My Month in the Enigma That is China

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Disclaimer: I am aware that China has several provinces and that I only visited 3 of them and that I know veeeery little about China and am not an expert on China in the least. All comments I make come from my own observations.  


 

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My month in China was wonderful. To say it was a transformative and educational experience definitely isn’t an overstatement. Misconceptions were shattered, and new opinions were formed.

After a 10 hour flight I landed in Beijing and was picked up by my host  who was surprised by my adept ability with chopsticks:) The first day I noticed that the sky in Beijing is, contrary to what I was expecting, blue and I’m momentarily confused until my host tells me about APEC blue.

Chongqing Province was my first stop. First I visited Yongchuan, a relatively small town, and somehow managed to get there from Chongqing International Airport. My friend gave me instructions on how to get to his workplace which consisted of buying a coach ticket from the airport and then taking a taxi from downtown Yongchuan to the international school he works at. Due to my naivete, I was under the impression that the airport staff would be able to speak some English, but alas. I did manage to buy a ticket and it took me a while to find my bus as I don’t read Chinese! I was stuck next to a drunk man who stared at me for almost the entire two hour-long journey. When my bus stopped in Yongchuan, the bus driver didn’t tell me we had arrived but thank God for that one English sign that told me where I was. I will never travel to China again without having a local phone!

What can I say about Yongchuan? Well, there really isn’t much there but they do have a fake Hooters restaurant! According to my friend, it was a farming community not too long ago and it’s now a town of a lot of nouveau riche. There are very few non-Chinese people there, the majority of foreigners working at local schools.  My friend warned me to expect a lot of curiosity as I was the new “laowai” (foreigner) in town. Indeed, pretty much everyone I encountered in that town turned around to stare at me, and some parents even pushed their children towards me to practice their English:)

 

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Smog- a common sight in Chongqing Province

 

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Chongqing city, a very dystopian-looking city, was where I experienced my first Chinese traffic jam. Chongqing also taught me how to be a pro-jaywalker and how to be assertive in lines, otherwise someone will cut in in front of you. Personal space seemed to be pretty non-existent there.

 

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Chaos on the streets of Chongqing during a traffic jam.

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The Liberation Monument, once the highest building in this area.

My best memories of Chongqing revolve mainly around the food. Very spicy.

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Chongqing is also the home of the creepy Obama statue.

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Next was Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, where I spent the majority of my time conducting research and immersing in the culture.  Hangzhou is the home of the romantic White Snake legend, and Zhejiang province is also known for its longjing (dragon well) tea, its pearls, and Hangzhou cuisine. Apparently Marco Polo quite liked the city too.

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I was told that longjing tea must be drunk in transparent glasses to enjoy the sight of the tea leaves.
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Tea bushes

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I visited five UNESCO world heritage sites while in China but at these locations I might as well be a wonder of the world myself as all eyes (and cameras) are on me (and my hair). It usually bemused me, not always. If asked, I was always willing to pose for a photo with “admirers.” 🙂

 

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West Lake, Hangzhou

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Questions about my hair abounded all over China. A man I met at West Lake came up to me, stared at me for a few minutes and used my friend as a translator to ask about my hair. Later,  his friend, who was wearing a toupee, came over and they asked me more questions about my hair, the first guy  even pulling one of my braids for good measure. He said I had “special hair.” I wonder whether he equates that to rubbing a Buddha statue’s belly for good luck? When two American friends joined us later on, the braid-pulling guy looked at all three of us and said, “She is black, they are white.” He seemed really proud of himself for having made that observation! He probably isn’t used to all that diversity.

Speaking of diversity, I shared a moment with an Ethiopian woman I met on the street who greeted me like an old friend, much to the amusement of those around me. I was reminded of the instant connection I often feel with blacks in the diaspora.

After a few weeks in Hangzhou, I was back in freezing cold Beijing with a friend. Beijing was wonderful and the Summer Palace, The Great Wall and the incredibly intimidating Tiannemen Square alone made my trip there worthwhile.

