We had certain expectations for China: chaos, crowds, crap, and coughs. We thought it would be harder than India or Cambodia. Turns out, it was much easier than we imagined. Quite pleasant, actually. Whew!
A few factors helped make our visit enjoyable. First, we met up with our dear travel friends, Chris and Angie. They helped us enjoy the three weeks by injecting their humor, remaining mostly calm, and helping us devour some serious meals. Second, we mainly visited cities, the smallest having a population of about half a million people. Cities with running water, electricity, and public transportation. We didn’t feel the pain of deep poverty. Third, the places we visited were clean, actually employing workers to collect garbage from trash cans that citizens actually use. Fourth, the people were less interested in us. The stares were fewer, the hawkers were quiet, the people shied away. It probably had to do with the language barrier.
China was the first country on our trip where we felt we should have worked harder to learn the language. Yet which one: the main language of Hong Kong (Cantonese), Shanghai (Shanghaiese), or Beijing (Mandarin)? The few words we did learn were in Mandarin. It was not enough, as many times we felt a bit stuck communicating our needs. Few Chinese spoke English, including staff at our hotels and hostels. Wanting to be independent from Western help and keep nationalism high, many citizens feel it unnecessary to learn English. Mainland China was never colonized by the British, so there is no leftover colonial influence here like there is in India and Singapore. It was quite hilarious when we entered a taxi to find a driver who could not speak English nor read Mandarin. Unable to convey our destination, we pointed and gestured each direction and turn. Thank goodness we actually knew where we were going!
Chinese people are a little loud, a lotta spitty, somewhat sassy, pretty pushy, and overall, pleasant. Particularly pleasant when it comes to food. They are more than happy to get you reading their menu, tasting their treats, and gobbling down plates of their creations. And can I get you a beer to wash it all down?
Rarely enjoying Chinese food in Milwaukee, as there was no place good to eat near our home, I had low expectations about Chinese food. And I still do. We ate plenty of decent food and some outstanding dishes as well. Yet most of what we ate was bland, overly greasy, and downright boring.
Two outstanding exceptions come to mind. First, Peking duck, carved table side at a swanky restaurant in Beijing. We dipped the meat in sugar and rolled our own pancakes with green onions and hoisin sauce. Second, Shanghai soup dumplings, known as shengjian. They are round pork dumplings, the dough walls a little thicker than usual and the bottom crispy from pan frying. To eat one, bite off a little hole at the top, and tip it back like a shot to drink out the hot soup. Then bite in for a tasty pork nugget inside. Oh yum, yum, yum.
Capitalism is all the rage in China and it shows. High-end stores line the sidewalks and luxury cars ply the roads. The middle class is emerging, and looking good matters. Chinese spend more on clothes and personal luxury items than on their homes.
It showed in the hutang, or traditional old neighborhood, where our Beijing hotel was located. The neighborhood consists of blocks of one-story, rambling, grey buildings. Simple, small, some without running water, they house many people, plus pet dogs too. The streets are too narrow, yet food vendors, parked and moving cars, motos, bicycles, and pedestrians all share the road. Local shops of every kind dot the street, selling underwear, shoes, prepared foods, decorated cakes, even singing grasshoppers, a popular pet in the city. This feels like more what we expected from China, and we enjoyed it very much.
What we didn’t like was the lack of Internet access. We had lots of questions while visiting China. That grey pall over the city… weather condition or smog? A Google search of the words “China haze” will get you nowhere. Even trying to find out (in English) when an attraction will be open was difficult. Tough place to get any information and it sucks.
When Ken and I were first choosing countries to visit, China was not on my list. Ten loud Chinese in a tour group is bad enough; I didn’t want to be surrounded by a billion of them. Being here has confirmed some of the reasons that I wasn’t interested in going to China (see the 4 Cs above).
On the other hand, when we got out of the cities, I was in my element. From hiking in Hong Kong to people-watching in Pingyao to dining on dim sum, it was a good time spent with great friends.