When I first headed to China in 2012, I presumed I would find the culturally rich country with a long and enduring history, that I knew from reading and from museum exhibitions; and magnificent, vast, natural landscapes that I’d seen in movies, photographs, and paintings. I also expected, from what I had read in the news, overcrowded cities and evidence of the reckless exploitation of natural resources. Having travelled in Southeast Asia, I also anticipated a wide assortment of diverse and tasty food. I did not have many preconceptions about the people other than presuming that they might be better educated and perhaps more mobile than those in the other, somewhat less-developed, regions of Asia that I had visited. I had hoped to encounter warmth and hospitality. Some of my preconceptions have proved true but I’ve also had some unexpected revelations. As I wrote in my posting, First Impressions of China, China is neither a third nor first world country and is changing at tremendous speed; public transportation is fairly top notch, construction is faster than lightening, consumption is high, and it is hard to tell whether the infrastructure will be able to take all this rapid growth. Yet, despite all this recent transformation, it seems that family, food and tradition are still central to the Chinese people and their values. Because I have met so many wonderful people over these seven months in China, I have decided to share with you just a few photos of their many faces.
I came to China to study the language in September 2013 (I’ll be leaving the country at the end of March 2014). My sole incentive was to try to better understand this country’s people and culture. I have succeeded in learning quite a bit on all counts. So, in no particular order, here are my updated impressions and some of my discoveries about China.
Hygiene: Garbage is thrown on the streets in cities, towns, and villages, since people are employed to pick it up (although those who are really in the countryside seem to take great care of their environment). Much of the population continues to spit on the ground (it starts with the clearing of the throat – a sound I’ve learned to dread – and is followed by phlegm shooting like a spitball onto the ground, where the vestige pools. Most men smoke, and in the cities women are beginning to do the same, although they often do so in secret because it still is taboo. Cigarette butts too, are thrown onto the ground.
The western-style toilet is making its way into China – particularly in big cities, where you may find a few of them in a row of toilets in public washrooms. In most places, however, there are still squat toilets (often without toilet paper, or water, or soap). In some instances (such as in bus stations), these toilets drain directly into an outhouse-like hole or trough, and are without doors for privacy. I have been told that when some Chinese find a western toilet they actually may stand on the toilet seat and then squat. Some toilets are clean, but from what I’ve seen, a great many are not. Cleanliness aside, there is something so basic about this experience that I actually enjoy using them anyway. In the West, we are very private about the goings-on in our bathrooms. We lock the doors and don’t want anyone around. I like that in Chinese bathrooms the ego is relinquished and disposing bodily waste is just what we do. How unflushed faeces, or splashed urine, reflect on hygiene is a whole other story. Here is a link to images of an array of Chinese toilets.
As I mentioned in my First Impressions posting, babies are clothed in pants that are split along the crotch, so that the moment a baby needs to relieve itself, parents can hold him/her over a curb, next to a tree,or wherever convenient. I have always found this a brilliant idea, until I recently saw a mother holding her child over a restaurant sink meant for customers to wash their hands.
Lastly, it is not uncommon to see city-dwellers wearing face masks to protect themselves from dust, pollution, and germs in general. All across China, cities are experiencing extraordinarily high levels of air pollution. In Kunming, (where pollution levels are somewhat lower than in many other cities in the country), most people do not wear masks that filter pollution particulate matter. Instead, fashionable face masks are often worn as accessories; people want to look good while trying to avoid dust from ongoing construction, germs, and smog. When the pollution is “high” it looks as though there is fog outside. I have experienced this grey/yellow atmosphere in Beijing, produced by extremely dangerous levels of pollution (one can barely see a few blocks away). My teachers claim, as do many others, that it is just fog, but I have noticed that I am sensitive to the air quality as it worsens, and I monitor the air quality index so I know it is definitely not fog when the mountains surrounding the city, or the tall buildings in the distance, are shrouded in a cloud of grey. I bought myself approved masks for heavy pollution conditions, but the majority of the Chinese population buys its masks in convenience stores or other stores where the fashionable models are available. Very few people wear masks that really protect them – although this is beginning to change, thankfully. It’s a small first step because, of course, the greater issue of the pollution itself needs to be addressed.