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Guard standing in front of the Chairman Mao portrait
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Tiananmen Square
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In retrospect, I’m not sure it was a smart idea to take this picture.
Apparently nothing happened here in 1989.
Apparently nothing happened here in 1989.
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The Summer Palace

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Badaling Great Wall

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Certification that I have hiked the Great Wall
Certification that I have hiked the Great Wall

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The Bird’s Nest Stadium

 

China is not an easy country to travel in. I was under the impression that it would be more tourist friendly especially as Beijing had held the Olympics not so long ago. It was not. They seem to be catering more towards the domestic tourists whose numbers are rising. Labelling was poor, signs were poor if there were any, but often non-existent. One sign to the local bus  to the Great Wall had the #919 pointed both east and west but it was in neither of those directions. When we finally got to the bus stop, the bus wasn’t even where it was supposed to be. Museums and art galleries might have English signage on the outside but the exhibits rarely did. Some places had Greek, Arabic or Korean signage at random, but no English. I soon learned not to expect anything and to be thankful when something was written in English or French.  However, to make up for it, China rewarded me with a lot of amusing English 🙂

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I would never have guessed that I would find Orwell’s 1984 in a Chinese bookstore.

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Grandparents riding  motorbikes with their grandkids on their laps was something I wish I’d taken a picture of. Obviously having a motorbike in China doesn’t give you any street cred at all; they are just cheap forms of private transportation. Also, motorbikes can go anywhere so just because I was on a pavement, didn’t mean that motorbikes (and sometimes even cars, anything goes) wouldn’t run me over.

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The popularity of Obama in China surprised me.

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There were things I saw that didn’t make much sense.

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Free cassette tape?
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Man in blackface?

 

In general, people were friendly and seemed to be content. There was so much vibrancy in open spaces. I was inspired (and entertained) by the elderly who danced outside (I even see them dancing to Indian music at the subway station), knit, played cards and badminton, etc. Kids were out later, there didn’t appear to be any noise bylaws either.

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The fact that Pizza Hut sold escargots and wine was pretty mindblowing to my friends and I. We befriended the staff there, Peter and Sunny.

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Since I know a little about Chinese censorship, I paid close attention to these situations while I was there. We had already been warned not to mention Ai Weiwei, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, the Hong Kong protests etc. I was taken on a tour of roughly five universities which all looked the same! They had the same style buildings and gates, lots of security, and the same 10:30pm (!!!) curfew etc. I visited a few  Chinese people’s homes and they all lived in gated communities with a guard stationed outside. There were policemen and security guards everywhere but it seems they make people feel safe rather than wary or nervous. I also noticed that the ads for police stations were all cartoons. I soon get used to putting my bag through the x-ray machines at the subway stations. There were CCTV cameras everywhere. At Tiannemen Square I had to show my passport to be allowed entry. Also, at the Square there were barriers that controlled where people could cross, and the position of those barriers were always changing. In the evening, after the flag-lowering ceremony, we all had to leave the square immediately, no more picture-taking.

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My friend was convinced this lady was a spy for the Chinese government:D

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Mao is really loved in China, more so than I expected he would be. His image is everywhere, and not in an ironic way like it is in the West. If you take a picture of his portrait at the Square from the right hand side, he looks very eerie.

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A month later, a couple of kilos heavier and with a few new Chinese words and expressions to add to my repertoire,   I was ready to go home. I already miss the milk tea, the smell of the osmanthus flowers, the feeling of success I felt when I managed to bargain down a price, the great hospitality, and all the amazing food. There’s still a lot I don’t know but I’m more than happy with what I learned while I was there.

