China – Not That Mythical

We have had a chance to visit China twice. Well, Hong Kong & Macau don’t really consider themselves China but the fact remains that they are the special administrative regions of China.

As an Indian (this may be true across nationalities too), China has been a fascinating, mysterious place. The most common thoughts that used to occur to us when we thought of China (& this holds for many more like us):

  1. China has too many people.
  2. The Chinese eat anything that walks.
  3. An Indian will have a problem in finding edible food.
  4. The language barrier is significant.
  5. The major cities are heavily polluted.
  6. The Chinese are rude & unfriendly.
  7. The Chinese are xenophobic.
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Before the opera, we were all ears for this girl playing this instrument quite beautifully. After some time, the Chinese tunes seemed all the same to us.

A few of these turned out to be canards while the rest got validated. Our observations are based on the three cities we visited – Macau, Hong Kong & Beijing. Thus, our sample size is small but hopefully not way off the mark.

So here goes what we detected and felt about China.

China Has Too Many People

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At a cloisonné factory, we got swayed by this work of art, & ran away soon after hearing the cost.

Yes it does. It is next to impossible to go to a tourist attraction & expect to click a photograph with no people in the frame. At times, it is even impossible to see the attraction. A lot of travel blogs suggest reaching early which we did not manage to do. Perhaps that would have helped.

The ‘too many people’ manifests itself in the scramble for public transport too. Hailing a cab can be quite a task but using a subway is easy, cost-effective & we did not find it too crowded. We have seen worse in India 🙂

The Chinese Eat Anything That Walks

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The Ming Dynasty tombs are more museum than tombs.

Not entirely true. The Chinese do eat a lot of meat but most of it is conventional stuff like chicken, beef, pork, seafood, fish, duck etc. At most mid-segment restaurants I visited, there was nothing that was repulsive to read or look at. Hint: dogs, insects, reptiles etc.

However, street markets and a type of restaurants called ‘hotpots’ had ‘interesting’ food available. All the horrors that were in the mind appeared in front of our eyes.

An Indian Will Have a Problem in Finding Edible Food

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The preparation that went into the China trip. Glad to report none of this got consumed! Beijing had edible food more easily available than both these places.

Partially true. There are adequate food options available, thanks to the presence of American, Italian, & even Indian restaurants. You can find vegetarian restaurants too. There are enough McDonald’s, Starbucks etc.

We had a lot of ready-to-eat food with us but gladly, we did not have to consume that. You can find Chinese dishes with conventional meats like chicken, fish & seafood. However, the Chinese dishes taste nothing like what we get in India.

India has its own brand of Chinese, fondly called tandoori Chinese, which is full of sauces and condiments. In comparison, authentic Chinese will appear bland to the Indian palate.

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The night calls for letting our hair down. The Chinese aren’t just about manufacturing and making the world their market. They party as hard as probably any other nationality does! Seen here – the lights of Hou Hai.

Also, we found a particular pungent smell in all Chinese dishes. Perhaps it was the use of fish sauce or oyster sauce. The smell was too overpowering for us to ignore. We minimized our intake of Chinese food consequently.

The Language Barrier Is Significant

Yes it is. 90% of the people we came across did not understand a single word in English. Even basic phrases like ‘thank you’, ‘excuse me’, ‘hi’, ‘hello’ were alien to them. Surprisingly, this was the case in the hospitality sector too.

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While we returned from our partying, we realized there was a curfew in the city. Our taxi driver, midway, refused to drop us to the hotel & asked us to get out in the middle of God-knows-where. Mercifully, we had a phone. We requested our hotel to pick us up. We get evacuated in a Buick. For free! Emergency evacuation in style!!!

A few of the servers who waited on us did not understand English at all. The only English they understood & could say was ‘no English’! We had to point to the menu to order our drinks & dinners. & if we wanted any customization, God help us!

For cab drivers, we carried the Chinese names of our destinations. Thankfully, all of them could read Mandarin. This is a major variation from India. Here, even a rickshaw puller understands Basic English words/ phrases like ‘thank you’, ‘okay’, ‘hello’ etc.

Among the remaining 10%, the grasp of English was elementary at best though we are sure the situation would be different for the crowd that works for multinational corporations.