Driving: On city streets, drivers seem to lack situational awareness. It appears, to an outsider and pedestrian, that no one pays attention to what is around them. Those on motor bikes do not check behind them as they move from the sidewalk onto the street. The average driver travels as though part of a school of fish. In the West, roads are lined for traffic flow and we stick to these lanes, unless passing another vehicle. In China, delineated traffic lanes strike me as being mere suggestions. It’s not that China doesn’t have traffic laws but many drivers are probably ignorant of them and just follow the crowd instead. From what I observe, infrastructure and resources need to be improved. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of cars and scooters on the road and this change has occurred much too quickly. There are few traffic police and instead, just recently in Kunming, they have hired ordinary citizens to attempt to reign in drivers when a light turns red. There is a need for aneffective legal system to deter the behaviours that cause traffic jams and, no doubt, accidents.
In Kunming, electric scooters are widely used. They are quiet and environmentally efficient. The vehicles are plugged in overnight, and can travel for about 40 kilometres before needing another charge. In this regard, China is certainly ahead of the West, where there is still objection to electric vehicles, no doubt because of big oil interests.
Education: China has great respect for its teachers, a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Modern Chinese education began about a century ago, but because of the Cultural Revolution it was slow to develop and has lagged behind the West. Unlike in North America, educators are highly regarded and garner great respect and admiration. Children attend school six days a week and take many after-class lessons. They are expected to study hard and succeed. Parents hope that their children will eventually go on to university and improve their lives. The general population realizes that in order for the country to succeed and to develop economically and socially, it needs to make great progress in the world of science and technology, economics, etc. Education is key to all of this.
People: One of the most interesting aspects of Chinese culture is its mixture of direct and indirect behaviour. Most people are usually very blunt, and tell you exactly what they think and feel. I discovered early on that people rarely look at you in the eye. Apparently, steady eye contact is viewed as improper and can be seen as an act of defiance (when people become angry they often sustain eye contact). When a Chinese parent disciplines a child, that child is expected to look down. In the West, in contrast, children are often told, “Look at me when I’m talking to you.” And yet, I have a had a number of people keep a strong gaze fixed on me; it has just been without looking me in the eye – usually they will look between your eyes, at the bridge of your nose, to avoid engagement. I have found that my attempts to establish eye contact have not always been reciprocated. Yet, perhaps because I smile a lot, I am often rewarded with eye contact and a smile in return.
In the city, the Chinese people are becoming more confident. There is an assertiveness that verges on rudeness. I have had people fight me, though not quite literally, for a taxi. On the Beijing subway and on buses in all of the cities I have visited, younger people remain seated when an elderly person boards a vehicle. When people bump into you on the crowded streets, they do not apologize. They don’t seem to hear my frequent apologies as I brush past them, and I have learned to not bother saying anything. These teeming urban centres can be difficult to negotiate if you come from the West. I tend to like to move at a brisk pace but I am learning to be more Zen (ha!) and just go with the flow, establishing my own space within the crowd. It is a matter of nudging, bumping, and navigating your way to your destination.
Then again, China is a populous country where people live in extreme proximity to one another. They are accustomed to having very little personal space. People walk down the street arm in arm – men with men, women with women. Another way in which people come in close contact is through gradually edging toward someone with whom they’re engaged in conversation. This is the Chinese way to connect with you and I love it!
Food: The majority of local food is sold on the street and in smaller local markets. Agriculture and gardens abound wherever there is space – although this means mostly on the outskirts of cities. But the city also houses many communal gardens, as well as individual vegetable patches that are planted near riverbanks. I do believe, though this is unconfirmed, that this may, in part, be related to the rural migration to the city. Also, the older Chinese population still recalls the time of The Great Famine. Food is, in some ways, the heart of this country. When an animal is eaten the whole creature is used, and often, one cannot mistake the animal on the plate. When ordering food one finds that everypart is available, from head to toe and everything in between.
