It’s strange to think that I was in Beijing China less than a week ago. It’s especially strange to think about it given that I left Beijing at 1:50pm Thursday July 31st, flying 12+ hours through daytime to night time and back to daytime again, and landed in Toronto at 2:10pm Thursday July 31st. Clearly I must have encountered some ripple in the space-time continuum, since I was technically travelling into the past, yet landed 20 minutes in the future.
Obviously my grasp of quantum physics and space-time is limited.
Regardless, having returned to Canada, blue skies, water that doesn’t need to be boiled, personal space, and a very affectionate kitty, I figured I should jot down some of the observations I made while exploring China for the past 30+ days.
Before I start listing off these observations, let me be clear that I’m not writing these as criticisms or to poke fun. They are simply things I saw that were outside the realm of what a westerner might consider normal. I by no means imply any judgement.
With that in mind, I now present my list of observations in no particular order:
- The social faux-pas that is digging for nose-nuggets at home doesn’t quite evoke the same reaction in China. Got a nose-nugget? Dig that sucker out, anywhere, anytime.
- Seeing a child walk down the street bare-ass naked from the waist down also doesn’t evoke the reactions that it might should one see that in Guelph. Even more surprising is the complete lack of concern when said bare-assed child squats to pee anywhere, anytime.
- Spitting seems to be a past-time activity here. And not the spitting that you’ve probably heard from teens and smokers. This is a full on, lung and throat clearing, oh my lord you are probably suffering from black lung hork. Again, anywhere, anytime.
- No shirt, no shoes, no service seems to be a mere suggestion. I was a bit surprised during several meals in what would be equivalent to family friendly restaurants at home (read, better than fast food, but not too fancy that one might require a tie or jacket) when a larger man would come strolling in off the streets, no shirt, no shoes, and sit down to eat. Don’t get me wrong, the human body can be a beautiful thing, but even if you’ve got abs of steel and a body that any of the Greek gods would envy, I’m just not accustomed to eating in a restaurant with shirtless people.
- Smoking is another major past-time in China. Anywhere, anytime. And no-smoking signs appear to be purely for decoration. Having lived in a city that has banned smoking in restaurants and bars for a very long time, it was odd to be exposed to so much of it while exploring the country. Between the smoke and the smog, I’m betting my lung capacity had been diminished. I’m also really curious if China doesn’t now have, or will soon have, a major public health crisis on their hands.
- Personal space isn’t of interest to anyone it seems. That likely comes from living in a country and in cities with so many people. Shanghai and Beijing have about 50 million people in them; compare that to the entire population of Canada spread over all the land we have. Regardless, it’s a bit odd the first time people push you without apology, bump into you with a complete disregard for you, and stand in your personal space when you’re in the middle of a meal.
- The idea of a queue is also a suggestion. It was amazing to me to line up for a ticket for anything, only to have people walk up and stand in front of me, or to demand service while I was in the process of being served. Again, I think this had to do with living in a country and cities with as many people as they do. With that many people, you have to speak loud and push forward if you expect to be heard.
- Drivers appear at first to be insane. But, having watched them negotiate the tiny spaces they did, and having watched them handle the traffic (including thousands of tuk-tuks, scooters, cyclists, buses, cars, and pedestrians), I have to say they’re actually damn good drivers.
- The drivers love to use their horns. But it’s more in the sense of “hey, I’m on the road, watch out for me” instead of “hey, asshole, get the hell out of my way”.
- Community is extremely important. The number of people who I saw gathering in the evenings to share food and drink, or to get together to waltz, hip hop, line dance, or perform any number of other dance types was amazing. Every city had something, and the community responded. It was actually quite awesome and inspiring to see.
- Family is also extremely important. This extends beyond the immediate family to include the neighbours – which may have actually been family.
- Hospitality is a major part of the culture. The number of people who offered to buy me drinks, have me to dinner, or make sure I was comfortable, looked after, and well fed was heartwarming. I didn’t speak the language, but the warmth in their eyes and the kindness of their smiles spoke volumes.
Overall, China was amazing. It was a country of contrasts: old and new architecture, extremely poor and extremely rich, long-standing customs and newer western influences, strict adherence to etiquette compared to actions that might be considered in the west to be rude. But these contrasts are what made the country so incredible and interesting. For those who are travelling there for the first time, remember to check your western opinions and expectations at the door. Embrace the organized chaos that is China. Trust me, you’ll love it, and will likely end up like me – looking forward to your next adventure there.