When we stepped off the plane in Beijing, we were sucker punched by the hard-case, full-grown, eight-cylinder monster called China. The introduction was not the gentle Mid-West bump and greet but the New York up-in-your-face, get outta here NOW salutation.
I must confess that a lot of people warned us about China. “It’s too big and dirty. Obnoxious. Difficult.” There are a lot of haters out there, it’s not just Trump. But on a world tour, how could we circumvent one of the largest, most populous, culturally diverse, geographically varied, and powerful countries in the world?
I was expecting a dirty, smelly, and pushy. Although it is those things, it’s not in quite the way I thought. While sitting at the airport gate in Seoul awaiting our departure for Beijing, I observed one girl clipping her fingernails. She wasn’t catching pieces or finding the clipped nails but rather she got up and moved to a different seat once finished. To my left, a young woman was taking screen grabs on her iPhone at full volume. And she was taking a lot of them. Across from me, a woman organized her absurd amounts of Duty Free purchases. To me, this was a glimpse into a loud, pushy, and potentially disgusting future. The truth is – with the good comes the bad. We took a cruise down the Yangzi River and the manager said, “In China, you get something good, something bad.” It is not my favorite country; however, I have been consistently blown away by it – people, culture, natural wonders, man-made structures and art.
Before arriving in China, we knew about the hits – Beijing, Shanghai, the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors, and food. But we had no idea how many magical and extraordinary places, things, and tastes there are to experience in China. There are about as many Buddhists in China as there are people in the United States – and Buddhism represents less than 20% of the population. China has 5 mega cities of more than 10 million people and over 100 cities with over 1 million people, we think. I say “we think” because the Chinese government keeps a lot close to the chest.
Smells. The smells of China are analogous with the culture. They envelope you with no regard for civility. Push you around. They’re abrasive, loud, stinky, gross, nauseating and never delicate or subtle.
Spitting. Hocking lougies- women and grandmothers; That deep phlegm soaked guttural draw. Your grandpa probably does it. In China, everyone does it. A beautiful, young lady may be strutting down the avenue in some high-heels and a short skirt and lay one down on the pavement. It’s not just for old men anymore people. It’s an equal opportunity culture.
The Noise. The honking. Dear God the noise. The horn is a tool, I’ll admit, but the proper usage is to give a warning or get your attention. Here there is no restraint. It’s “beep, beep, beep.” If there’s a pause for more than a second and honk will fill the emptiness, if for nothing else, to keep the rhythm.
Queuing. The personal space issue extends beyond standing and queuing. If you are on a small path and walking the opposite way, be careful. They are either oblivious or just don’t care that you’re there and you’ll most likely be hip-checked into the wall. And then they’ll keep walking like the ran over a speed bump. There seems to be an unwritten rule that lines are irrelevant. People cut in front all of the time. There’s a long line to purchase a bus ticket, but someone walks to the front and slips in. There is no protest. No outcry. It is unclear who is allowed to get away with this kind of behavior, but we have yet to see any confrontation. And the yentas will just mow you over.
Crossing the street. Motorcycles on the road, the bike lane, and of course on the sidewalk. Going the wrong direction. When there’s nowhere else to go, the only way is the right way. No one taught the Chinese how to walk. They walk as if no one else is there. And when you’re doing it on the side of a mountain….or maybe they are just better at it, which would explain the no effs approach.
The pollution in China is real. Even iMap would indicate the Air Quality Index (AQI) at all times. I wouldn’t run in Beijing or Xi’an when it was dark orange or at a level unsafe to do physical activity. The government provides free heat to all residents in the winter, and winters in China are cold. Coal is burned at an increasing rate. Whether or not the Chinese really care about climate change, they do realize that their carbon emissions are killing their people, so they are committed to growing renewables and their dedication is serious. However, coal is still effective, available, and cheap for the time being, so they are making things worse in the short-term.
Security. Feeling safe. Having Big Brother really adds to a sense of security. Cameras and two microphones in taxis, cameras on buses, subways, sidewalks, everywhere. And the Chinese facial recognition is believed to be the real deal. Security state is good for tourists. Domestic flight security is no joke. Opposite of Japan. You aren’t allowed to bring above a certain amount of batteries etc. and they check. And know. There’s a woman checking id and tickets like immigration. One person at a time. They are very strict about what devices can be used on board and when. No mobile phones. And never before have I seen anyone follow the rules to a T. But everyone did. We’re the only non-Chinese on the flight. National Parks use either facial recognition or thumb-print identification for park goers who want to return for another day.
Beijini. Many men tuck the bottoms of their shirts up into their shirt exposing their midriff. This is known as the Beijini (Beijing Bikini). This practice isn’t limited to Beijing, we’ve seen Beijinis all over. You can be fat, skinny, old, young – it doesn’t matter – they like to give their stomachs some air. Apparently, it is a good way to keep cool.
Dirty Hand Irony. Plastic gloves. Won’t close the toilet door for fear of touching germs. However, the kids poop in the street….Clean Hand, Dirty Fingers
Domestic tourism in Gansu. Thousands and thousands Chinese and no westerners. It’s a very far and isolated place for westerners to go. Tourism in china is unlike anywhere else I’ve been in SEAsia/Latin America. It is not centered around the western traveler. The food, the hawkers, the hostels, the hotels, these are all for domestic tourists. With China’s burgeoning middle class, there are too many valuable domestic tourists that westerners are an after thought. The chachkies hockers don’t know English and don’t even try to solicit a sale.
Smoking. Everywhere. I don’t think we realized how big a problem it is when we first arrived. In Beijing, they outlawed smoking inside of restaurants. But when we got to Gansu , it was everywhere. In restaurants, on buses, in bathrooms, at historic sights, in bathrooms, and in front of no smoking signs. When approaching a train station bathroom, big bold signs announce “no smoking”; however, when you turn the corner and enter, you are hit with a hazy wall of smoke, stale smell of urine, and the stench of human excrement. The urinals are filled with dropped cigarettes and most people go in with a cigarette purses between their lips and leave smoking their second. If you’re lucky, a Buddhist gentleman left some incense burning to ward off the foulness.
We’re Famous. We’re going to be in a lot of Christmas cards in china this year. Having traveled to some isolated and remote (read no Western tourists), we have become some sort of a novelty. People ask to take pictures with us. Or most times, sit down close to us, put their arms around us, and smile at their friends snapping photos. They rotate through. Everyone in the extended family, friend circle, or other randoms at the train station take their turns getting their photo taken with us. I guess it’s my sexy beard. One Mongolian family didn’t even want my wife in it. Just me and my gorgeous facial growth.
Technology. They utilize technology the way that people assume the Japanese do. They are advanced. All payments are done digitally. Almost no one handles cash. The little old lady selling peaches out of a basket on the corner takes WeChat Pay and AliPay. She’s got a QR code on a sticker around her neck. National Parks use either facial recognition or thumb-print identification for park goers who want to return for another day.
China is all of those things. My initial expectations of china were all correct. It is a loud, dirty, and stinky place. But it’s so much more. It is a magical place and I am very sad to leave. The Moral of the beijini, the spitting, the crotchless baby panties, the queuing, the pushing, and the horns is that china doesn’t give a fuck. They do what they want. So, watch out, they’re coming for you!