IÂm sitting in a plane right now, from Hong Kong to Toronto. My flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong was pretty easy. I showed up way too early, but thatÂs ok. I wasnÂt sure how long the traffic would delay me in getting out of the city. My cabbie was a maniac though, and got me to the airport in record time. It took almost three hours to get to Hong Kong, but that time passed quickly. When the plane landed, I was a bit worried because my connecting flight was leaving in less than an hour, and I still had to check in with Air Canada. But, it wasnÂt a problem. A woman with my name on a sign greeted me as soon as I stepped off the plane, and told me where I had to go to check in, urging me to hurry.
My second concern was that being as late as I was, IÂd have the worst seat on the plane. Turns out that wasnÂt a problem either. IÂve got two seats to myself, in the only row that has two seats instead of three. I can stretch out, set up my laptop, have another table, and lie down when I feel like sleeping. This situation safely qualifies for the label of Âawesome.Â
Air Canada service is another matter entirely. WeÂre not in Canton anymore, Todo. A young woman was having trouble getting her bag to fit in the overhead compartment. She asked the flight attendant for some help, and was told, ÂI canÂt help you with that. ItÂs your bag. ItÂs your responsibility.Â Eventually another passenger and I helped rearrange the bags so that hers would fit, while the flight attendant stood around uselessly, looking like she thought she might have made a mistake. I think back to my experience on China Eastern airlines a few weeks ago, when I watched in awe as the gorgeous supermodel flight attendant took my rumpled jacket out of the overhead bin, folded it carefully, and replaced it gently in the bin. IÂm experiencing culture shock again, re-entering the North American Ânot my problemÂ culture.
Last night I was feeling a bit sad about leaving Bangkok. I was out by myself, doing some last minute shopping and exploring the city. I bought fruit and skewered meat on the street for the last time on this trip. Even the weather was nice. At least it wasnÂt the kind of dank heat that made you feel like you were walking through a towel soaked with hot tea. It was merely warm and breezy.
At the same time, IÂm happy to be going home. I miss my friends. I miss my family. I miss the ease of living in familiar surroundings. By the time I post this, IÂll be home.
During the last week, and indeed during my whole trip, I had many chances to collect my thoughts about what I was experiencing. Although I make it a personal policy not to judge things as good or bad, because those values can shift dramatically depending on their circumstances and consequences. I do, however, evaluate what I like and donÂt like. So IÂve made lists of things that I like and donÂt like about China.
Things I like about China
The food Â IÂm a Thom, so consequently everything revolves around food. IÂm always thinking about my next meal, and always scouting my surroundings for interesting things to eat. China is a great source of culinary adventure, and it never costs a lot to have a great meal. Food is most often eaten close to its source, so you can count on it being fresh too. I never had trouble finding things to fit within my caveman diet.
The hardworking people Â Although I donÂt want this lifestyle for myself, I have to admire how hard people work in China. ItÂs just the way things are to work 12 to 14 hour days. I donÂt admire them for the length of their workday, but because they are ambitious. They want a better life for themselves, and are not waiting around for someone else to provide it for them. As China opens up to the world, its people are working to bring themselves up from decades of poverty and isolation.
The energy and boom Â ItÂs hard to comprehend this unless you experience it. The kind of megaprojects that you see once per decade in the west are being completed every week. Giant bridges, highways, stadiums, theatres, high speed rail lines: these things are popping up wherever you look. The sound of constructionÂeven in rural areasÂis a constant in China. ItÂs impossible to get an up-to-date map of a city like Beijing or Shanghai because theyÂre obsolete before theyÂre printed. The pace of redevelopment is breath-taking.
The general kindness of people Â I was honestly surprised how nice people were to me in China. With the rigors of life, the crush of thousands of anonymous souls all around, and the hectic pace, itÂs hard to imagine that people would have the time to help an ignorant foreigner like myself. But, nearly without fail, people were kind and patient when they realized I didnÂt speak Chinese, and would do their best to help me with whatever I was asking.
Things I donÂt like about China
The constant noise and crowds Â ItÂs very difficult to escape the crush of ChinaÂs enormous population. There are people everywhere. Eventually, I almost, but not quite, got used to the constant chatter and buzz of activity all around me. Using public transit meant that I had to learn that the concept of personal space has not yet been invented in China.
