A couple years ago (Nov. 2011) I had the opportunity to go to China for about a week for work. My itinerary was to spend a couple days in Shanghai, followed by a few days in Beijing, and then return home. I flew out there by myself, but then met up with a couple other guys from work (two Brits and a Swede) as well as our host from Hong Kong.
In order to cut down on the cost to get to China, I ended up flying from Atlanta to Los Angeles, then from Los Angeles to Seoul, then from Seoul to Shanghai. I left Atlanta in the early evening on a Sunday and flew out to Los Angeles. When I got there I was already exhausted, but I became even more tired when I realized that I had to leave the domestic terminal, walk along the airport road, and then re-enter the airport in the international terminal for the flight to Seoul. By the time I got through security again, the only restaurant that was open was a hotdog bar. I ended up eating a hotdog covered with a seemingly phosphorescent green relish. It was the most amazingly manufactured color of green I had ever seen, but I was so hungry that I ate it anyway.
I boarded the flight to Seoul and slept most of the way there. I landed in the early hours of Tuesday morning (since I crossed the international date line). One interesting thing that I noticed when entering the terminal after deplaning was that the welcome signs for the airport had both the South Korean and the US flag on them, at the same level. The word “welcome” was written in the middle with the flags of both countries on either side. It seemed to me that they liked Americans.
This feeling reoccured to me later as well. I found a place in the airport that rented showers. My first meeting in China was going to be at 9am local time, so I wanted to get cleaned up before arriving in China. So, I went to rent a shower, but the attendant did not charge me, which was nice. After getting cleaned up, I found a place to eat breakfast and then boarded my next flight to Shanghai.
After arriving in Shanghai I went to go through the passport control area to officially enter the country. I didn’t know what to expect. I found it humorous, though, when I got to the passport control area and saw signs everywhere asking for “customer reviews.” The officials wanted to know how they were doing and wanted feedback. In fact, at the passport control booth where the agent looked at my passport and visa, I noticed that there were three “voting” buttons where I could provide feedback regarding the service I was receiving. One button had a big smiley face, another had a frown, and another had a neutral look. I selected the big smiley face and was on my way.
I took a taxi from the airport directly to the office. I had printouts of maps from the airport to the office and from the office to the hotel, so I was able to show the cab driver the Chinese address of where I was going. The cab drive and everything else in China was amazingly cheap. I noticed that all the road signs were written in both Chinese and English, which I thought was interesting. There was a mixture of cars, some old, but a lot of newer luxury cars.
The cab drivers in Shanghai drove like they were in a race. They also used the horn to good effect. In Shanghai, to honk at someone was not to express displeasure; instead, it was just to let someone know you were there. So, before you passed someone or cut them you, you’d honk so that they’d know you were coming. There was honking everywhere. After a while it became somewhat comical to be riding in a cab that was weaving in and out of traffic and honking all the while. One day while I was riding with the two British guys, we saw a sign that looked like a bugle with a line drawn through it. It obviously meant “no honking,” but since the picture on the sign looked like a bugle we joked that we were in a “no bugling” zone.
So, each morning I headed to the office in a cab, and each evening we would all go out to eat somewhere. I especially remember one particular restaurant. It had a long central hallway with private rooms off to the side. Within each private room was a large round table with a rotating glass surface on top (like a “lazy Susan”). Plates and bowls of food were placed on this glass, and then throughout the meal diners could rotate it to get to the food they wanted. Most of the places I ate at in China were this way, except for the “Western” style restaurants which had the normal table layout that we are used to here.
So, this one night we ate in one of these private dining rooms with about eight of my Chinese co-workers, the two Brits, the Swede, and myself. I felt bad for one of the Brits, because he was a vegetarian and just about everything we were served was some sort of meat. The Chinese found it humorous to get us to eat food that was a little more exotic than we’re used to. I ate a slice of donkey, and the chicken that was served was whole (beak, head, arms, legs, etc…).
What I found most interesting, though, was the drinks that they served. The servers would bring by 2 liter bottles of Pepsi and serve it in wine glasses. They also served a lot of orange juice and watermelon juice. There was also the local Chinese beer, and wine and other drinks were available. Pepsi and juice seemed to be the popular mainstay, though. I also discovered the purpose of tea while I was in China. It never occurred to me before that tea was a flavoring for hot water that had been boiled to kill any organisms that might be living in it. I was expressly told by my Chinese colleagues not to drink the tap water, so I drank a lot of tea during the days and beer with dinner (finally understanding the purpose of the Lager as well).
After a few days in Shanghai, the Swede and myself, as well as our Hong Kong host, flew from Shanghai to Beijing. I was told in advance that we would find that Beijing operated at a slower pace, and that was definitely borne out. Whereas Shanghai was all a honking fury of speed and commerce, Beijing was quieter with less bustle. Whereas the people in Shanghai were more willing to talk about politics and religion, the people in Beijing seemed a little more reserved.