Although I am not a vegetarian, I have mostly avoided meat and fish and, instead, have enjoyed doufu and vegetables prepared in a myriad of manners. When I do not eat at school, I snack or have a meal on the street or in inexpensive, local restaurants. Two of my favourite foods in Kunming are a) Dai “cuisine” and b) Hot Pot. Eating Hot Pot is a communal, and therefore social, activity. Meals, in general in China, are eaten “family style,” with shared common plates or dishes – both at home and in restaurants. People sit around the table and everyone from young to old is included in sharing the meal and conversation. In Kunming I have two favourite places where I devour Hot Pot. The activity proceeds as follows: you choose 1) a broth (mushroom, chicken, spicy, etc.) for yourself in some places and for the group in other places; 2) together you choose the foodstuff for the table (raw meat, tofu, vegetables, noodles); and 3) sauces, spices, etc., for yourself — that you select from an open bar and take back to your table. You add the food into the boiling broth, let it cook, and then, with chopsticks, dig in!!!
I have become a natural at both putting my chopsticks directly into the communal plate to serve myself, and putting any bones from meat I’ve eaten directly onto the table. It’s so simple and natural and without fuss.
China may be synonymous with tea, as per the expression “not for all the tea in China,” but every morning, when I wake up at 5 a.m.-6 a.m., (before my 8 a.m. breakfast at school), I drink Nescafe instant coffee. Starbucks abound here but there are MANY individual cafes, each one quirkier and sweeter than the next. These coffee houses are full of splendid atmosphere but the quality of the drink does not always match the decor. Cafes are still primarily for the Laowai (foreigner) although there is a growing leisure-culture among the younger generation and those with money, in which coffee is part of the day. In any case, the best and cheapest coffee I have found is moments away from my school and, happily, I am a regular!
Family: The family unit is still highly valued in China and respect for elders is taken seriously (although, unfortunately, this is changing slowly, as noted in the section above on youth, the elderly and transportation). There is also great focus on children and Chinese traditions revolve primarily around family. In the past, a home accommodated multiple generations and the father/husband was the indisputable head of the household. Today, the father remains a family decision-maker but no longer exercises absolute control. Another change in family tradition is that children do not always live at home until they are married, and arranged marriage is becoming a thing of the past. Chinese family culture is further discussed in three articles on the website seeingredinchina.com (apologies: domain name expired April 26, 2014):
Typically a family would live in a small compound with 3 buildings opening onto a shared courtyard. The kitchen was considered the center of the home. The entire village typically was made of a few clans who could trace their families back to a common ancestor (this wasn’t the case in cities). This gave people few reasons to ever leave their village, and made it difficult to move to a different village. Some villages would construct ancestral halls to honor their common ancestors which helped to preserve family trees. In such a society, family is more important than any other unit in society, even the government…
Chinese family culture changed during the era of the Cultural Revolution:
… Mao saw the clan and the family as institutions that kept the peasants oppressed so he issued several policies to break down the family structure. Families were made to eat in cafeterias; which meant no home needed a kitchen, children were raised in daycare centers instead of being looked after by relatives, parents were cremated instead of buried, and the ancestor tablets (family records) and ancestral halls were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.
Mao’s attempts to remove the family from the center of Chinese life ultimately failed, but not before destroying a few aspects of traditional culture.
… [A]ncestral temples were destroyed most families lost the records of their extended family… Chinese women [have] the same rights as Chinese men. This means that far more women are now working outside the home, and women now also exercise their right to divorce. This empowerment has changed how parents view their offspring, as it is now thought better to have a daughter than a son if you want to ensure that you will be taken care of in retirement.
Women’s growing role in the work place has left a gap in the family structure for child care. In the communist period, factories built daycares to remove the importance of family. When State-owned enterprises privatized they closed their daycares. To address this problem it has become common to have the grandparents move in for several years to help with raising the child. So it is still common to find the three generations living together under one roof.
Other miscellaneous thoughts:
- Haggling can be difficult if you’re not familiar with the practice. However, for many services and goods in China, prices are not written down anywhere. You are expected to negotiate. I have learned to establish a price point and am always prepared to forego the purchase if I cannot get the item for that price. Typically, I dicker by starting at a lower price than I intend to pay and working my way up to my price point. Sometime I have to literally walk away, to land the deal I am looking for. This is all part of the dance.
- China is one of the few countries with high-speed trains. Above the doorway at each end of a train car, the recorded speed is posted. When I travelled from Beijing to Shanghai, the train reached a speed of 312km/hr.
