I am not a hearty traveler. “If you were a farm animal, you would have been put down,” quipped my husband. Between the food poisoning and the vertigo, the garden variety infections and anxiety, I’d have to agree.
Despite distressing health, I was able to make a few observations and take a lot of pictures during the 17-day trip to mainland China and Hong Kong with my parents and 30 other tour group members.
First of all, I must report – China is HUGE (cue a certain special voice – just right for what I’m trying to convey). Its population is 1.3 billion, compared to our 323 million, and honest to God you can feel it. We visited two cities that each count over 23 million residents – Shanghai and Beijing – and the skyscrapers stretched up and away as far as the eye could see. China’s definition of a small city? “5 to 10 million” was the figure I heard! Often laundry hung on racks on balconies: it is common in urban China to have a washer in your home but no dryer. Right away you’ve got this striking contrast between an intensely urban environment and something that looks rural in American eyes.
The very nice, state-approved hotels we stayed in also featured some odd contrasts. The lobby would be a vision of marble and jade, but then the room would shock a Western sensibility. You couldn’t drink the water from the tap, and quite often there would be mold on the shower curtain or in the tile grout. WHAT? If I were in business I might set about introducing Tilex to the masses. Or at least the hotel owners.
I chatted at some length with one small businessman, Byung, who operated the gift shop on Yangtze River cruise ship we lived on for several days and nights. We talked about some of the differences between the U.S. and China. “Does your husband have to feed you?” he asked. Yes, I told him (squirming a bit), my husband does have to feed me, but he has never been responsible for the daily care and feeding of his own parents. Byung admitted that he had to work very hard to support both his own wife and child and his parents. We agreed that life is harder for a man in China.
I’m not sure how he met his wife – didn’t come up – but one tour guide was very forthcoming about her arranged marriage, no longer common in Chinese cities. She grew up in the country in an ethnic minority, and she wanted her mother to choose her husband. “I trust my mother to make the right choice for me,” she told us. “It has been 6 years, so far so good, but you know what they say about 7 year scratch!” she laughed. She was the second daughter born in her family during the time of China’s one-child policy. The family had to pay a fine equivalent to $100 when she was born. When the family had their third child, another girl, both parents were fired from their jobs in the city. At that point, the family had no choice but to return to the countryside and farming. Our guide didn’t seem bitter about this, though she did say that they were sometimes short of food and that the hours on the farm were long. “Now, changes for better,” she said. (China moved to a two-child policy last year.) She herself has moved back to the city and has a good job as a teacher and part-time tour guide. Her son is in kindergarten.
We’ve all heard a lot about the preference for baby boys in China. That ideal seems to be in flux. The historical reason for the preference is that boys are expected to care for their parents – and usually live with them – until the parents die. The other part of that equation is that parents are expected to pay for both a home AND a car for male children when they grow up! Yes, you heard that right. The parents buy the son his first home. The consistent message from our tour guides was that parents are relieved when they have a girl these days. “Boys are too expensive,” they said, universally. It seems to me that things are very much in flux right now. One tour guide, for instance, is living with his wife’s parents, not his own. That is a significant break from tradition. It seems that urban sons and daughters are renegotiating the rights and responsibilities among the generations, at least to some extent. In the meanwhile, we were told that the ratio of young men to young women in China is a startling 6 to 1. (I’m not sure this figure is precisely right… you can find a lot of different ways to slice and dice the numbers online, but the essential fact all agree on is the HUGE gender imbalance.)
China, it seems to me, gets a lot of things right. The emphasis on intergenerational family responsibility and love is admirable. Same with the emphasis on balance, yin and yang, in all things.
Not so right: the pollution that is literally in your face. Sometimes I felt that I was living in a permanent cloud, a morning fog that never burned off.
It was even more unsettling not to have access to Google – including gmail – or Facebook, a daily reminder that the government prevents its citizens from having access to the larger world of ideas and social connections.
Today’s post features a photo essay on some of the differences and similarities between China and the U.S.
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Some days, I noticed how alike our countries are. In both places, for instance, you can find ladies wearing hats in the sun while floating down the river:
You find strange business names in China, just as in the States:
You find Coke and bacon, mainstays of civilization everywhere:
And it almost goes without saying that the tea was brilliant (no troublesome Brit suggesting that you ruin it with milk or sugar).
More often, China startled me with its differences.
Motorbikes, motorized carts and bicycles share their own busy lane on the roads. It seemed standard practice to travel by motorbike with your child. Without a helmet. On anyone.
From bullet trains to wooden boats to airplanes, transportation choices varied spectacularly:
Here are some more things I saw in China that you don’t see in the U.S. at all:
“Square dancing” for retirees in the public parks every morning (women only), with ballroom dancing nearby (men included):
Street sweepers using brooms like this:
Women washing clothes in the Yangtze River:
A cricket master:
The Emperor of heaven, in a temple near the Red Pagoda:
Women’s toilets are deeply distressing, and this style is predominant even in the biggest tourist attractions and huge upscale malls:
They are enough to make anyone feel like this:
Public signs accurately reflect Chinese culture. Some signs are bossy and controlling:
While others are profound:
A few of the most remarkable sights in China included:
The Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydrolectric power project, and
fireworks on a city street during the country’s Autumn festival. Literally, on the street, as we came out of a restaurant:
Most adorable prize goes to either the baby panda…
Though Shanghai has been called the pearl of China, its most beautiful city, I’m sticking with Hong Kong.
Here are the books I’ve been reading to understand more, and I’ll post reviews in the coming weeks:
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Our warm, smart tour guide, Oscar, taught us a great deal about Chinese history, current affairs, and daily life, and served as a very capable mother hen. The 32 of us in the group hailed predominantly from New York, New Jersey, Florida and California (my parents and I, representing the South, were the outliers). One beautiful family group with origins in Puerto Rico traveled as a group of eight. Two other couples – kind-hearted sisters with their kind-hearted husbands – hailed originally from the Philippines. One of the Shirleys, from Minnesota and Jewish, taught me to say kenahora to keep away the evil spirits. Kathy kept an eye out for everyone and shared her dried hawthorn berries. Ralph and I compared notes on our digestive difficulties, while the 70-year-old honeymooners were much in love. My parents inspired me with their intellectual curiosity and fortitude every day. If I were a novelist, I might write a book about this group of strangers thrown together for 17 days and the small world they created.