The smoking Â Smoking is very popular in China, as it was in Canada not so long ago. Cigarettes are cheap and plentiful. ItÂs estimated that one third of all Chinese men smoke. There are very few places you arenÂt allowed to smoke. The smell is everywhere. When smoking in public places was banned in Canada, it didnÂt take long for me to get used to it, so being surrounded by a haze of cigarette smoke all the time was not easy for me. Even with the door closed in a hotel room, the smell would seep under the door and fill the room.
The rudeness Â ThereÂs a different standard for acceptable public behaviour in China that can be quite shocking to us foreigners. For instance, stand 30 centimetres from the yellow line in a subway station, and watch 15 people rush to fill that space, elbowing you out of the way as soon as the train pulls up to the platform. When it comes to Âlining up,Â thereÂs no regard for anyone else. Men, women, young and old: everyone pushes and shoves their way to the front, using elbows, shoulders, whatever advantage they can gain to save that extra three seconds, or to perhaps score the last seat on the bus.
The sights and sounds of people dealing with their phlegm is another thing I had a hard time getting used to. Men and women would loudly and dramatically clear their throats, building up a big wad of goop that theyÂd then launch disgustingly onto the sidewalk or road in front of you. Once, as I walked down the street in Shanghai, an old lady looked back at me, held eye contact, then held a finger against one nostril, and exhaled sharply through the other, expelling a generous spray of snot. The sun was behind her, so it shimmered brightly like a backlit fountain. Then she shuffled on her way.
People are loud too. ThereÂs no such thing as an ÂindoorÂ voice here. Probably because everyone is used to competing to be heard in the outdoor din that surrounds you in the typical Chinese city, everyone is hollering at each other, all the time, on cell phones, in elevators, in restaurants, in offices. The same disregard for personal space applies to personal conversation too.
IÂve been told that thereÂs a guide published by the Chinese government outlining some of the doÂs and donÂts of public behaviour for Chinese visiting other countries. The Chinese government is very aware of the countryÂs image, and would be embarrassed if marauding bands of Chinese tourists lined the streets of Stockholm with mucous.
The pollution Â The pollution in Beijing has been well-publicized, leading up to the Olympics. I was expecting the worst because IÂd read and heard so much about it. As the plane descended into the city at the beginning of my trip, I could see a thick haze over everything. The government has moved swiftly and firmly in Beijing to curb air pollution, cutting the number of cars on the roads in half. Odd and even-numbered license plate holders drive on alternating days. TheyÂre also pouring untold millions of yuan into enhancing and expanding the public transit systems. Beijing is going to be the centre of the worldÂs attention during the Olympics, and the Chinese government is deathly afraid of embarrassment. This explains why when I landed, I found the air quality to be significantly worse than other places IÂd been, but not as bad as I was expecting. Beijing is just the tip of the iceberg though. As I penetrated further south into the country, the pollution got steadily worse. As you can see from my photos from Kaiping, the situation is dismal. The toxic water burned my skin, and the smoky air made my eyes red and watery, and gave me asthma-like symptoms. I watched as slimy black water poured into rivers from sewage pipes, and wondered how that was affecting the food supply.
ChinaÂs going through its industrial revolution now, just as Europe and North America did in the last century. We earned our power and wealth through rapid industrialization, doing damage to our environment in the process. China is having its turn now. What changed our ways was the negative impact of this activity on our health and standard of living. Workers in factories banded together and demanded cleaner, safer working conditions, and the population as a whole reacted to force businesses to reduce their emissions. The same will happen in ChinaÂ eventually. It has to. LetÂs just hope itÂs not too late for everyone.
ThatÂs it for the lists. And thatÂs it for my trip to China. Thanks for reading!
p.s. It turns out my trip didn’t end so smoothly. My bags are still in Hong Kong. The airline will supposedly deliver them to me within a couple of days, so I’m hoping that goes ok. When I got home, there was no electricity. Apparently there was some kind of misunderstanding: that being that I misunderstood that you need to pay hydro bills before you go away for a long time. Also, my car was dead. The battery had run down because the car hadn’t been started for a month. Live and learn!