Recently, I went to China for two weeks in order to take a course in International Economics. Additionally, the trip offered me an opportunity to see China with my own eyes. My primary major is International Affairs with a concentration in Asia, and though I focused more on South Asia/India and Japan, I took a fair amount of courses that were about or partly about China. Also, as I am a history buff, I have read a lot about Chinese history and philosophy, which happen to be among the longest and most refined of the world’s civilizations. All that being said, I was pretty excited to see China with my own eyes, though I was only going to Shanghai and Hangzhou and not Beijing/the Great Wall.
As everyone knows, China is currently undergoing one of the biggest economic expansions in the history of the world. This is fairly obvious; from the time I got off the plane in Shanghai, I saw signs of development, construction, industry, and commerce- in short, a booming city filled with excited people moving about with a sense of purpose- as though they knew their time had come. Much of Shanghai’s newer buildings in its commercial area (Pudong) and roads are much better developed than those in the United States. Other parts of the city are fairly developed, though not at the level of the United States, and obviously the standard of living is still lower since most things are cheaper there. I also cannot say how rich China as a whole is since I didn’t get to venture into the poorer rural areas in the interior; however, I did visit Hangzhou (a couple of hours south of Shanghai) and it seemed to be doing fairly well. Anyhow, the Shanghai I saw was an extremely vibrant city, perhaps because of the excitement of the people and capitalism, things the Chinese people have not experienced for much of their long history, which happened to have been extremely troubled for most of the 20th century. Napoleon is said to have once said “Let China sleep, for when she wakes, the world will shake.” This I believe to be an accurate assessment. The Chinese people are working very hard to push their country forward, and if they continue going at their current pace, much of it will reach Western standards one day. However, it remains to be seen if this will happen or not since there is a lot of discontent among China’s rural populace, and since it is dubious if the world’s resources can support China’s continued growth. From a foreign policy point of view, while China’s neighbors do benefit from its economic growth, it is doubtful if anyone of its neighbors wishes this to be translated into military expansion and Chinese assertion. These issues continue to raise questions about the ultimate future of China this century, as it faces both internal and external challenges. I would like to compare China with some other countries I know about:
- United States: going to China makes one realize how unique and wonderful the United States is in some ways. The United State’s main advantage is its ability to give every individual freedom of political and social choice. Every person can make his/her own choice and grow to be the sort of person he/she wants to be. If a person has the skills and works hard, he/she can become anything (okay, I’m just going to use he for both he and she for now) he wants. America’s spirit of innovation and industry will continue to help it in the long run and attract immigrants. On the other hand, Chinese still think too collectively, are too passive about speaking their minds both socially and politically, and lack the spirit of problem-solving that has made America successful. That being said, America should learn from China the value of saving and hard-work. Additionally, Americans should stop bickering politically about what is essentially meaningless stuff and get their act together if they want to maintain their edge over China.
- Japan: I mention Japan here because it is a country I have studied and because it is culturally similar to China in many ways. Despite this similarity, they are different in many ways and I think this is because Japan has developed a rather unique self-identity because of its isolation from most of the world for a lot of its history and then its longer and deeper exposure to the West. However, since Japan adopted to the West on its own terms and over a longer period, numerous quirks in their culture seem to have survived whereas a lot of China’s culture was destroyed by the Cultural Revolution.
- India: I am of Indian origin, so I have been to India quite a lot. India is also developing quite fast, so it is compared to China a lot these days. The fact is, India is poor compared to China, and is still in a more infant stage of development. However, given its younger population and political stability, I do think India has the potential to outgrow China in about 10 years, once China begins to slow down. Indian society is also slower than Chinese society at adapting to the modern world, but again, I think that will also change as that is essentially a generational issue. Personally, I think India should learn from China’s growth in three main aspects: more education, more infrastructure, and more manufacturing destined for foreign markers. That being said, India’s legal system and democracy are much better developed that China. That being said, it is no surprise that Tibetans who have fled China have mostly ended up in India. India’s culture and nature are such that it will never be a political power like China aspires to be. However, it can be a very big cultural and economic power (more sustainable economic development), maybe more than China.
