Ariel and I returned from China on Saturday. The trip was interesting. Not your typical lying on the beach trip to Greece, though China definitely made me appreciate the beauty of Greece more. No, this was a trip to a place that will soon be rubbing elbows with the US as the next great superpower.
My opinion of China before I left was, "Yeah, but it's Communist!" And, then, you go to Beijing and Shanghai and see that all they do is sell stuff to you, that there are 4,000 skyscrapers (by NYC's definition) twice the number of skyscrapers in New York City, and that if you didn't know the Communist Party controlled the government you would not be able to guess it. The only thing that, upon reflection, made me think that a repressive government was in control was the way that the Chinese acted like children in their aggressiveness. When they'd beg or sell wares, they'd swarm you sometimes and many times even get right up near your face and spit requests at you. I bought some tiny little fuzzy necklaces with the Beijing 2008 mascots on them from an old woman for a dollar, she then proceeded--for much longer than I could ever imagine anyone doing--to follow me and then stand right up on me, with her head right above my elbow and spouted, "3 for 2 dollars, 4 for 3 dollars, 5 for 2 dollars, 4 for 4 dollars ..." She just kept yelling and standing right there and I kept saying no. It must have been for at least 10 minutes. But there was a buffer to her aggression. The Chinese would annoy you to the point of exasperation but I never saw an incident of violence--violence seemed out of the equation.
After a few days, though I still checked on my wallet like a paranoid American, I knew that no one would pickpocket me and no one would attack me. People might stand right under me and stare or even snap a picture, or stand in my way or beg for money over and over and over or even practically follow me into my cab, but they would not harm me. Maybe they feared me, maybe it's cultural, but I can't help but think that it's the Communist Party on some level keeping crime down through harsh penalties.
My first impression upon landing in Beijing was, "I'm on the moon." I felt like it. The smog was so thick that I couldn't tell that we had landed. There was a visible military presence. The land was concrete, empty, dark, and cloudy. But I learned to like the people of Beijing. They are very friendly and kind. They have a facade of seriousness or formality that recedes almost immediately. They love to joke around. Unlike the Japanese who are staid and formal to the point of soullessness. We visiting the Summer Palace which was beautiful and absolutely humongous, the Forbidden City which was under renovation, and Beijing University which was nice. The kids at Beijing U. could've been Europeans--except for they had a hard work ethic--but they were fun and had bad teeth and acted like all students everywhere do. I mentioned to a girl there that I was Jewish and she said, "Jews are very smart, like the people in the South: Guangdong Province." She then said that it was amazing that Jews had survived for millenia. And then her and a male student asked me about how Jews survive in America, since they were surprised to be informed that we make up only 2 percent of the US population. I told them that Jews tend to marry Jews, but that, yes, assimilation and intermarriage is a reality. The male student said, "You live with them you start to become like them." I said, "I guess," since that's half the story. We become like them, but we also retain our culture and traditions--at least half of us do.
The Great Wall was the highlight of the Beijing portion of the trip. As was discovering a marshmallow treat from Japan the size of the circle you make by touching your index finger to your thumb. These marshmallows were filled with a sweet, candy jam filling: pineapple, peach, blueberry, chocolate. They were orgasmic.
The Great Wall was a huge, sprawling expanse--and we just saw a small portion of it. I was dressed for skiing and it was freezing cold. The wind whipped around. We were told that if we walked far enough up the wall there would be a ski lift to take us down. At some point in the hike, I realized, "I ain't takin' no ski lift with winds whipping around like this, I'll blow off the damn thing." Anyway, we never saw a lift. We hiked up steep stairs--really steep, three bricks tall. They were like hurdles. We trudged up in freezing cold and wind and I was amazed that they built this fucking huge wall to protect themselves from Jenghis Khan. One man. The biggest wall in the world. This huge, timeless, ancient structure built out of fear. That guy must have been some crazy scary muthafucka. On my way down the wall, the wind literally blew me on my butt. I got up and exclaimed, "Wow. That's never happened before." We were greeted at the near bottom by a group of merchants (merechants were EVERYWHERE in China) who had us take pictures on yak-looking camel. Ariel took one that looks hilarious. At the bottom were more merchants who were so cold, they were practically giving goods away. We bought two "I Climbed the Great Wall" shirts for $2.50 though I will admit I also bought two crappy dragon figurines and a mini-Great Wall for $4. I would've bargained longer, but I was just too cold and the woman looked like she was gonna die out there. Another interesting tidbit was that Chinese people were climbing the wall in dress shoes and leather jackets. Crazy.
