CHINA- It’s Not What You Think it is

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.

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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)

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Many times throughout the course of the day, we would look at one another and be surprised and just remark, “This is China.”

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10 thoughts on “CHINA- It’s Not What You Think it is Leave a comment

  1. Thanks, Cindy. That’s the most honest sounding appraisal of China I’ve ever read. I almost feel as though I’ve experienced the place personally. Certainly there is much more to be known, but what you’ve shared provides some meaningful insights into the place and the people.

    My acupuncurist shared a DVD with me recently titled “9,000 Needles”, which I recommend as worth looking for. China is vast and complex and I think you’d be touched by the contrast that the film presents to the fashionistas on motor scooters.

    Hope you all feel healthy soon,

  2. Hey Cindy,

    Glad you made it back and that you survived the germs.

    Re: Your blog post, I have to ask: Don’t the people wipe the babies butts? And, you said ‘watch out for baby poop, not dog poop. Do they have dogs as pets or do they just eat them?

    I tried to post this as a comment but it didn’t work.

    Thanks for all the cool info,


    Kris Corey (209) 768-0836

    1. you know, i hardly saw any dogs- the few i did looked like skinned greyhounds some guy was peddling to sell to eat- wierd- i don’t think they wipe- there’s no toilet tissue stuck in the piles- i’ll ask sierra

  3. Thanks again Cindy – have to send this to my (Chinese ancestry, Taiwan born) daughter-in-law in California (who of course has a California accent, their all coming here when she was 11-12).  Not world traveled like others, I am still immensely interested in all cultures and find these paradoxes that go on everywhere so fascinating.  Our whole family since my son and daughter-in-law take off shoes when they enter any home, have started more and more doing this because it just makes so much sense tho it isn’t yet our culture’s way.  But since everything that is has its opposite, I love the way you describe what you observed as the clean streets of China, easily implemented by the poop and pee of tiny children – bet they have less diaper rash as a culture. 

                   Get Well!   Barbara

  4. Cindy,
    You are certainly one of the most interesting writers I know! I loved reading about China and am sharing your story with my nuns. Thanks so much for taking the time to write about your amazing experiences and even beter to share pictures!! They speak volumes!!! Keep up the great work. I still remember Bryce and Sierra when they were little kiddos at St. Mary’s…my, how time flies!!

    1. you are a doll- it is so nice to hear from you- you added much to my children’s lives when they were young- all helping to grow them into amazing human beings- the ripples stretch out! Lots more about China coming up! Bryce wrote a great spoken word poem about “The Night Train”- stay tuned!

  5. I have shared this post and your pics with my family and one by one they all said the same thing. It is just amazing how different things can be. I suppose they giggle about how we Americans make our babies poop in plastic bags attached to their butts. And how we heat our homes even when we are not home.

    1. that’s exactly what I heard- even by my daughter’s boyfriend who has only been teaching English for a semester with her, began to embrace that mentality- he made us turn off the tiny little oil filled radiator when we left for the day. We said, it takes so long to heat the room up once we return (hostel bedroom) – like all night- that it is crazy- we are cold all the time- the room is cold all the time too then- when you are gone and when you are there- it is a fuckin’ miserable way to live- no wonder they are sick with respiratory crap all the time- that and the air pollution.

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