How wonderful to arrive in Hong Kong and find an excellent Australian television channel available. It is that feeling of getting closer to home that will sustains me during one month in China. Having taught many Chinese students, it is appropriate to see how they live in their own country.
Will China ever become a country of migrants?
In Italy, for so long a people exporter, the Chinese are becoming ever more apparent, running shops and offering services. There is no doubt they will run circles round the Italians.
After being led in our group through Beijing East train station a few evenings ago, my gratitude for the circumstance of living in Australia has taken another great leap forward:
I’ve always admired the Chinese, but my respect for them has gone up quite a few notches. First impressions of Shanghai (Hong Kong doesn’t really count): ultra-modernised, extremely efficient, and proud, a tendency to silly fashion adherence notwithstanding:
It is just a matter of time before the Chinese start expressing themselves in more impactful ways. However, a fellow traveller said he can’t believe how much more colourful and happy China is now, compared to the 1970s, when grim expressions and Mao suits were the norm.
Are the Chinese still inscrutable?
The Chinese are both tougher and softer than I’d expected, but in different ways. Tougher just to persist as they do in a massed society, crammed into their super metro (12 lines or more, all pretty new) and taking a few minutes just to get onto the escalator.
Crush, crush, push, push, all without a harsh word or frown. New Yorkers are grumpier than this. And softer because even casual encounters have been pleasant, full of smiles and laughter (like when I came upon 3 little boys splashing naked with two older generations in observance, making the best possible use of the verdant garden strip on Century Avenue that is Shanghai’s answer to the Champs Elysee.)
Their love of and encouragement of their adorable children is dazzling. An exhibition of traditional toys in Beijing was filled with parents and kiddies drawing the displays. Title: Great Success Comes from Playing.
Who designed all these futuristic buildings in Shanghai?
They are certainly impressive, and their urban design museum reveals a rich history and a promising future:
At least they have recognised the importance of open space and greenery. Their publicity photos and ads all feature natural beauty prominently. And you have to respect a country that has neat free public toilet blocks with good signage every couple of hundred metres. The Metros and streets are always clean, or someone is busy getting them that way.
Oh, for fresh milk!
Where we were staying, near a freeway overpass and just 4 metro stops from People’s Square, the entire district smelled of tobacco, and sometimes, piss. The noise on the street was deafening, the air reminded me of a scene from Bladerunner, and I doubted my ability to stand-down the cars and motorcycles safely enough to cross the street to a convenience store, where we had to guess that the carton we were buying was actually milk. Try waking up to this view:
As a command economy (and a police state) China could make many more leaps forward towards solving their environmental and economic problems.
One glaring issue is the still closed nature of their society. It is not tourism friendly, with few English or European language speakers, and little information in English. We got our money back after entering the interesting looking science and technology museum in Shanghai because none of the exhibits had English info.
Picture writing has had its day
Going out on my ethno-centric limb now, I believe that the Chinese writing system creates a cultural barrier equivalent to their Great Wall long ago, and just as self-limiting. There is an element in the Chinese that doesn’t want a more diverse, receptive population or visitors. Heaven knows they have enough to deal with as is.
Why are the English translations in China so quaint?
There is a truculence as well as some charm in the peculiar ways they provide captions and signs in English. And good luck trying to find any foreign language media, written or electronic. Haven’t they asked a true bilingual to do a quick edit? Ever?
But think of how Attaturk brought in a phonetic system to Turkey, and they haven’t looked back compared to countries with Arabic script. Imagine if the Germans, out of misguided pride, insisted on only using their Gothic script. Or think of the Japanese, stagnating along, still a closed shop.
A phonetic system would give me a handle on how to communicate, and make it easier for Chinese to pick up a bit of English.
Such are the musings of an overwhelmed and respiratorily challenged visitor. In two weeks I’ll be happily home.