First Impressions of China

- - posted in travelchina

I’m getting around to this much later than I really wanted to, but I thought I’d write a little quick thing about my (still ongoing) first trip to China. I don’t want to get too specific here, as Amy and I will be working on a more thought out entry on here with our photographs from the trip soon. For now, follow me below the fold for meandering, unrehearsed ramblings.

Beijing

Beijing is a fantastic, huge, really goddamn big city. People in New York City think they’re at the center of the Universe. We all know they’re not. At all. Now I am even more aware that if the “center of the Universe” could be thought of in terms of the gravitational centroid of all of humanity’s mass, it might be closer to Beijing than anywhere else. Nowhere have I ever been confronted with such a constant barrage of stimuli, such a sea of humanity everywhere, such crowds, such chaos, but also great and powerful beauty. I was reminded of Bangkok but Beijing is somehow at once humbler but also more civilized. China is in the past couple of decades just starting to feel like it has a kind of moneyed aristocracy, and it shows. Rolex, Hublot, Cartier, and Gucci stores (as well as stores that sell items that look an awful lot like these but aren’t genuine) abound everywhere downtown, but the down and out among Beijing denizens are never hard to find. Poverty is endemic and in a city that is so densely populated, it is impossible to miss. This contrasts pretty sharply with the US, where rich people are free to move to their enclaves in the suburbs or exurbs where they will never once have to witness a poor person being poor. It is unavoidable here, which after traveling to Bangkok and Seoul doesn’t shock me, but it’s worth noting for its difference with the US.

I would say Beijing is an unapologetically modern city in some places, but it is also clearly a microcosm of a country that is finding it difficult to transition to a modern economy, and that is also indelibly scarred by the idiotic policies of Mao during the Great Leap Forward, and by the famines that shortly followed thereafter. Tiananmen Square is a bizarre place to visit for this reason. On one end there are the government buildings and Mao’s tomb, but there is also the Forbidden City which, though repairs are being done to parts of it, hardly feels modern in the same sense. Though Mao’s great challenge was to make that bridge between old dynastic China and modernity, the sharp contrast as you walk across the square is hard to miss and stands as a monument to the impossibility of that task.

Beijing’s night markets are really an amazing sight to behold, and I would highly recommend any visitor to Beijing to visit one. Though a lot of the food is quite clearly gimmicks like fried scorpions mostly intended for westerners like myself to gawk at, there are also stalls selling delicious and inventive street food. Delicious and inventive street food was a feature of every city we’ve visited here, though I am told that roasted meat on a stick is more common in the North than in the Szechuan provinces. I ate a stick of three fried scorpions, but lost interest after eating two of them. To me, they taste very similar to other insects (though not as delicious as dry-roasted or sautéed crickets like I had in Thailand), but the scorpions on a stick aren’t salted or seasoned well enough to bring out any of their real flavors. So, while it’s something I’d be willing to try again, it was really obvious the people making them were making them as a curiosity and not as a food for sincere consumption. Overall, I’d pass, if for no other reason than that the fried scorpion stalls (yes, there were many; I don’t know why) are literally surrounded on all sides by legitimate deliciousness.

Jinzhou

Amy’s mother’s hometown of Jinzhou gave me a glance at an entirely different China. She describes it as a “small town” because, in China proportions, it is minuscule, but the fact remains that Jinzhou houses over a million souls in an area only about five times larger than my hometown of Athens, GA (source: Wikipedia, and Wikipedia). This makes for roughly 2,000 people per square kilometer. While this in itself is an impressive feat of population density, the results are that as Jinzhou becomes more wealthy, and more people buy cars, there is constant, nonstop, apocalyptic-style traffic. Without going into too many details of any one incident, I will just point out that now that I’ve crossed the street as a pedestrian in Jinzhou several times, I am no longer physically capable of feeling fear. When I want to cross Western Ave at Thomas Street in Chicago next time, I’m just going to walk right across because nothing can scare me more than crossing a two-lane intersection in Jinzhou. Nothing.

Because it’s fall, everywhere we went, we saw cabbage being hoarded in neat little rows on the ground. Everywhere. Amy’s father explained that cabbage is much cheaper now, closer to the harvest, than it will be in the midst of winter, so people buy it now and dry it outside for later.

