Thoughts on China

It's been several weeks since I came back from China and I've been pondering all my experiences and exposures I received while traveling the huge country.

The common piece of information cited by people when talking about China is the sheer number of people. This is a fact and well covered. What isn't easily conveyed is the affect the density and volume of this number of people has on the behaviors, mentality, and lives of the citizens of China. This is a country where there really are a hundred people behind you ready to take your job, or even several of them to do your one job. Individuals have to be tenacious and you have to get what you want. And this isn't in a malicious or bad way. I wonder if it's almost necessary for such a dense population to function.

Heavy Traffic, Heavy Haze - another day in ChinaIt's an organized chaos. The streets are very similar to what a westerner would expect, however there are probably 2-4 times as many vehicles and pedestrians on this street. That means that drivers abiding lanes, waiting to turn, and semblence of nominal laws would completely clog the system. Instead, vehicles are really only restricted by the curbs (mostly) and not hitting one another. In fact, in 3 weeks I didn't see a single accident, which I found amazing. Crossing the road is like playing a game of Frogger, except that you're the frog.

China Photoset on Flickr

The pollution also has a deep impact on the populace. I didn't have trouble breathing, but that was a common complaint by others. Instead, I felt pangs of light deficiency. For 3 weeks we never had a clear view of the horizon. Looking up the sky would be poking through with blue, and the sun would be a bright, but very discernable, disk - signaling a "clear" day. However, even flying over areas of the country there was rarely a break in the smog to see the landscape. This is also attributable to the extremely dry weather they've had that would otherwise "wash" the air. An obvious demonstration of why they're working hard on making rain before the Olympics this summer.

Yangshuo CountrysideGoing out the the country-side was an amazing trip. 10 minutes on a bicycle and you go from "small town" of 600,000 people to farmlands and rice-fields bordering the beautiful Yulong river. You can walk through villages that probably haven't changed in hundreds of years, except perhaps to get television. There are landmarks scattered around that would be entire theme parks in the United States, but in China served their original purposes to the local people today. The Dragon Bridge from 1400 AD that is still the only crossing for miles - or the Tang wall that guarded against armies about 1500 years ago and now just serves to separate some fields.

Hello, Bamboo?

Hong Kong MarketI didn't know what the term "hawking" really meant, and felt like, until I came to China. Combine the large population of available, cheap, workers, with the acquired knowledge and capability to manufacture, and people in cities looking for jobs and money, and you have an insanely overwhelming market of goods available at every corner. You're constantly bombarded with shop owners, stalls, men on the street luring you into tailors, bags, and whatnot to sell. From these people you are a walking wallet and our favorite phrase became "Bu yao!" (don't want)

Imagine if email spam were people. That is what it is like. At one market I was looking at a pair of shoes, but decided that though the price was right (approx. $4) I didn't really like them. As I turned to walk away there were 8 other vendors behind me holding out either the exact same shoe for 1/2 the price, or a comparable shoe. If you show the slightest interest in something, it immediately turns into a bargaining game. They may even cry, throw a tantrum, complain that they are going out of business - but you can expect to pay 1/10th (yes, 10%) of what the original price was. They'll seem incredibly hurt, but when you hand over the money, they immediately smile again and ask "do you want some scrolls?"

The pervasiveness of the market was succinctly demonstrated as I was biking along the Yulong river. The popular thing to do along the river is to hire a bamboo boat and a local to pole you up and down the river. Being the winter, tourist low season, there were swarms of boat owners and locals trying to sell a boat ride. They know they can get your attention by saying "Hello!" very clearly and then whatever it is they are selling.

So when leaving the village I rode past a small group of childen who were laughing and skipping past me, and upon seeing me shouted "Hello! Bamboo?" and then continuing to run and skip along down the next street - the phrase perfectly mimicking their parents offers of a ride, but in this case it was the only english words these children knew and to them it was a common greeting. (though I imagine their parents had very clearly explained about us westerners)

When in 中国...

GuardiansCorrie and I took some mandarin classes and plastered various bits of our apartment with signs denoting the Mandarin (and Pinyin for pronunciation) words for the items or ideas. I think knowing a little bit of mandarin made a big difference on our trip. In the cities, you can pass with English, especially cities like Beijing that are recommending 400 words and phrases that every cab driver should know for preparing for Olympic tourists - but even then English isn't strong or prevalent. China, I imagine, has the same problem that American's do - it's such a big country that there rarely is an opportunity to practice a foreign language. So while you may learn English in school for years, they will probably not have ever, or not often, spoken with a native English speaker. There were many times that our Mandarin was as good or better than the English of the person we were talking with.

Also, knowing some Mandarin just made the entire experience a lot more fun. Our pronunciation definitely needs a lot of work, but the people were typically very understanding, and were excited that we knew and spoke some of the language. My vocabulary doubled in the 3 weeks I was there and we're definitely planning on maintaing and extending our knowledge of the language. Just need to find a local culture group.

China is a country that is outgrowing itself and trying to figure out how to live in a modern world. They produce 3-million engineers a year (compared to the US's 100,000 engineers a year) but it's a commonly accepted fact that the currently common Confucian style learning system promotes memorization over analysis and interpretation, so the workforce typically lacks ingenuity. There are more people than jobs, and businesses are required to hire a number of employees based on the square footage of their buildings. This leads to idle workers who have little more responsibility than greeting or looking busy.

BonvoyageI'm looking forward to more trips to China - I will have to increase my Mandarin skills so not to get teased by my pronunciations. Thanks to my old friend Sam (and to Facebook for letting me know that she lived where I was traveling to) for 3 days of "local life" in Nanjing. I passed on the turtle soup and duck brains.

Mapufacture Map of my trip

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Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.