The word “monumental” sums up my impression of China. From the Great Wall to The Forbidden City; from The Summer Palace to The Temple of Heaven; from The Hanging Monastery to the Yungang Grottoes; the sites we visited during our summer trip to China were without exception monumental both in their mammoth scale and historic importance. This massive country, home to the world’s largest population of human beings, is also home to the world’s largest number of UNESCO World Heritage sights. They say everything is big in Texas, but the state of Texas would fit about 15 times over into the People’s Republic of China.
I’ll save my descriptions and impressions of China’s awe-inspiring cultural sights for a future blog posting. In this posting, I’d like to set the scene, sketching out some of the everyday details of what it was like to be in China, how it was different from home and explain both what endeared and annoyed me about the place. In short, what I’ll describe here is my own experience of culture shock.
My wife and I were in and around Beijing for three weeks this August, seeing the sights and attending the 24th World Congress of Philosophy. I was invited to participate in a session on the philosophy of humor at the Congress, giving us an opportunity not only to meet some interesting scholars but also to explore a city we had never been to before. Initially, I had some apprehension about the trip, as China is notoriously restrictive of free speech and expression; harsh in its treatment of those who the government deems subversive. How was this going to affect the free exchange of ideas that are a necessary part of a philosophy conference? I worried about what could happen to Westerners like ourselves who might say or do the wrong things in a totalitarian, communist country with unfamiliar rules and customs. Were we taking a chance with our freedom? Could we end up in a Chinese jail?
These worries started to get put to the side once we arrived in the country and we experienced the friendliness of the Chinese people. Beijing is a city of 22 million people – more than twice the size of New York City – yet the people we encountered had the good natured affability that you would expect to find in a small town. Often, when we were on the street, examining our maps and trying to figure out how to get to a location, strangers would approach us and offer directions. Despite the fact that few of the Chinese people we met had much English (and we had even less Chinese) through cell phone translation programs and hand gestures, we had little trouble communicating with the Beijingers who came to our assistance. My suspicious American nature initially made me wary of their intentions, but it turned out that they wanted nothing more than to be helpful and welcoming to us. If I had to single out one thing that I loved about China the most, the good-natured people would be at the top of the list.
We apparently were a novelty to the good people of Beijing. Strangers would often stop and ask to snap photos with us. Sometimes I would realize, while sitting on the subway or standing in a park, that I was being photographed by children who were watching me and giggling. Teenagers and adults alike would stare, laugh, and then approach us, snapping away with their cameras or cell phones before joining us to take a selfie. It was all very good-natured and prompted by the fact that they see so few non-Chinese faces, even in a city the size of Beijing. We felt like celebrities! I learned that by smiling and saying “Nee-how” (“Hello” in Mandarin) the ice was immediately broken with kids, adults and old-folks alike.
While the people of Beijing are friendly and curious, there are also always lots of them around, which often caused me to feel crowded and tense. On the street, the subway, the parks, in restaurants and at the stores, there were always hordes of bodies maneuvering around one another in a constant flow of movement and noise. One of the lessons I learned quite early on during our visit was that these hordes have an aggravating practice of ignoring the idea of queuing up for services. Whether it is waiting for the subway or waiting to pay for something at a store counter, I consistently found that I had to push my way insistently to the front in order to get anything done. And it’s not that there was any rudeness involved in this ritual. It just seems that standing in a line for anything is not a part of the Beijing custom. People seem to operate on the principle that if there is any open space somewhere ahead, one must move forward to fill it, even if someone else is standing ahead of you. In order to get anything done, you must take on the qualities of water, flowing ever forward and around the obstacles that appear in your vicinity. When you do so, there are no hard feelings, there is no anger, no accusations of impoliteness or impropriety from bystanders. It is as if the laws of physics have taken over.
This is also what happens with traffic on the streets. Despite the fact that Beijing has an excellent subway system, the roads are always congested with lots of cars, motorcycles and scooters. My understanding is that this is something that has been amplified in recent times with increasing economic prosperity, and as a result traffic jams have become a constant part of life. The cars, scooters and motorcycles on the roads – like the people in the shops – move ever forward to fill any spaces that appear in front of them, ignoring traffic rules, pedestrians, and safety concerns. I never saw any traffic police during our entire stay in Beijing. Drivers toot their horns regularly to warn those on foot to get out of the way as they blast through red lights, crosswalks and as they race down the shoulder of the street. Motorcycles and scooters zoom the wrong way down the road and weave around pedestrians on the sidewalk, abruptly stopping in front of you as riders park their vehicles wherever they can find space. Helmets appear to be optional. Aggravating things is the fact that most of the scooters are electric, so they don’t make any noise as they approach from behind. At night many of them don’t bother to switch on their headlights, zooming along like silent torpedoes seeking a human target. 700 people a day are killed in traffic accidents in China (260,000 a year), mostly pedestrians and motorcyclists, and I can see why. Being hit by a car was the most dangerous threat that we faced during our Chinese visit.
