Things I Didn’t Know About China, Part Two
by Marshall Snider
China may have opened up to the West, and indeed may own the West, but it is still a pretty inscrutable place. As my wife and I traveled around China this spring, experiencing big cities, rural villages, nature reserves and the exotic environment of Tibet, we realized that the more we learned about this vast country the less we understood it. China is surprising, challenging and contradictory.
Mao Zedong is a curious aspect of life in China. The home countries of most of the mass murderers and human rights abusers of the Twentieth Century have distanced themselves from these criminals. You don’t hear kind words about Stalin in Russia, Cambodians wishing Pol Pot were still in charge, or German’s pining for the good old days under Hitler. But Chairman Mao, who took a back seat to none in the atrocities department, is still revered in China. His picture looms over Tiananmen Square, his tomb is visited by millions, and Mao paraphernalia is found at stalls in nearly every market — how can you resist going home with a statue, wallet, T-shirt or purse bearing his smiling image? Whatever you buy, the currency is adorned with his face.
Chinese culture is full of such contradictions. I watched a young woman at a fair play beautiful music on an ancient stringed instrument. In the middle of her enchanting concert, the ring tone on her cell phone jangled with a pop tune.
The modernity of infrastructure is another contradiction of Chinese life. You can walk through a hutong — a neighborhood of alleys only a few feet wide — where life in the street proceeds as it has for centuries. Outdoor stalls sell meat and produce, chickens are beheaded and fish are gutted on the spot (a better guarantee of freshness than any "sell by" date), and the residents use communal toilets. But walk less than half a mile and you enter an upscale mall selling top-of-the-line Western goods and Western-style food; there’s even an NBA shop. Outside the mall guys sit on the sidewalk making keys, fixing bicycles, repairing zippers and selling socks.
Skyscrapers abound in Beijing, and there are construction cranes everywhere, as the hutongs continue to give way to the wrecking ball. The Chinese can really build. Airports and train stations throughout the country are brand new. The traffic you are stuck in is at least on a brand new highway. We saw four-lane highways being cut through inhospitable mountainous terrain. With a surplus of cheap labor, and without pesky impediments such as environmental impact assessments or lawsuits filed by people who are moved out of ancestral homes that inconveniently get in the way, civil engineering projects as complex as the road through Glenwood Canyon or a new dam occur in China with about the same frequency as Starbucks stores appear in Cherry Creek.
Friendliness and Food
The contradictions and challenges of China make for a fulfilling travel experience. The people are friendly and crime is not an issue (not surprising in a country that executes petty thieves). The locals are delighted to play a game of charades as you try to communicate what you need or where you are going. And surprisingly, street signs and many other informational placards are in English, as are the prompts on ATM machines and the announcements at airports and train stations (my favorite announcement, at a Beijing train station, referred to us as "Dearest Passengers"). Some of the English is pretty butchered, but you can still figure out where the "Fire Exting Uisher" is located. On the other hand, maybe someone can tell me the purpose of the sign that said "Attractions Mouth Toad — View Toad Spit Water — Cigarettes, Such as Fog."
And eating in China is a wonderful experience. Wait staff literally wait; they hover by your table, ready to satisfy every culinary whim, and if they stray too far they come running when called (this is not an exaggeration; they actually run to your table). The food itself is fantastically good and healthy. It is nothing like the Chinese food we get in the United States — it is so much better. It wasn’t always easy to know what we were eating; either we couldn’t read the menu or we were at a dinner gathering where plates of food just kept arriving. Fortunately, many restaurants have menus with pictures of the dishes, so you can have a fighting chance. Still, we ate a number of mystery dishes. I do think I avoided duck tongue (can’t be sure about that), but the chicken feet weren’t bad (and there is a phrase I never thought I’d utter).
For surprises, contradictions and some really nice people, you can’t beat the Chinese, even if we are in debt up to our eyeballs to them.