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The Land of Mao and Yao

It isn’t easy to get a handle on a country as immense and diverse as China after only ten days and three cities. In fact, it’s damn near impossible. Still, whenever you spend time in a culture as different as yours as Chinese culture is from ours, it is inevitable that some opinions will be formed and some observations made.

For many Americans, the China of their imagination is the China of the Cultural Revolution – suspicious, paranoid and resistant of the outside world, a kind of Fu Manchu China that owes its image to Cold War propaganda and, in many ways, deservedly so. However, that China is more than a quarter of a century gone. In its place is a new China, one eager to take its place as a leader in global economics, innovation and culture. While still conservative in many ways, there is vibrancy in China that is exciting and surprising.

There is construction everywhere. Skyscrapers are being erected as fast as they can be built, each one more modern and beautiful than the next. China’s cities are modernizing at an astonishing rate, with garish neon lights that add color and allure. Modern highways snake through the cities and into the countryside, while maglev trains whisk quietly at 300mph and subway systems are looking to ease the congestion of city streets that have seen a dramatic influx of privately-owned cars, which 25 years ago were a luxury only a few Chinese citizens could enjoy.

Traffic is terrifying in China. Chinese drivers tend to see traffic laws more as suggestions than laws, and unlike here in the West, pedestrians don’t have the right of way; the prevailing attitude is that pedestrians should look out for traffic rather than vice versa. It takes nerves of steel to drive on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai, with cars passing one another with bursts of speed, only to come to a screeching halt as other cars force their way into the lanes in front of them. Passing on the right occurs with regularity (like America, Chinese traffic is on the right side of the street) and Chinese drivers will regularly use turn only lanes as a means of getting ahead of other cars. It is the prudent driver who has one hand on their horn, letting other drivers know where they are as they barrel around them.

You are constantly aware of the crush of people around you. Personal space is not a given in China but a luxury, and you get used to being jostled, bumped and brushed up against. When shopping in Chinese markets, you can sometimes be physically grabbed by a sales clerk attempting to lead you into their shop which can be horrifying to a Westerner unused to having their persons violated that way. Claustrophobics would break out into a cold sweat in China, where you are constantly surrounded by people. Living spaces are cramped by our standards, so there tend to be fewer possessions and the Chinese have become masters at the efficient use of space. While the temperatures can get pretty warm in the summer, the Chinese tend to eschew anything but minimal air conditioning. This was dismaying for folks like me, who are more comfortable at cooler temperatures.

As China integrates Western society into their own, it is not uncommon to see young Chinese women in mini-skirts and designer pumps emerging from Starbucks, talking into cell phones which have taken China by storm. As in the West, nearly everyone there has a cell phone and China Mobile stores are ubiquitous.

Still, Westerners are relatively rare, even in the cities and those who are heavyset, as my wife and I are, even less common. Many Chinese citizens from rural provinces had never seen a Westerner before and Doreen and I found ourselves to be mini-celebrities, regularly stopped wherever we went to pose for pictures with smiling, polite people. Apparently, the Chinese equate big bellies with happiness in life, so they assumed Da Queen and I were successful, content people. If only they could have seen me in High School.

While the news in China is heavily censored, that doesn’t mean that the people are ignorant of what is going on in their own country and around the world, and they don’t necessarily agree with every policy that comes out of Beijing. I was surprised that the Chinese people I spoke with were often critical in their government with many of the same complaints that we have of our own – wasteful spending, inefficiency and not always doing what’s most beneficial for the people. One person told us that the Chinese discuss these things among themselves but rarely in public; while the repressive policies of the Cultural Revolution are more relaxed now, the wrong word in the wrong ear can lead to serious problems.

Still, while the Chinese people don’t always agree on the effectiveness of their current government, they are nearly unanimous in their admiration of Chairman Mao Zedong, whose status I would estimate is roughly the equivalent of a Catholic saint. His image is everywhere, and even though he initiated the Cultural Revolution, which is widely despised by the average Chinese citizen, he is not held responsible for it. In that sense, he has the same Teflon coating as Ronald Reagan once did, only with more universal popularity than Reagan ever had.

The other main figure in Chinese culture these days is Yao Ming, the star basketball player for the Houston Rockets. He is a symbol of the emergence of China on the global stage; nearly as popular with the Chinese is Kobe Bryant (although strangely, LeBron James, who very well could be the most popular player in the NBA at the moment, is nearly absent from the Chinese consciousness). Houston Rocket and Los Angeles Laker shirts and jerseys abound.

Chinese culture is ancient, stretching back six thousand years. Passing through structures like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Big Water Goose Pagoda, we were shown the intricacy of Chinese architecture and the beauty of their surroundings. Feng shui is taken very seriously in China and nearly all their buildings reflect that philosophy, with the goal of maximizing harmony and balance, even in modern buildings. For example, the Chinese represent heaven with circles and earth with squares and often have buildings of those shapes close to each other to symbolize heaven on earth. That is why the National Stadium in Beijing (a.k.a. the Bird Nest) and the Water Cube are adjacent to each other in the Olympic Park.

However, the most impressive structure is neither a circle nor a square. It is the Great Wall. While much of the Wall remains in ruins, crumbling with the effects of age and environment, the Chinese government has restored many sections of the Wall and standing before it – and on it – is a humbling experience. It is a huge edifice, stretching off into the distance on dragon-back hills and mountains. Chairman Mao was once quoted as saying that in order to be truly Chinese you must stand on the Great Wall and I can understand the sentiment. It is an amazing achievement and standing on it you get a sense of its place in the Chinese psyche as a symbol of their accomplishments, but you are also reminded of the human toll; it is said that one thousand people died for every kilometer of wall, and the wall is more than a thousand kilometers long. That’s a million dead, all for the sake of a wall that was meant to keep invaders out but failed at its intended purpose miserably.

That’s an irony that I think lies at the heart of what China is; on the one hand they have succeeded in grand ventures and have made remarkable strides in the past ten years but at the same time they are still playing catch up to the economies of the West, whose cultures are much younger than theirs. Much of that is laid at the feet of the Imperial dynasties who near the end were self-indulgent and failed to understand the importance of change and progress, but the Chinese suspicion of all things non-Chinese (a suspicion that seems to be evaporating now) led to an isolationist policy that ultimately led to the country failing to keep up with Western industrialization at a crucial time in her history.

While I really enjoyed my visit there, I am very relieved to be home. There is a great deal of comfort in dealing with the familiar and not constantly be wondering how you’re supposed to act and worried that you’re committing some sort of terrible faux pas out of ignorance. Still, this was the trip of a lifetime and I’m glad I made it, despite having to travel 20 hours over two days to get there. While I sit at home and recover from the jet lag and the effects of walking far more than I’m used to, I will continue to post details about our trip on our travel blog at http://www.travelpod.com/members/doreendev over the coming days, as well as photos from our trip. One thing is certainly true of any long absence from home; it leaves you with a greater appreciation of what you have when you finally return.


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