On my first night home after a month in China, I dreamed of roaming the street markets and everywhere was a sea of round Chinese faces. After an entire month and rarely seeing another white person (except for my family), if I didn’t look in the mirror, I almost started to think I was Chinese too, until something foreign would occur and snap me back into realizing how far away I was from my beloved homeland.
My China dream could have been fever-induced as we all finally succumbed to China’s reputation of inflicting respiratory illness on its inhabitants. I haven’t been out of bed since we arrived from JFK.
We had excellent weather our last week in Beijing, some of the clearest, sunniest blue sky days on the whole trip. And then the wind shifted and we emerged out of the indoor silk market to a sky that looked like what I would imagine nuclear fallout would be- thick, yellow-white fog.
As I tried to recover in bed back home, I had NPR on and Beijing was in the news- with record air pollution. I e-mailed Sierra who was still in town and of course, with the lack of English-speaking news, they hadn’t heard it. A particle figure of 25 is considered safe index by the World Health Organization and the air quality index STOPS at 600, the most hazardous category. Beijing was topping out at 900. Sierra and Eben became very sick despite face masks.
China is a hard place to live. An amazing place to visit but a very difficult place to live. I knew that after only one month. Sierra was convinced of it after six. The language barrier is HUGE. Even if you point to THE GREAT WALL in your guidebook, they can’t read it. Almost everyplace we go in the world, SOMEONE seems to be able to speak English. In China, you are very limited, even the ones who have had years of lessons, are not good at it and don’t try. In Beijing, it was easier- nowhere else. But I still would not say it is easy. China is one of those places where it is best to go with a tour group, regardless if you are an independent traveler.
Here are some of the things I found most amazing and strange about China. We went to three provinces, 5 cities (Mianyang, Chengdu, Leshan, Xi’an, Beijing) and saw virtually no poverty. I am sure there are plenty of places where there are mile-long factories pumping out the plastic junk we in America have come to associate with China, but we didn’t seem them, nor the plastic junk- that is reserved for overseas markets and doesn’t even make it into their consumer pool.
What we did see was consumerism on the rampage- shopping is the #1 pastime, huge glitzy department stores everywhere. WAL-MART is multi-leveled. You take you shopping cart on slanted escalators that hold it on the ramp by magnets. There are bins along the sides for items you might have missed to grab and toss into your cart. ( I won’t even start on the strangeness of the food- that topic needs its own separate blog)
EVERYONE is dressed up. I didn’t see a scuffed shoe in one month. We looked rattier than the Chinese. Women wear fancy high-heeled boots, tights, short skirts and colorful winter jackets. The men all dress in solid black. Their image is of the utmost importance. I was told that they will not have money for heat, but they will buy the best looking clothing.
I also never saw a single piece of trash- not a straw or a cigarette butt or a fallen leaf. Multides of Chinese people are employed as street sweepers, using grass brooms. I even saw Chinese women cleaning and polishing the guard rails on the highways! Like their clothing, appearance is everything. In Jiuzhai National Park on the Tibetan Plateau, the 100’s of miles of guard rails and upright posts were concreted over with tinted cement and carved into while wet to look like tree bark!
Yet they hocker up phlegm and spit constantly- everywhere- the nicest restaurants, in trains- right on the floor. Since it was freezing all the time, frozen globs of sputum are everywhere. And the toddlers don’t wear diapers but crotchless pants. They will be bundled in winter jackets, hats and gloves but their crotches are open to the elements. When they have to poo or pee, they either squat themselves WHEREVER THEY ARE, or their moms suspend them. I guess the street sweepers clean up the turds. When you walk, you don’t look out for dog turd land mines, but baby turds.
It is freezing, below freezing, INSIDE nearly every building, except for the finest hotels- schools, restaurants, homes, everyone wears down jackets, hats and gloves. We were basically cold for the whole month. But the crazy thing is it is OK with them. They accept it. Someone told us that they can’t afford to buy heat. I think I’d forego the fashion boots instead. But they go one step further and leave doors and windows hanging wide open to the 20 degree weather, while they are trying to enjoy a restaurant meal.
I suppose since the weather and temperature is the same inside and out, they do a lot of things outdoors. Ping pong is the game of choice at school “recess” and there are DOZENS of tables lined up in the school yards. There are groups of card games going on in the streets, women knitting, playing a matching ceramic tile game called Mahjong. We could be climbing a hill in a park and someone will be standing in the woods just singing their heart out, or doing tai chi or dancing with a long scarf to music or getting their inner ears “massaged” with a long flexible metal wire! (yikes!) or drawing Chinese characters with water and a large brush on the stone square as a way of mediation.
Many times throughout the course of the day, we would look at one another and be surprised and just remark, “This is China.”