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.
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:)
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.
My best memories of Chongqing revolve mainly around the food. Very spicy.
Chongqing is also the home of the creepy Obama statue.
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.
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.” 🙂
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.
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 🙂
I would never have guessed that I would find Orwell’s 1984 in a Chinese bookstore.
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.
The popularity of Obama in China surprised me.
There were things I saw that didn’t make much sense.
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.
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.
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.
My friend was convinced this lady was a spy for the Chinese government:D
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.
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.