Saturday, 20 October 2012

CHINA: Knowledge is poo poo*. A guide to cultural encounters in the Middle Kingdom.

China is, to most Westerners, an intriguing but somewhat alien culture.  Although it is evolving a Western service culture and aesthetic at a breakneck pace, there are certainly still enough cultural quirks to intrigue and entertain the traveler for a very long time!  Being prepared, mainly with an ample supply of good humour and patience, and knowing what to expect will make your time in China even more enjoyable and interesting. 

Shanghai skyline. Ultra-modern China. 
Seat reserved for those who disabled, elderly and pregnant.  The first thing to strike most first-time visitors to China is the sheer mass of people.  It sounds obvious that the most populous nation on earth should have a LOT of people, but it is only after you have experienced the heaving mass of humanity for yourself in a public place like Tiananmen Square that it really hits home.  For those coming from cultures with a concept of "personal space" this can be confronting.  Through sheer unavoidability, people will push and touch you, and tiny old ladies will grin up at you as they secure an elbow in your ribs to force themselves past you in a queue.  Even walking down the street is a constant exercise is sidestepping and collision avoidance.  The only way to cope is to bring a large supply of patience, try to see the funny side of your experience, and come the realization that this behavior is culturally acceptable and not seen as rude.  For many people, choosing a time to visit when crowds are a little thinner is key to a great trip.

Good evening sir, you look very beautiful tonight.  If you are tall, blonde, have a beard or are in possession of a fuller figure, people will stare at you.  Depending on your level of interesting "non-Chineseness", babies will be thrust into your arms, people will unabashedly take your picture at close range, and the bold will ask you to join their group photos while hugging you enthusiastically.  Patting your hair or "Buddha belly" and commenting loudly while pointing out aspects of your appearance to the crowd at large is also fair game.   Being reasonably tall, and having long blonde hair, I am usually on the hit list.  I caused a near riot at the Beijing Zoo once, as agreeing to a photograph with the first of a group of 300 rural schoolchildren opened the floodgates and I was mobbed by squealing children.  It ended with the teachers stepping in and assembling kids into orderly class groups to be photographed with the foreigner, while most of the zoo's visitors videoed the fun.  My Chinese colleague thought the whole incident was hysterically funny, and I suspect collected donations, as the zoo pandas paced forgotten in the background. 

The Forbidden City.  Ancient China. 
Wildlife is not food.  In general, Chinese people will eat almost anything.  Insects, strange sea creatures, parts of domestic animals that would be considered offal by Westerners, and more disturbingly, endangered or rare species are all consumed with gusto.  While attitudes towards items such as tiger paw or bear gall are thankfully changing, even the most Westernized restaurant is sure to serve up the interesting or unfamiliar.  On a broad scale, textures seen as distasteful by many Western palates are enjoyed in China.  Crunchy cartilage, viscous soups, chewy snails and cuts of poultry complete with small bones intact are all on the menu.  If you are a little adventurous in your dining choices however, you will enjoy some wonderful food, far beyond the "beef and blackbean sauce" type Chinese found across the world.  You will also find great differences in regional food.  Sichuan is known for it's hot, spicy food, Xi’an for it's wheat noodles, Beijing for it's dumplings and Shanghai for it's fusion food, influenced by hundreds of years of contact with the outside world.  Seeking out the local specialties and restaurants is always rewarding and fun. 

Please trip carefully on the stair-machine.  Running outside for exercise is seen as a bit strange in most places in China, even if you can find a clear space in which to do so, and people have seemed worried as to what the emergency is when I've jogged in more rural areas.  On a recent trip, I popped into the gym in a large well-known luxury hotel chain. As I took up position on the treadmill, I realized I had an audience - two gym attendants and six students.  The students lined up along the wall, notebooks in hand, as their instructor carried out a running commentary in Chinese, presumably on my technique, or lack of it.   Once I moved onto the weight machines, the air of excitement built, students scribbling madly as the instructor pointed out my puny muscles and corrected my bicep curl, grabbing my arm and wobbling it for emphasis.  All of this was carried out without the slightest thought that this may be embarrassing or inappropriate.  Steeled to this kind of thing by years of travel in Asia, I wasn't overly bothered, and managed to have a halting exchange with one young woman via her translation dictionary (on her iPad naturally) about her hopes to become a personal trainer.  As I left, the class politely clapped. 

A 4 star toilet sign, Beijing.
Warm tip: This is a 5 star-rated toilet.   Using the bathroom outside of your hotel can also be a cultural experience in China.  Although traditionally the squat toilet is used, most main tourist attractions now have Western-style toilets, and a government rating system has been developed to help the visitor pick the most salubrious facility.  From my experience, no immediately obvious system is used to award stars, with 5 star toilets sometimes lacking doors to the stall and / or toilet seats, and 3 star toilets sometimes stretching so far as to even dispense toilet paper (generally not provided, making small packets of tissues your best friend!)  If nothing else, the star system does provide an excellent photography opportunity. 

In general, China is changing and evolving at an astounding rate.  Rice paddies give way as skyscrapers appear almost overnight, like mushrooms.  Young people in designer jeans and slogan t-shirts stand next to older people still dressed in "Mao pajamas" and truck tire sandals, and portraits of Steve Jobs sell like hotcakes alongside Mao in poster stores.  From the centre of the Forbidden City, it is only a short walk to streets lined with glittering designer stores selling Gucci handbags at prices equating to many years wages for the rural poor.  For me, much of the charm of China lies in this juxtaposition of old and new, traditional and modern, communist and capitalist.   The cultural quirks and strange experiences that can result from China catapulting into the 21st century at breakneck speed may just form the most memorable part of your trip. 

* slogan on a t-shirt worn by a young man in Guilin.  Paragraph heading are all signs or phrases, and may have lost just a little something in translation!

Rush Expeditions runs regular trips to China, where you are sure to experience the culture for yourself!

No comments:

Post a Comment