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24 thoughts on “My Month in the Enigma That is China

  1. You shared a picture with food that seemed to be tied with some sort of leaf. We have something that looks almost exactly like that in Jamaica called Duckunno, Tie Leaf or Blue Drawers… I would love to visit China one day. The food looks amazing too. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Hi Tricia, what’s in the Duckunno? I’ve forgotten the name of the Chinese dish but the inside is filled with sticky rice and pork, it was absolutely delicious. You’re so welcome! I do hope you visit there someday, it was great to get an in-person perspective as opposed to a media one. Hope you’re well and enjoying your Christmas preparations:)

      1. Thanks to you too. Duckunno is a sweet kind of boiled pudding made of grated green bananas, grated sweet potato, coconut milk, raisins, vanilla, cinnamon and other spices. I’ve never really tasted anything like it anywhere else. When I visited Panama in 2011, they had a similar looking dish but it was savory not sweet, like the Chinese one you mentioned.

  2. Thanks for a photo-story unlike any other! You didn’t focus on “generic” things that make every visitor’s experience in China appear to be the same.

  3. For years I’ve disregarded several invitations to visit Shanghai, et al. But after seeing this, I now have the impetus to go to China and see it in the ‘first person’. Thank you for this amazing piece.

    1. Aww, I’m very glad to hear that, Diane! I was a bit wary about going too but it was a great experience. I definitely see myself visiting China again in the future but before I go again I’d definitely learn more Chinese 🙂

  4. This is me – Caroline from GR…. What a wonderful description Rowena! It sounds like you had an amazing time. And well done you for getting around so well given the lack of English directions and so forth. How interesting to read about the APEC blue sky in Beijing, and learn about Obama’s popularity (though it is more understandable than Mao’s popularity!) Loved seeing all your photographs too. What an incredibly experience…

  5. Hi, It’s Debbie “DJ” from GR. Loved your pics, and stories. Amazing that you happened to be there during the preparations for Obama’s visit and got to see blue sky. I didn’t know he was that popular there either, Ha, probably more so than here, How funny your hair was such a hit! And that almost nothing was in English. Really impressed you found your way around! An experience of a lifetime I am sure, but glad you’re back (how selfish!). Thanks so much for sharing!

  6. I don’t know why, but your blog posts are not showing up in my “Reader” of blogs I’m subscribed to, so I’m late to this, but wanted to say re: the hair pulling thing: when I was in Japan, I found that they had a thing for patting blond children on the head (children of military service members). I’m not sure if it was supposed to be good luck or what. I can imagine in a country like China that’s been so closed off to the rest of the world for so long, anyone who is at all different must be quite the excitement.

    Fantastic pics, wow. What an adventure!

    1. For a while I didn’t see your posts updated on my reader either, luckily I also get email notifications! Yup, a lot of my classmates (quite the majority, actually!) are blondes so they also got a lot of attention and people wanting to touch their hair. Although I got tired of the attention at times, I guess it was kinda cute to be a welcome novelty! Thank you, I had a brilliant time:)

      1. Oh yes! Been addicted since many years, but the “blogging come back” is a bit recent, was a bit too lazy before. What kind of teas you liked best over there? Do you still have some left?

      2. I’m glad you’re blogging again, tea always interests me:) My favourite tea in China was probably the longjing (dragon well) tea. It was very popular in the area I was in. I’ll have to show you some pictures of the tea plantations some time. And I have lots of tea left over, lots of jasmine in particular:)

  7. Whoa, thank you for sharing your experience of China. Looks like you had a good time there.
    I’d love to go one day… Did you visit any of their open markets? I heard about varieties of interesting food items including caged snakes – is that one true? Weird what excites me 🙂

    Thanks.

    1. Thanks so much for commenting! I hope you can visit someday, it was truly wonderful. And it was nice to meet African tourists and residents there. I didn’t see any overly weird foods for sale but I did see some live turtles that were for sale for food. And there were foods that a few people I travelled with found strange but I didn’t (for example chicken feet, chicken heads etc). The food was absolutely delicious, I gained quite a few pounds:)

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