I'll veer off here for a second to talk about the Tokyo airport. It is weird. Japan is super-weird. First of all, everyone is a germophobe. Everyone is wearing facemasks like Michael Jackson and cleanliness is paramount. Second of all, when you go through security the security officials look like they just got out of private school for the day. Men and women wear burgundy blazers, women in shorts, men in slacks. The women are wearing stylish berets and black, 4-inch high heels. They take your coat and fold it like you're at the Gap and place it in a small, green mesh holder and put it through the metal detector. I felt like I was at a university and at the Gap. They also hand you back everything with both hands, or in a tray (like change). I think that's the germophobe part. The Japanese guy on our trip was impenetrable. He was more formal than anyone I'd ever met. He had no emotion. His laughter was scripted as if he had observed human behavior and calculated when to giggle or smile. It was offputting to say the least.
Between Beijing and Shanghai we took a 12-hour sleeper train. We got the top of the line for about $65. Four to a room in bunk beds. The rooms were small, but we got a mildly edible dinner and slept. It was very strange to sleep on a fast-moving train, but I told my body, "What the fuck else you got to do?" And it replied, "Gotcha." The train was definitely a cool experience.
In Shanghai, we saw the sky. In Beijing, you couldn't see that the sky was blue and your nose and mouth felt burny and yucky all day. We literally drove up in a bus to the Beijing Opera house and had to have the professor on the trip describe it to us b/c the smog was so thick you couldn't tell that a structure was there. Your snot was black in both S and B though. Shanghai was a beautiful, booming metropolis. Beijing was more a cultural and government center, though with 4-lane highways and an older look. Shanghai had the Bund: a big European banking center that was beautiful and on the water. The architecture around the Bund was gorgeous. The rest of Shanghai was 40-storey building after 40-storey building, circular or square, ACs on the outsides of the windows. Building after building. You could drive an hour in any direction and they were there. One day we passed some white villas with Spanish rooftops. About a thousand of them. Most looked the same. The buildings looked like they'd been ordered out of a catalogue. Literally, it was like, I'll take 200 of these 40-storey skyscrapers, 200 of those, 200 of those. And they'd be right next to each other. And the city houses 20 million people and is growing. It's definitely got more foreigners than Beijing. In Beijing people took pictures of me, in Shanghai they only took pictures of the black students on the trip.
The people in Shanghai were a bit more aggressive and cityish than in Beijing. I missed the people of Beijing, but not the horrid environment. The people in Shanghai--well, we mainly interacted with merchants--were more reserved or more aggressive and all better at separating foreigners from their money. In Shanghai, we were bussed and cabbed to various corporate visits. Some were cool, many were duds. The Shanghai stock exchange was an empty room--all the trading goes on online elsewhere. Lenovo, Intel and Microsoft had computers--Microsoft an elaborate rec room. But we didn't get to see much cool stuff at those places. We went to a Japanese steel drum factory called Kisco; that was awesome. We saw how the drums for oil and hazmats are made. They gave us steel ashtrays and hats. Everywhere we went there was bottled water and most places there was tea. We ate a lot of on the go and cafeteria Chinese food, which was subpar.
Our hotel in Shanghai was fucking awesome. A full, huge mo tub with a separate shower. Two TVs. A very exquisite Asian look. I watched CNN Asia and realized: Israel doesn't exist on the news if you're not in America--though Palestine does big time, the Iraq War is panned by most of the world, David Beckham is the most important person ever. Ehud Olmert was actually visiting China when we were in Shanghai, which was definitely cool and strange. We saw him with Hu Jintao on the cover of the Shanghai Times.
