When I was in Xi’an I was spending much of my time with Nick, an American who was teaching English up north in Harbin. He told me that he intended to write a book about the constant minor insanities of the country. From a Western perspective, China is a strange and alien land, even now. I’ll give you a few examples of some of the ‘oddness’ I came across.
The IKEAs in China (yep, it’s truly a global annoyance) don’t have any mattresses on the show beds, because they had too much trouble with people sleeping on them to test the beds out.
Marriage in China is very often a business arrangement. On more than one occasion I spoke to a wife who complained about her husband for going out drinking. Not so different from England, until I tell you the grounds for complaint.
“He goes out drinking with his friends all the time, and then comes home late and wants to have sex.” So far, so normal. “He should go out, get drunk, and have sex with a whore, or get a mistress. I can’t be bothered.” In England, this would be a marriage in serious trouble – apparently it’s fairly representative of China.
Despite being ostensibly a communist country, there is no real welfare state. There is no national health service nor insurance, and pensions are largely non-existent. Accordingly, the only real options, aside from having children as insurance (negated by the old one-child policy), left to people are:
- Join the army, or police force, which takes care of you up to a certain degree
- Have friends in high places
- Work, get lucky, and get rich
- The option that most people have: Work really hard forever
The road laws are similarly backwards and libertarian. There is no real penalty for hitting someone on the road, aside from a monetary fine. I was told that you are required (and you may not even need to do this) to pay for medical bills and provide some cash to compensate for the reduction in quality of life for the person you hit. So if you’re rich and don’t really care? Well…
In particular, when in China you need to look out for cars with white number plates. These essentially mean ‘I know someone important’, and tend to be driven by people who don’t give a damn about the rules of the road, or really safety in general.
There’s also this really interesting love/hate relationship that China has with the West. On the love side:
- All models, especially on the ubiquitous billboards around cities, are almost universally white. The number of Asian models I saw in the weeks I was there could have been counted on one hand. This contrasts with Hong Kong, which has a healthy (and more understandable, given the history) mixture, and Japan & Korea which show Asian models exclusively instead.
- Fast food restaurants, particularly Pizza Hut, KFC and McDonalds, are pretty high class restaurants. Not top of the range, but definitely at least mid-level places. Probably the equivalent of ASK, Caffe Uno, or a good food pub in England. Pizza Hut in particular seems to be pretty gourmet, with patrons dressing up in their smart clothes to go there.
- Bars and clubs will give you free entry and drinks, ostensibly just to get Westerners into the place. To be fair, this is possibly because we have a (probably entirely deserved) reputation for drinking a lot.
On the hate side:
- The common perception of Westerners is lazy, mean and stupid. Lazy especially.
- Judging by the amount of people that tried to scam me (only occasionally successfully), Chinese people really love to scam tourists.
It’s possible that this dichotomy is due to a desire for a wealthy ‘Western’ lifestyle, combined with a xenophobic perception of westerners themselves as undeserving of the easiness with which they have everything. Who knows.
And then there’s the spitting. The most distinctive sound you will find in China is spitting. It’s disgusting, but ubiquitous.
“Everybody spits. Wherever you are you continually hear the sound: the long-drawn-out, sucking, hawking noise of mucus being gathered up into the mouth, followed by the hissing launch of the stuff through the air and, if you’re lucky, the ping of it hitting a spittoon, of which there are many. Every room has at least one. In one hotel lobby I counted a dozen strategically placed in corners and alcoves. In the streets of Shanghai there is a plastic spittoon sunk into the pavement on every street corner, filled with cigarette ends, litter and thick, curling, bubbly mucus. You will also see many signs saying `No spitting’, but since these are in English rather than Chinese, I suspect that they are of cosmetic value only. I was told that spitting in the street was actually an offence now, with a fine attached to it. If it were ever enforced I think the entire economy of China would tilt on its axis.”
Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See (1990)
A post I found on a forum a few months back encapsulates the feeling of living in China very well.
“‘Because China’ is the only way to put it.
Last week I was in an elevator at 3pm with some nice people, patiently going downwards, stopping at every other floor for no reason because when most people in Guiyang want to call an elevator they hit both up and down regardless of which way they want to go (because China). Then the elevator suddenly dropped a foot or so (felt like way farther, but couldn’t have been more than that), then shot to the 26th floor, then shot down to floor 1. We exited, confused and frightened, and a nice repairman explained that he assumed it was empty and was just about to do some repairs. Why would he assume that? Because China.
I went to a Pizza Hut with some friends a few days ago. (The Pizza Hut in Guiyang is one of the nicest restaurants in the city, partially because Chinese Pizza Huts are really nice places, and partially because Guiyang is a wasteland, which I say in an endearing way.) We ask if we can get a large pizza that’s half one thing and half another. Nope, they don’t do that. Okay, sure. We ordered a large pizza. Nope, they’re out of large pizzas. Okay, that actually doesn’t make any sense, but sure, we’ll take a medium vegetable garden and a medium pepperoni, and a pitcher of pepsi. We can’t give you a pizza with only pepperoni on it. Bullshit, yes, you can. Nope. Okay, whatever, not in the mood, give me the meat pizza. We get a small cup of pepsi and a medium pizza, half of which is vegetable garden and half of which is meat. I check the receipt. The receipt reflects what we ordered, both in English and Chinese. The waitress is at a loss to explain the theoretically impossible and utterly incorrect pizza. Why did they serve us that? Because China. (The previous time we went, we were served seven identical pizzas, having ordered three and paid for three, again because China.)
A couple weeks ago, in the middle of the road I saw a twenty-five-foot-or-so ladder, being held upright by two men. It was unsupported by anything else. At the top was another man, working on a power line, with nothing to brace him, bolster him, or hold him but the ladder being held by two dudes. Cars were swerving all around them. Nobody found this exceptional. Because, again, China.
It’s not a land in which the foreigner suffers. It is not a hostile land or a wild land. It is, rather, a land of pointless minor absurdities and wholly unnecessary inconveniences, which coalesce to infuriate the ill-tempered and delight the rest. When I first arrived, I was informed by a nice older gentleman, “FIRSTNAME, do not ever ask ‘why’ here. You can ask yourself any other question, and the answers will enlighten you. But do not ask ‘why,’ because here, there is no ‘why.’” And he was right. The answer – the only answer – to ‘why’ is ‘because China.’”
By way of illustration, the following pictures were offered.
But. But all of this makes it sound like China is a bad and backwards country. But as I wrote when leaving Russia; it’s not the country, it’s the way it’s governed. It’s not the people, it’s The People’s Party.
China can be a hugely frustrating place to be: in turns confusing, infuriating, and dispiriting. But it was also challenging, hugely interesting, possessing the most amazing history, and above all- fun. I met the most amazing people travelling there, locals and backpackers alike.
I wouldn’t live there – it would probably drive me insane – but I highly recommend visiting the middle kingdom.