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Our hotel (Red Wall Garden) celebrated its 5th anniversary while we were there. We got this complimentary savory treat plate. Savory? Who gives savory to celebrate? Where are the cupcakes & muffins?? & treat? It’d kinds of meats we were unsure of. Ahem!

The Major Cities Are Heavily Polluted

Not true. At least not for an Indian. Compared to Delhi NCR, the air quality in both Beijing & Hong Kong was better, though there was a little bit of haze. For travelers coming from developed countries, this may be a worry & thus, as advised by the western travel blogs, it may make sense for them to carry masks.

Apart from the air, we found all the three cities to be impeccably clean. In Beijing, we observed the roads being washed twice a day. The garbage was collected almost on an hourly basis. There was no difference in people’s behavior though.

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She was happy making the painting but wouldn’t let us try… Artists!

Like Indians, they continued to spit, throw garbage etc. at their whim & fancy. But the discipline of the sanitation department was exemplary.

The Chinese Are Rude & Unfriendly

Hem – haw! Yes, the Chinese appear to be rude because (i) they do not smile on seeing you (ii) they talk in a blunt, direct manner. I believe their way of talking stems from their language. As far as I understand, Mandarin does not have grammar & syntax.

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It is more of words put together to make sense. So for a Chinese talking in English – s/ he processes what s/ he wants to say in Mandarin in her/ his head –> s/ he translates that to English in her/ his head –> s/ he speaks/ replies in English.

This makes their English also blunt & devoid of the niceties that we usually put into it. About the smiling bit, I agree they should do it more.

The Chinese Are Xenophobic

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Bigger & grander than Rajpath, this is where the Chinese government sits — Tiananmen Square!

Assume you are not allowed to meet anybody all your life. You are confined to your house. You can interact only with your family members. Your family members do not step out either. You have a view of the outside world only through your window.

Then, suddenly, when you turn 25 years old, you are told you can step out & can even let outsiders enter your house. Will this affect your behavior towards the outside world? Sure it will. Through that narrow window, you had formed an image.

You are now being subjected to other images, a few of which contradict the earlier image & a few which validate. Would you not take time to absorb it all & adapt to it?

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We were sure there was a deeper meaning behind the Chinese opera but we couldn’t help giggling, sitting right at the first table. Subtitles anyone?

Apart from dispelling/ validating the above preconceived notions, I formed a few independent opinions too. Succinctly put:

  1. Beijing is a cleaner, richer version of New Delhi.
  2. The Chinese love big cars – Audi, BMW & Mercedes. These are almost every second car that you see on the road. But the Chinese have no qualms buying these big names secondhand. (This explains the ‘almost every second car’ bit.)
  3. Hong Kong is the not – so – glamorous cousin of Singapore. Both are financial hubs filled with expats. But Hong Kong has a ‘China’ flavor to it.
  4. The Chinese love to talk. They can yap all day long. Given the harshness of their language, this can sound quite jarring to the ears.
  5. Chinese women/ girls love their bling. They can give the Rajouri aunties a run for their money any day.
  6. Macau is not just a gambler’s paradise. It has a lot to keep culture & history lovers occupied too.
  7. Since Hong Kong used to be a British colony, we were under the impression that the place would be full of English eateries. But, sadly, we did not find any place that served the quintessential British food. In fact, our food struggle was greater in Hong Kong than in Beijing.
  8. The Chinese are enterprising. Every second home on the outskirts of Beijing housed a small-scale industry of sorts. From these small factories, they supply goods all across the world. Despite the language barrier, they have managed to trade with the entire world.
  9. Not talking in financial terms, but India is still light years away from being a China. If we imbibe their discipline, we can think of competing with them.
  10. Despite their population struggle, their infrastructure is top class. Better put, their infrastructure is managing to keep up with the population pressure. Perhaps they plan first, execute later.
  11. China, as a whole, has a rich history but it is still a virgin territory for outsiders. Within themselves, they love their historical places, & they accord the respect that such places deserve.
  12. The Chinese love their nightlife. The world may think otherwise due to their apparent serious nature but all the cities we visited had quite ‘happening’ entertainment options.
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The best place to have a good time that we came across in Beijing – San Li Tun. It was a hangout for expats. We finally didn’t feel like aliens…

To summarize our sentiments, there is lots to be explored about China, in China. The expanse of the country ensures that a lifetime will be inadequate to do so. Each small region holds a story. We will be lucky if we get to discover at least a couple more…