Reflections on China

I recently visited China for the first time.  Here are some of my impressions.

My main motivation for visiting China was to see a place that was as different from the West as possible, but also had a significant, ancient civilization.  In many ways, China did not disappoint.  Its history, despite the Silk Road, is largely independent of the West.  But it involves millennia of economic and cultural development.

Today, though, China seems a mix – of capitalism and communism.  The flashy new China of Shanghai strikes one as capitalistic.  But the authoritarian state that strictly controls information is communistic.  China also seems a mix of West and East.  The people dress as westerners in much of the country, yet the culture differs from the West in oh so many ways.  There are a range of things that one comes upon daily that seem alien.  For example, interactive norms such as queuing and matters of personal space struck me as quite different in China.

The diversity of the country was striking.  That there are different dialects of Chinese – Mandarin and Cantonese – is of course well known.  But there are also significant differences within these dialects that are very interesting.  For example, I was surprised to learn that the Mandarin spoken in Shanghai is quite different than that spoken in Beijing, and that the Shanghai version is similar to Japanese, allowing Shanghai speakers to understand significant amounts of Japanese (while the Beijing version does not permit this).

The diversity of the food is also significant.  People had warned me that the food in China quickly gets tiresome, and they were right.  That said, it was quite interesting.  The same dishes looked and tasted different in different parts of the country.  Of course, the Chinese food one eats in the U.S. comes from different parts of China.  So in one part of China, the food resembled the dishes I get from one chinese restaurant and in another part of China, the food resembled the dishes I get from a different chinese restaurant.

For many people in China, seeing caucasians is an unusual event.  When I went to the Great Wall of China, most of the people visiting the wall appeared to be Chinese people from smaller cities throughout the country.  And for many of these people, caucasians were an object of interest.  I was stopped several times so that Chinese people could take pictures with me.  But while caucasians were unusual, blacks were even rarer.  One of the blacks in my group was stopped more than 10 times so that the Chinese could take pictures.

The Chinese people love selfie sticks.  They are all over the place, being used frequently.  And surgical masks are also abundant in China, but interestingly I was told that many people wear them, not to protect against air pollution, but to protect against sunburn.

Finally, the biggest thrill of my visit was not seeing the Great Wall.  It was first seeing Tiananmen Square lit up at night.