Areas of China are not what you think.
After spending more than a week in the country as part of a Siouxland Chamber of Commerce-sponsored tour, I realized it’s a lot friendlier, cleaner and progressive than I once presumed.
The people were outgoing, too, and, to a large extent, unwilling to talk politics. Many have cellphones. Most go out of their way to be helpful. Granted, the trip wasn’t designed to hit politically charged areas (it included touristy stops in Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an), but it was still an eye-opener.
In China, we were told, women retire at 50 or 55 (depending on the work they do); men at 60. Often, they’re their grandchildren’s caregivers. Frequently, they move into their children’s homes.
To get away, the seniors go to central meeting places (or “share” zones) where they visit with friends, talk about their children and grandchildren, exercise and play games. It’s a vibrant senior center of sorts where you hear a lot of heated discussions and see the kind of acrobatics you thought were reserved only for touring shows.
Morning exercises also are performed in these parks. It’s not uncommon to see multiple generations moving together on equipment that’s in something of an adult playground. One we viewed in Beijing introduced us to a game that’s a hacky sack/badminton hybrid. Another involved huge platters that were like massage boards.
Walking is common, although most people have a bicycle or scooter. It’s something of a coup to get a car. Guides told us it takes at least eight years for a resident to get a car. As a result, those cars were spotless in Beijing, less so in Xi’an. BMWs, Audis and Mercedes-Benzes were everywhere in Beijing. To make sure the streets aren’t clogged or the air isn’t more polluted, some cities limit who can drive on what days.
Public transportation runs the gamut but Shanghai does boast one of the fastest trains in the world (it can go several hundred miles per hour). And, yes, there still are rickshaws. Like the pedicab operators in some of our cities, the cyclists huff and puff as they cart you around. But here’s the interesting part: No tipping. It’s considered inappropriate in China.
While rickshaws and rice are probably two images that come to mind when you think of the country, there’s a hard push to celebrate China’s deep, rich history. Some of the more recent events are either glossed over or ignored entirely.
Indeed, Tiananmen Square hardly looks like a place where protests occurred or where troops shot at protestors. Visitors there nosh on food from carts, line up for walks through the Forbidden City and pose for selfies in front of a huge picture of Chairman Mao. Video cameras are visible throughout the area, supposedly to help the government maintain order. Soldiers are everywhere, but you’re told not to take their picture.
Inside the Forbidden City (which seemingly goes on forever), it’s not uncommon to see residents dressed in silk costumes for their own photo memories. And, yes, there are a lot of cellphones. Like American teens, they’re into capturing moments, complete with poses and filters. Interestingly, during a visit to Shanghai Disneyland, those Chinese teens brought Mickey ears INTO the park, presumably because they were cheaper. They also toted lunches and weren’t eager to buy souvenirs. (Note to American friends: It’s difficult to find T-shirts, particularly in our sizes, just about everywhere. T-shirts don’t have the same vacation cachet in China.)
Because social media platforms are regulated in China, it’s not possible for Americans to catch up with friends back home. Television is also a mixed bag. Hotel televisions get CNN, MSNBC and other American networks, but screens frequently go dark when there’s something government officials don’t want residents to see.
Repeatedly, tour guides say they learned English by watching American sitcoms (“Sex and the City” was a favorite). Those sitcoms, however, aren’t on the channels I scanned. More likely, they got them through other means.
As open and friendly as tours are, it’s clear they’ve been sanitized for their protection. Tour buses don’t go in parts of town they don’t want you to see; stops usually include stores (or “factories”) that can provide “incentives” to the tour operators.
At those factories (where you never see long rows of workers churning out silk, jewelry or figurines), salespeople are aggressive. They size you up during an explanatory lecture, then scoot to the most likely buyers and don’t leave. They haggle on price, too, and won’t take no until you’re back on the bus. At a pearl factory, one even pulled me aside to see if I could convince someone from our party to reconsider.
Because bazaars and markets often have the same merchandise for a fraction of the price, it’s probably good to resist until you’re sure you won’t be able to find it anywhere else.
In public settings (outside the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, for example), older women will harass tourists until they either buy or leave. Even after I bought a collection of miniature statues for $4, they wouldn’t move on. (I caved and bought a second set.)
Thankfully, most people are willing to help you through the language barrier. Most signs are written in English and, depending on where you go, someone will have a translation app that will allow you to ask a question and get a reliable answer.
A Chinese city in person
In the larger cities, huge skyscrapers are filled with residents. While most look extremely new, they’ve got an old-school vibe. On a Monday, for example, we saw floors of laundry hanging in the windows. Dryers are either frowned upon or too expensive.
Billboards tout plenty of products, buildings boast plenty of lights (and, in Shanghai, a nightly light show) and construction seems never-ending. Indeed, workers are raising those architecturally interesting structures 24 hours a day.
Street food is a real crapshoot. Aged tofu (which smells horrific), scorpions on a stick and glazed fruit seem to be popular options.
Because the Chinese aren’t into sweets like we are, they don’t embrace candy or other unhealthy snacks. They do like salty things and, apparently, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Outlets were everywhere. McDonald’s and Burger King are there, too, but not as prevalent. Starbucks has taken hold in a big way.
Coca-Cola appears to be winning the cola battle against Pepsi, but both are available. When you do get a glass at a restaurant, it’s juice-sized and refills aren’t offered. While it’s possible there are restaurants that don’t embrace the “lazy Susan” style of serving, it was part of every meal we ate. Additionally, napkins (and toilet paper) must be at a premium. They’re not readily distributed. When you do get one, it’s barely the size of a cocktail napkin.
At one of our stops, we ate at a home that, supposedly, also hosted Leonardo Di Caprio during the Beijing Olympic Games. Why he went there is anyone’s guess, but an uncle did the cooking and, true to form, spun it out on a lazy Susan in the family’s sitting room. Meanwhile, in a corner, a young artist painted inside perfume bottles. The work was incredibly detailed and intricate.
Restrooms are a real crap shoot (sorry). Five-star restrooms are what we’re used to. One- and two-star feature a hole in the ground that you squat over. Toilet paper is a BYO kind of thing in those lesser facilities.
There’s a smell in the air, too, which could come from pollution or the practice of putting used toilet paper in a wastebasket in the bathroom stall.
American sports idols are big in China. Kobe Bryant smiles from billboards. Estee Lauder, Calvin Klein and Nike sell plenty of merchandise to that key consumer demographic.
What you don’t see everywhere are things we associate with the country: Panda bears (they’re in the southwest), mahjong (it’s not easy to find sets to purchase) and theater (one show we saw was basically a series of poses, not the vibrant drama we’ve been told started there).
China, by anyone’s definition, is changing. Robots are employed in high-end hotels. Skyscrapers test the design skills of architects. And people appear to want the kind of lifestyle – yes, even Disneyland — that comes with capitalism.
Residents know, however, that those discussions – ones Americans might raise – are off limits.
Ask if they like Communism and they’ll say “yes.”
But as one guide said, “Chinese people always say ‘yes.’ It’s easier that way.”