to get ahead.

Food:  Delicious!  After the amazing food in Hong Kong, we weren't expecting to enjoy the food in China as much as we did. The vegetables were fresh and varied in every dish and the seasonings and sauces were excellent.  The high point was a fabulous Peking duck dinner with a friend of David's from law school who lives in Beijing.  Other highlights were braised aubergine (eggplant), dumplings, and stir fry dishes. The food is also cheap (Peking duck excepted) -- think typical meals between $2 and $10 for two people.

Some crazy things we saw
:  It isn't as if we haven't seen crazy things everywhere we have visited, but we just seemed to seem them a lot more often in China.  Below are a few that we won't forget:
  • Everyone spits (and smokes) everywhere in China.  The worst we saw was a woman spitting directly on the floor inside the Yichang airport.  Yuck!  As if the spitting wasn't enough, just before the spit comes a few seconds of a throat-clearing, hacking noise.  As soon as we would hear the noise, we would both quickly look around in all directions to make sure we weren't about to be spit upon accidentally.
  • In our opinion, the baby bottoms in China are all missing a critical piece: the crotch!  Some of the babies wear diapers that stick out the crotchless section, but most have nothing covering their bottoms.  The reason for this is simple: parents frequently take their children to the bathroom in public by holding them over a gutter and encouraging them to go.  Not wearing a diaper and having crotchless pants certainly makes the job easy!
  • Grown men wearing silk pajamas out on the streets was a common sight in China and another one that we will probably never get used to!
  • Visiting China is a good way to feel like a celebrity!  Many times on most days we would look around to find camera lens pointed right at us.  At a lookout at the Longji rice terraces we had a group of Chinese men turned (their backs to the view) with cameras mounted on tripods and long lenses trained on us.  It took a bit of getting used to, but it wasn't long before we just used this as a chance to start singing "Papparazzi."

Religion:  Chinese citizens are not allowed to attend religious services. We had dinner with a couple from Atlanta, Georgia who are now living in Beijing. We were really surprised to hear that when they attend church in Beijing, they have to show their passports confirming that they aren't Chinese citizens in order to enter the church.

Technology:  Everyone in the big cities in China has a smart phone and they use them all the time!  It was most noticeable on the metro.  We would take a look around and every single person would be looking down at their phone either texting, playing a game, or watching a show.  It was unbelievable.  Good thing we found it interesting watching people text using Chinese characters.  Wi-fi was easy to find, but censorship on the internet was a big issue.  We used a VPN to get around the censorship.

Getting around:  We flew, cruised, biked, hiked, and took trains, subways, a few cabs, and even a bamboo raft to get around China. The flights were inexpensive, but we did have a very long delay on our flight from Yichang to Shanghai (our first flight delay in Asia).  We heard from several other travelers that they had been delayed on every single one of their domestic China flights.  Not sure if that is typical or not.

The metro systems in Shanghai and Beijing are great - cheap, fast, and extensive!  There is a low flat fare (about $0.30) to go anywhere on the system.  The bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing (under five hours) was a fun experience and the best way to get between the two cities.

We only took taxis in Yangshuo and Beijing.  In Beijing we were very frustrated once when it took us about 30 minutes to get a cab.  Every one either passed us and often stopped for someone else nearby (presumably because we were foreigners) or quoted us an unbelievably high price for the short ride we needed (refusing to use the meter).  We heard that this is a fairly common experience for foreigners in Beijing.

Accommodations:  Other than on our Yangtze cruise, we stayed strictly in hostels in China. After three weeks of great accommodation, we can confirm that hostels are a great option for anyone traveling China on a budget.  Everywhere we stayed was on par with three-star hotels back home, and we have heard that the English spoken at hostels is often better than hotels in China.  It certainly was spoken well where we stayed.  All of the hostels were clean, comfortable, and well-located, so we were happy!

:  We were in China during May and June.  Most places we visited were comfortable, but Beijing was very, very hot when we were there. 

Clothing:  We wore a lot of layers. Mornings could be chilly, afternoons warm, and evenings chilly again.  We felt no need to dress conservatively.  After all, many men wear silk pajamas (or roll their shirts up to expose their bellies), and the babies walk around in crotchless bottoms.  The young people wear a bit of everything (American flag apparel seems to be in style), but as would be expected, the older generations dress more conservatively.


  1. I loved reading about this, especially because some of your impressions were dead on my same impressions from nearly 8 years ago! I still can't get over the baby bottoms and spitting.