Amy’s cousin’s wedding was a beautiful affair. Hosted in a massive banquet hall that was somehow filled with relatives and well-wishers of all kinds, it appeared that someone had raided the local stage lighting purveyors with particular gusto. Multiple spotlights, lasers, and, when I least expected it, a burst of bubbles shooting into the air around the bride and groom.

Amy’s uncles kept cheersing me with baijiu, which I can only describe as a beverage equally at home in the salon as in the garage, as I suspect it would be an effective paint remover. This was at around 9:30am, I should note. I hope for their sake this is not a regular habit.

Apparently the groom sings to the bride here? I can’t tell if that’s a thing or not.

As the banquet hall struggled to clear the room so they could turn it over, the guests struggled to gather all the leftover food, cloth napkins, boxes of tissues, and unfinished bottles of baijiu, in one of the most bizarre spectacles I’ve witnessed at a wedding. Most interesting, nobody had to say they were doing this; everyone just simultaneously knew it was time to take all the things.

Dalian

Amy’s father hails from the coastal port city of Dalian, on the tip of the peninsula just to the west of the Korean peninsula. Compared to Jinzhou, Dalian is a massive city undergoing fantastic growth at the moment, with nearly three times the population of Chicago. People are packed into this tiny peninsula in a diverse melange of modern buildings that light up like television screens at night and Soviet-style block apartments. You can easily tell by the architecture here that there is a strong Russian influence, and it’s not surprising considering that Dalian is so close to the Russian border to the North. Unlike Jinzhou, Dalian appears to have had a lot more time to adjust to its growth, despite the population doubling in the last decade and change. While heavy traffic makes for some pretty light-footed street crossings by pedestrians, I have had a far easier time getting around here by foot than in Jinzhou. Public transit options are plentiful, and taxis, buses, and trolleys pass by Amy’s grandmother’s apartment building pretty frequently.

Dalian has two train stations, a modern high-speed rail train station where we initially arrived here from Jinzhou, and an older train station that now also serves as terminus for Dalian’s light rail system. This latter train station is also surrounded by little stalls and stands and random people set up on the plaza or the sidewalk selling all manner of goods, from food to trinkets to jewelry to watches to basically anything you might need, and quite a few things you certainly don’t. Through little cheap megaphone speakers, a voice intones musically, “Beijing kao ya! Shiwu! Shiwu!” (“Peking roast duck! 15! 15!”) so much that now the price of a roast duck is stuck indelibly in my head forever. With today’s exchange rate, that’s about US$2.50 for a whole roast duck. Not bad. Amy and I had gone to the train station to find cheap watches but came up empty. More on that later.

Everywhere

I have a lot to say about this trip, and I will be writing many more entries to accompany this one soon enough, but I didn’t want to leave without first writing down my initial impressions of this expansive and beautiful country that I’m already sort of falling in love with.

One of the most delightful things, to me, is that everywhere I go, everywhere I look, people are making things with their hands, and take obvious pride in their craft. Buildings are being built everywhere, scaffolding is being welded together, knives are being sharpened, ducks are being roasted, and everywhere you go you are surfing upon a giant sea of people.

I came to China half expecting to see the remnants of a communist-style planned economy, but instead I found utterly unfettered free enterprise everywhere. Everything you want to buy, you can buy in shops that would be familiar to any frequent visitor of America’s many scenic flea markets. Though there are department stores here, they lack the real character of China and feel contrived, an act put on for the benefit of westerners like myself. Exploring a Chinese hardware flea market, and then another one for fabrics and clothing, and then another one for electronics, brought back for me some of my fondest childhood memories of shopping at the lovely J+J Flea Market just outside my home town in Georgia. We’ve become too accustomed in the US to buying things from big stores like a Home Depot or a Best Buy, that many Americans don’t even realize what they’re missing. In one stall, a kindly lady solders any connector you want onto a cable of any length you need; in another, a man repairs disused padlocks to re-sell; in the next, a pile of miscellaneous power drills and arc welders are ready to help you in your next construction project. Handymen wait on the street corner with hand-painted signs in modest calligraphy describing the work in which they each specialize, sitting next to the tools of their trade on prominent display.

I could see a lot of people I know being afraid to travel to these places, people who would probably feel most comfortable in Beijing, or Shanghai, or not in China at all. They’d rather eat at one of China’s many KFC locations (more here than in the US!) than eat a fried whole squid on a stick from the night market. Maybe this country isn’t right for them, but I love it and I think it’s wonderful and I hope it never loses that character.