On the other hand, we never felt the threat of violent crime during our visit. None of the neighborhoods we visited felt dangerous and we never worried about our safety, even when wandering the dark alleys of the city’s hutongs (the old neighborhoods at the center of Beijing) at night. While I’m sure that there is crime in Beijing, the presence of so many police, guards and cameras on the streets goes a long way to deter bad behavior. Additionally, there are metal detectors and checkpoints at subway entrances and at the entrances to certain buildings, museums and attractions. We had the definite feeling of being safe, but we also had the feeling of being in a police state. The eyes of the authorities are everywhere; even at the philosophy conference, where in addition to cameras, metal detectors and guards there were also riot police stationed near the downstairs entrances to the convention center, looking bored as they leaned on their shields. I imagine there must be an official government rule that when a certain number of people gather in one place, a certain number of riot police must also be on duty. Given that the conference was a very large one – with around 8,000 attendees – it would figure that there would be worries about things getting out of hand. After all, you know how rowdy philosopher professors can get.
Two scarce sights were litter and homeless people. We saw one man sleeping in a tunnel near the shopping mall, but we were not sure that he was actually homeless. There were no tent cities or encampments anywhere we went in the city. Likewise, litter in the streets was almost non-existent. This probably was due to the fact that just about everywhere we went, workers were picking up rubbish, painting fences and emptying garbage cans. Maybe this also accounts for the invisibility of homeless people. Perhaps the government puts them to work sprucing up the streets. Apparently, Beijing’s unemployment rate is below 4%, so assigning citizens to cleaning duty may be something that kills three birds with one stone. In any case, I don’t think I have ever been in a city this size that was so spotless. Chalk another one up for communism!
Upon our arrival in Beijing, the city was in the midst of a heatwave, with temperatures soaring to 111 degrees. When you combine this with high humidity and the haze of the city’s smog, the conditions were not so good for walking around. Within a block, I would be soaked with perspiration, dripping wet and uncomfortable for the rest of the day. It was on this trip I really did discover my physical limits when it comes to heat exposure. After a sweltering visit to the Forbidden City on our first day (where the temperature soared to 111 degrees, and the ambient temperature was a blistering 136 degrees) and then, on the second day, to The Great Wall, I felt as if I had been beaten with a bag of hammers. My body ached, I was fatigued, and all I wanted to do was sit in an air conditioned hotel room sipping chilled bottled water. Luckily, the heat wave passed after the third day, the temperatures dipped to a more reasonable level, and the rest of our excursions took place under more comfortable conditions. The hazy smog even cleared on some days, revealing the blue skies above.
The food we sampled in Beijing ranged from mediocre to gross. Much of what we ate was bland (various noodle dishes and rice dishes), while a few things were outright awful (a squid dish cooked in some sort of tomato sauce; some kind of deep fried pasta with sugar sprinkled on top). There were some things that we were just not going to try at all (poached deer fetus; bull penis). Some meals were pretty good (baked tilapia; an eggplant dish; a vegetarian version of kung pao chicken), but overall the food was forgettable. Both my wife and I developed persistent diarrhea that to one degree or another haunted us for our entire three week visit. Whether this was due to the food or the local water, I’m not sure, but over the course of our stay we increasingly found ourselves visiting a Pizza Hut Bistro in the mall near our hotel, hoping to avoid strange foods that did weird things to our insides. The Pizza Hut Bistro was unlike any Pizza Hut in the US, as it served roasted broccoli, sandwiches, beer, wine and even escargot! While part of me felt ashamed for eating in an American fast food joint while in China, another part of me didn’t care. Give me dough, cheese and Coca-Cola!
It is well known that the Chinese government blocks and censors the country’s media, but it was a bit startling to actually experience this on a day-to-day basis. Sites like Facebook, Worldcat, and Google were inaccessible on my computer, although my wife did find that she could get to some of them on her cell phone. This caused a bit of annoyance and inconvenience when trying to communicate with family and friends back home. Strangely, WordPress was not blocked, which made me wonder about the consistency and logic of Chinese internet censorship. In a country that is inviting large numbers of foreign scholars to gather and mix with Chinese scholars in order to discuss controversial philosophical, social and cultural issues, does it make much sense to block social media? Apparently the Chinese people know how to circumvent much of the media censorship anyway, so it all seems like an absurd, losing battle. The silliness of it all was dramatized during our visit when government censors forbade the posting of pictures of Winnie the Pooh because the cartoon character seems to resemble the Chinese president, Xi Jinping! Who knew that Winnie the Pooh was so dangerously subversive?