I have probably ventured too much into the political and historical aspects of China. Now I’ll mention some of the interesting observations from my trip. Before that, I should add that even though I may criticize China here and there, I greatly enjoyed my trip and had a lot of fun experiencing a different culture. What I want to do more of now is travel by living in foreign countries. There are several countries in Europe and Asia I want to do this in. Anyhow, there are three observations in particular regarding China that I would like to point out:
- Food. The food in China is very interesting, to put it mildly. Even though I had heard that American Chinese food was different from Chinese food, I was blown away by how different it actually was. It was definitely hard to adapt to the food, which included unique things not found too much in western cuisine such as the various organs of animals, chicken feet, snake, numerous sea creatures, oxen, frogs, and yes, in some places, dog. Even the food that I was more used to such as chicken and rice tasted different. However, I did like the tea a lot (I always love tea) and I liked the Chinese banquet style of eating. In this style, people sit around a round table with a rotating glass and rotate the glass to serve themselves food. While I didn’t try any of the more interesting food specimens, my friend/roommate tried everything including dog and duck kidneys. He managed fairly well, I must say. (I guess you can say that technically eating dog is just like eating any other animal, however if you grow up in a culture where dog is not consumed, it is hard to get used to the idea of eating it; chickens were domesticated for meat and eggs but dogs were domesticated to be guardians and friends).
- English and Chinese: the rumors about interesting signs in China is true; lots of signs are mistranslated into very funny or very nonsensical English. On a slightly more serious note, very few people in Shanghai, supposedly China’s most international city, knew English, even on the college campus we were housed near. I was surprised, since I was led by numerous statistics to believe that hundreds of millions of Chinese, especially the young, were learning English.
- This leads us to the third point. How much of the new China is a façade put on to mislead foreigners? A friend of mine who spent a summer in China a couple of years ago agreed with me when I pointed out how fake a lot of the markets and tourist spots in China felt. Everything touristy was set up with cheap mass produced goods and photo booths thus depriving one of a feeling of authencity. The Chinese people also seem to be confusing becoming modern with becoming America with young people totally copying American fashions and music. However, I do think that as Chinese people grow a little tired of their newfound wealth and exposure to American culture, they will perhaps delight a little less in being fake copies of Americans, buying fake goods, and only visiting tourist spots for touristy reasons rather than appreciating their heritage. This doesn’t mean that I’m endorsing old China- there was a lot of bad stuff in feudalism and established Confucianism that the Communists rightfully got rid off. Still ironically, this exposure to new ideas is one of the things making Chinese society so vibrant today. People are suddenly being exposed to and adapting new ideas, and it may take a while for these to be absorbed into Chinese culture. This is a big reason why foreigners like China so much despite some of the linguistic and culinary shortcomings- it’s a place where ideas and cultures are currently mixing developing.
Some of the highlights from my trip:
- Pudong commercial area: this area had an especially nice building, the Shanghai World Trade Center, which has a glass floor in which you could look down several stories.
- Old Town Area of Shanghai/Yuyuan Gardens: very nice, beautiful, traditional gardens surrounded by an old town with a lot of teahouses and dumpling shops. Lots of nice shops too.
- French Concession: A part of Shanghai built by the French during the 19th century. Its distinctively Victorian style stands out in contrast to the rest of the city.
- Semiconductor Factory Visit: very good first-hand experience at industries and manufacturing in China
- Metro Center: ultra-modern and futuristic part of the city with a lot of bright lights and malls. Made me feel like I was in some sort of Sci-Fi scenario
- Jangan Buddhist Temple: my first time visiting a real Buddhist temple in a Buddhist country. Though it was very nice to be in one, the touristy feel of it was a bit annoying. Nonetheless it was really grand.
- World Expo: This was the big event happening in Shanghai. It was really awesome, with almost all the world’s countries setting up pavilions. The most amazing looking were China’s, Japan’s, and Saudi Arabia’s but the lines on these were too long. Therefore, we visited small countries here and there as well as the remaining Axis of Evil countries for fun (North Korea and Iran).
- Yangshan Port: one of the world’s largest ports. It is on an island, amazingly connected to the mainland with a 18 kilometer bridge! Here we claimed Yangshan mountain which was really refreshing
- Hangzhou: A Song Dynasty capital about two hours south of Shanghai. The temples and West Lake area of this city were very beautiful and though touristy, still had an authentic and traditional feel to them. The willows on the lake are really beautiful. Additionally, the banquet style dining in Hangzhou was really royal and amazing.
- Class: yes, I was also taking a class there. It was really interesting and I learned a lot about international economics.
So all in all, I had a very enjoyable trip. Some of the culture shock was a bit of something I had to get used to, but I think it was very important to experience living in another culture (that one’s not used to).