Sunday, September 19, 2010

'It's complicated': Impressions of a first timer in China

China is complicated and how I feel about it is even more so.

China is a contradiction - from the tradition that requires you to pass things to a person with both hands (apparently to signify you give all of yourself with the proffered business card/payment) to the soaring modern skyscrapers casting shadows over botanical gardens. From the military precision with which they run events (I was treated to a special visa channel at the airport and road closures to get us to the conference quickly!) to the cyclists on the road who travel against traffic, across traffic, on pavements and crossings, and just about everywhere apart from in the same direction as everyone else.

The people are exceedingly polite - on thanking a waitress for retrieving the bill I was told it was her 'greatest pleasure' to serve me. On taking a swim in the empty hotel pool 2 members of staff I had never met before appeared from nowhere and stood at the edge. I mimed to them if they would like me to leave, assuming they were perhaps waiting to clean the pool. One replied, "No Miss Jayne, we are here to take care of you." Feeling slightly outnumbered and a little uncomfortable I left shortly after. Standing up in restaurants or at the hotel reception was also not allowed, I was ushered to a seat everytime I tried to do something for myself. Whether a national habit or a sign of the excellent service at Le Meridien hotel I am not sure.

This politeness however does not stretch to the roads. One morning I witnessed a small collision on a chaotic crossing - nothing unusual in most parts of Asia. Except 5 hours later I passed the same spot and the parties involved were still there, still arguing about who was to blame, and still causing massive disruption to the traffic.

And what about the spitting. There is nothing polite about hoicking up a huge ball of phlegm and depositing it at your neighbours feet. Taxi drivers expectorate out the window and you pray it doesn't fly back in with the wind, straight into your face. (Maybe this is why Chinese passengers sit in the front seat?!) Even women join in this disgusting habit, and even at temples. It appears nothing is sacred when it comes to the spitting habit.

My reaction to the food caused disappointed in myself. I love traditional Thai, Malaysian, Indian, indeed anything but it appears my taste buds will only accept Western versions of Chinese food. I could find nothing appetising about giant sea creatures in large washing up bowls on the steps of restaurants and the fact that I could not read mandarin and thus identify what it was I was being served did not help matters. On visiting a night food market I was shocked to find myself physically retching. How is it that what some culture's call delicacies I can only describe as akin to faeces? I was repulsed by the food and thus disgusted with myself.

In a land that is famous for historic Great Walls and terracotta armies its surprising to find bling on every corner. Lights from one end of a skyscraper to another, signs blinking everywhere, adverts where you least expect them. Bridges, beaches, lamp posts - if they stand still for long enough they get dripped in twinkly lights. In Xiamen they build motorways on the beach. In 5 mins you can travel from a tranquil Buddhist temple to the beach which consists of sand, sea, concrete pillars and an elevated 4 lane highway - and this is a tourist attraction. Interesting.

Fancy a taste of the celebrity lifestyle? Well the pointing, staring and photographing side of celebrity anyhow. As a white woman with blue eyes and travelling solo I seemed to be the biggest tourist attraction in town. It is actually rather endearing when families kick their father out of the group shot so that he can take one of you with the family instead. And if they happen to know the word 'Hello' everyone from children to grandparents will have no qualms at shouting it at you, repeatedly, delightedly, until you are not sure what to do and gingerly make to leave.

My experience of China sparked a myriad of reactions. Some good, some ugly, some surprising. China is an experience in itself and despite what this post may lead you to believe, it's an experience I can't wait to repeat. When it comes travelling I believe any reaction is better than none!