While we did have access to international television programming in our hotel room, the TV screen would mysteriously go blank whenever stories that were unfavorable toward the Chinese government appeared. The first time it happened we were watching CNN, and I initially thought it was just a problem with the signal. But repeatedly, when any program that could be interpreted as critical of China appeared on TV, the screen would go black until the offending segment was over and some other segment had begun. Coincidence? Probably not.
Construction was constant while we were in China, continuing 24 hours a day, everywhere that we went. The night after we arrived at our hotel – which was attached to the China National Convention Center, right next to the Olympic Village – I noticed a strange sound emanating from the walls of our room. At sunrise, I realized that the sound was actually coming from a vacant lot across the street. It was the racket of three backhoes as they smashed up and excavated a full square city block of concrete foundation. This noise went on non-stop (for 3 weeks!) until shortly before we left Beijing. On the other side of the hotel, a new building was going up where workers swarmed like ants all day and all night long. When we visited Datong for an overnight stay, we were amazed to see an enormous portion of the old city being demolished on one side of the freeway while on the other side an entirely new section was being erected. Row after row of brand new apartment buildings and towers – bearing names like “London” and “Edinburgh” – rose, sparkling clean, new and uninhabited. Our guide told us that the city government was moving the entire population from one place to another in a drive toward modernization. Everywhere we went, things were being built up and torn down; an indication of the hectic nature of China’s current physical and cultural transformation.
In conjunction with all of this construction there were temporary barriers and fences that popped up overnight, making it hard to predict which walking routes would be accessible from day-to-day. One evening, when we were trying to get back to our hotel on foot, we got trapped in a newly erected fenced-off corridor that channeled us to a guard station where we were forbidden to pass. We had to turn around and back-track our way to where we had started in order to find a route out of the unfamiliar gauntlet. Sometimes these barriers had nothing to do with construction, but simply with crowd control, as we experienced when we tried to cross the street near Tiananmen Square by walking around an obstacle that was blocking a crosswalk. Immediately a chorus of shouts went up from the twenty or so police officers and guards loitering on the corner, directing us to fall back in line with the crowd being conducted along the sidewalk and through a check-point. It seems that in China, a lot of energy goes into channeling masses of people here and there, sometimes in unpredictable ways.
If one just highlighted the tall buildings, the chain stores, shopping malls, crowds, and luxury cars, Beijing would not seem much different from any modern, Western city in the US or Europe. It has bright lights, urban buzz, and lots of young people walking around with their faces buried in cell phones. There are Starbucks coffee shops, KFCs, Pizza Huts, Subways and McDonalds all over the place. Underneath this surface, however, it is different. Everyday life is more monitored and controlled than it is in the West; for better and for worse. On the one hand, the Chinese censorship of free speech and the media seems silly and unnecessary to me. Couldn’t government personnel more effectively be put to use policing traffic in the streets rather than censoring internet traffic and appearances of Winnie the Pooh online? On the other hand, it may be the constant awareness of being monitored and watched that keeps the violent crime rate so low and the streets so clean in China. In fact, this is a trade-off that many people in my own country might be willing to make, although I’m not one of them.
China is currently in a state of transition, and my observations about the everyday rhythms of Beijing, I think, indicate something about the nature of the changes the country is undergoing. China is starting to open up to the outside world. It is inviting outside investment, encouraging private ownership of real estate, and it is attempting to become more involved in world-wide intellectual culture. But this process of opening up also drags behind it a long history of suspicion of the West (much of it well justified), and a fear of the potentially destructive consequences that go along with increasing individual freedom. I get the sense that China wants to engage more intimately with the rest of the world, but that it does not want at the same time to absorb all of the world’s evils. It is trying to open up, but it is trying to do so slowly so that it doesn’t sacrifice its own unique virtues.
And it certainly is the case that China has much to be proud of and much that it should preserve as it moves toward modernization. Even a Westerner like me – who dislikes the chaos of Chinese traffic, who detests their censorship, who is uncomfortable with their weather and who dislikes the food – can see that China is a culture that has much to teach the rest of the world even as it learns new lessons. It is a culture that draws upon thousands of years of accumulated wisdom, and we in the West should pay attention to what that wisdom has to offer.
In my next post I’ll reflect on some of the incredible, monumental cultural sites that we visited in and around Beijing.