- I hear that there is corruption and abuse of power within the various levels of government here, which results in dramatic income inequality. Those with money and connections usually get what they want (as is the case in many other parts of the world). Despite growth and infrastructural improvements in Kunming, many people live in poverty. Developers and investors continue to build, and much of the new construction remains empty. Not only are city blocks being razed but so is the countryside, as cities keep expanding. I understand there are fears about the safety of these buildings, although hearsay indicates that stricter laws arestarting to be implemented so that the onus is on the developers/builders/owners, with huge fines and even the death penalty for those responsible, should a building collapse. Unsubstantiated but interesting: I have also heard that these empty buildings are intended to house displaced people in the event of a disaster. If this is true, it indicates that China is a country that is concerned about its citizens.
- Odd names for stores: Many stores in Kunming have names that are not quite French, not quite English, and just plain strange. Here are a few of my favourites: “The Van is Foot” (a shoe store); “La Four” (my favourite cafe – do they mean le four — the oven, in French — or L.A. 4 for the Jazz quartet? The decor does not suggest either); “A Cup of Rigorous Attitude” (another cafe. the name says it all?); “PRICH” (women’s clothing – rich? bitch? rich bitch? it is an odd one); “Unsightly and Peculiar” (another clothing store – who wouldn’t want to shop here?); Rambo Bread Works (killer bread?); Sincere Space (I passed by this building quickly, on the bus, the other day – it looked like it could be an apartment or office building).
- And of course, the smog in major urban areas is terribly hazardous to one’s health. The pollution here is insufferable. Even in Kunming, where the air is relatively clear and clean and you can see the stars at night, pollution levels can go above 150 (which means the air quality is unhealthy and “Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects,” according to http://aqicn.org ).
But!!! I still enjoy the streets filled with people yelling at each other or into their phones. In the hotter areas men roll up their shirts so that their bellies are exposed – I suppose to cool themselves without taking their shirts off entirely. There is a cacophony of honking horns from cars, buses, and motorcycles, warning people in smaller vehicles (including cyclists) and pedestrians, that they are coming your way, so beware! What we consider to be private is often public in China: in interior city blocks and in the countryside, for instance,people wash their dishes on the streets. Life is not clear-cut in China. It is complex and nuanced – as societies tend to be. Much work has been done to make changes in this country (many of them positive) but clearly it is not a simple task (see my post “Raising China“). I am far from opposed to progress; change is a constant in our lives. I just hope the Chinese government will be able to ensure the basic dignity of the Chinese people while they continue to institute society-wide, long-term solutions to their country’s problems, and address the needs of their citizens. Tradition is an important part of any society and many people in China are steadfastly holding onto theirs, so that change may, perhaps, be slowed down to a more natural and thoughtful pace.
I hope that with continued emphasis on education (and higher education, in particular), Chinese citizens will be equipped with the knowledge and experience to implement integrated, sustainable growth. My greatest hope for China is that it will hold onto its rich, long, history and complex culture, while looking far down the road as it moves forward. I am optimistic that it will find a way to use a whole/holistic system approach: that its natural resources will be respected and that both smaller and larger communities in this country will ultimately benefit.
Again, a wonderful post. I especially loved reading about the peculiar names of stores (we should import that idea), and the last photo of the woman with her disdainful look and beautiful outfit. Just what is she disapproving of? Maybe someone spitting on the ground?
there was so much more i could have written but the posting could be only so long otherwise a book could be in the making (which it is definitely NOT!). so glad you like my photos. your approval(?) means a lot to me since i adore and your work and respect your opinions/thoughts so much.
It was very nice meeting you this afternoon, Tamar. I enjoyed reading your impressions of China which were thoughtful and quite accurate. Now I don’t have to write down the same things somewhere. When asked about China I will refer people to your blog. Your photos are terrific. Best wishes, Hal
You are a sweetheart and walking the streets of Xiamen, after bumping into you, was a pleasure. Siming Lu, Xia Da – I loved the older parts of the city and wandered around back streets, too (one of my pleasures in China which I recommend to everyone). Anytime you hit the Boston area you have a place to stay. Truly.