I learned a lot about the differences between Asians. Chinese, relative to the others, are developing. So they're poor, but up and coming. Taiwan and Hong Kong are there already, Japan and Singapore are ahead of the curve. Thailand--where some from the trip sojourned before joining us--is a land of beauty and prostitutes. Hearing about the old white men with teen--or younger--Thai girls sounded revolting to the point that it made seeing the beauty and cuisine of the country not worthwhile. Seeing the difference between how Chinese (normal, like Americans and aspiring to be Americans) and Japanese acted (formal, strange, rigid) made Japan seem less appealing.
Being in China you see what a developing country is--and developing is the perfect word. Something like 1/5 of the cranes in the world are in China right now. They produce everything, but they copy most things. Not much cutting edge innovation going on. People still make about $2,000 a year on average. There are some Mercedes on the road, but most cars of the small, Euro type. There is a lane on all roads--a wide one--for motorbikes and bicycles. It is always throbbing and is sometimes very difficult to cross on foot. We saw a head-on bicycle collision in Beijing that was brutal. A man hit a woman and she lay on the ground for a few minutes, we tried to help her but we couldn't communicate and didn't know what to do. Eventually an official looking person came to help.
China has elements of poor and elements of rich. But all the rich looks brand new--new developments. Twenty years ago, the place was a slum, which is absolutely insane if you see Shanghai today. The rural people that come in come for labor and some are homeless beggars who are dirty--a staggering number of them are one-footed and on crutches and a disturbing number are clutching their young children as a means for squeezing yuan out of you. If you give to one, a throng surrounds you and everyone bothers you like crazy very aggressively. If this weren't the case, I would've given a lot more than I did.
The sellers are very aggressive in some places and purchasing goods in China is a trip unto itself. They start you at 10 times the product's price sometimes to skew your reference point, and you really have to know what others got it for to find out what the bottom is. "Last price" does not mean anything there. The first time we shopped guys got knockoff North Face coats for everything from 180-400 yuan (7.8 yuan equals 1 dollar). They quickly got that 200 was the baseline price. You have to use the walk away frequently and be firm with the sellers. Volume deals also work. Ariel very much enjoyed the haggling. I could have done without it. Sure, you got the tie for $1.50, but you spent 20 minutes bargaining the price down which to me was kinda dumb. Plus much of the stuff was not of the highest quality, though not complete crap either--we'll see how it stands the test of time. Women like shopping for long, men don't, maybe that's the difference. The guys didn't mind getting a shitty deal (though still a great deal in the US, though for crappy goods) to save time, the girls were in a huge-mo competition to show who could get goods for the least money. Ariel loved the arguing, haggling, walking away, cajoling. I don't think I did much of it at all.
My concerns about China in the end did not revolve around the government, the government seemed to have everyone on a very long leash. Rather, I was concerned that this was an economy based on knockoffs, that everything was negotiable and corruptible, and mostly that the unprecedented growth that China is experiencing could not be sustained. We were told time and again that China could keep growing and growing b/c of its excess populace. But what happens when America doesn't need more crap? (I know, hard to believe). Or when Mexico or Burma start being cheaper? Or when the middle class in China demands more benefits? I think there could be a revolution if the growth even slows. Why? Well, because there are 4 million migrant laborers in Shanghai alone that are placated by the constant government works projects: buildings, tunnels, bridges. There's a lot of work now and probably will be in the short-term. But double-digit GDP growth won't be sustainable forever, and eventually people will be out of jobs and looking for the government to pay up. Everything's cool now b/c China's "winning," but there are problems on the horizon I think. No one in China thinks so, which is the scary part--everyone we heard was super-bullish on China. To me, that's dangerous.
Upon return to the US--and after 3 freakin' flights which significantly dried me out--I found America to be full of people who are selfish. This is my normal observation after returning from abroad. Americans are too individualistic and selfish. Chinese are quiet and they care about their families. It is common to see a middle-aged man holding an old man or woman on his arm. In the US, we let our grandparents wither in old age home's and leave supporting them to the government. In China, you support your kids and your parents--though, usually it's only one kid. Chinese also care foremost about "harmony," a concept that I hadn't thought much about until I went to China. Everything should be in balance in your life and relations. This concept lends itself to roles--something that America's cringe at--but it also provides a window into why roles can be beneficial and rewarding to people.
Then, there's the story of the foot massage that briefly went awry, but I'll leave that for another time .....