In fact, during our group dinner in Shanghai, the Chinese guys spoke a lot about both Chinese and US politics. They were following the US presidential race closely, knew who the candidates were, and asked many questions. We had quite a fun time talking about which regions of China they were from and what part of the United States I was from, and the differences between different parts of China and different parts of the US. They explained the various types of cuisine in China (and jokingly explained that the food in Shanghai is not considered “cuisine” in China). I explained the different types of accents in the US, which they found very humorous. We also joked about the differences between American English and British English.
They also talked about Jesus and gave their opinion that what is wrong with China is the unbridled drive for wealth. They felt that they had lost something of their soul in the quest to get rich. In fact, they said that getting rich is all that most people care about and that they need Jesus instead. Politically, they felt that they were free to express their political opinions, but not directly criticize the government. In the closed confines of our private dining room, without the waitresses present, they would be quite open about their thoughts. They joked about how if I didn’t see them in the morning, that meant they got hauled away to the re-education camps.
They re-itereated over and over again about how much they like America and how they want their country to be like America. They said that they watch America closely and try to mimic us; this was evident in their knowledge of our economy and politics. They knew much more about my country than I knew about theirs. I was able to make inroads, though, by demonstrating some knowledge of China (I had taken a course on China as an undergrad), so I was able to talk about Mao and Chang Kai-shek, among other things. They considered China to be like a little brother to the US and explained that they looked up to our country in this way. From these discussions, I got the sense that some of our own apprehensions about China come from misunderstanding their intentions. Everyone I met in China loved the US and I was treated like a king there, much more so than were my British and Swedish traveling companions. When we dined as a group the entire discussion revolved around China and the US.
One humorous incident typifies this experience. At dinner one night I was sitting to the right of the Swede. We were both drinking the local beer. Every time I would drink a sip of mine, the waitress would rush over and re-fill my glass. He would drink his entire glass, though, and not get a re-fill. I finally had to ask the waitress to refill his glass for him. Days later when we were in the airport in Beijing, eating breakfast before our flights home, we both ordered toast. He speficically asked for butter with his toast, but when the waitress brought our toast, only mine had butter. He said, “I didn’t get my butter.” With a smile I said, “I got my butter.” To this he replied, “Of course you did.”
The only Chinese phrases I knew were “xie xie” (thank you) and “ni hao” (hello), and the only reason I even knew these phrases was because my daughter used to watch a cartoon on TV called “Ni Hao Kai Lan.” But, knowing just these two phrases really helped my travels in China. Little things go a long way sometimes, and being able to say “hello” and “thank you” in the local language really helps.
Going to China was a wonderful experience. It was totally different than what I expected, in a good way. I got to see the Olympic complex in Beijing (the photo on this blog post was taken there, with me and a Chinese version of Mickey Mouse) as well as a shopping mall in Beijing that had a Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops skeleton set up in a fight pose. China has a mix of the traditional and modern, of East and West: I ate at restaurants with dead chickens hanging from the kitchen ceiling and then later perused an Apple store and got coffee at Starbucks.
Flying back I connected through Tokyo, where I saw a woman dressed as a Geisha in the airport. I also got to eat Japanese food for lunch, which was a nice break from Chinese food. When I finally arrived back home in Atlanta the first meal I ate was steak and potatoes.
Here’s the highlights of what I learned from my visit to China:
– Everything was really inexpensive. One night we stopped off at the Olympic complex in Beijing on the way to dinner and asked our cab driver to wait for us. We walked around for nearly an hour and it only cost us an extra $2 US.
– The people were really friendly and nice. They were interested in the United States and, at least in Shanghai, willing to talk openly about politics and religion.
– I didn’t know what to expect before I went. In America you hear about Communist China, but what I saw in China was unbridled capitalism. There was construction everywhere, new cars, nice shopping centers, and nice restaurants. My host from Hong Kong explained also that the purpose of the big meals that they served us at restaurants was to show how China has “made it” on the world stage; they wanted to show us Westerners their prosperity. I also noticed that when we ate at the restaurants there was never any rice served. My Hong Kong host explained that they eat rice a lot at home, so when they go out they don’t order it.
– There was an odd mix of old and new, East and West, as I mentioned earlier. One night, one of my Chinese colleagues picked me up in his car to take me to a restaurant for dinner. His car had Snoopy seat covers on every seat.
– The people there work really hard. My Chinese colleagues worked longer hours than myself and were willing to have calls with US-based employees at times convenient to the US. When back in the US, I would often have 8am calls with them, which meant that it was 8pm their time.
– I encountered the internet blocking that we often hear about in China (i.e. the “Great Firewall of China”). From my laptop, I could not get to Facebook or certain other news sites. I could get to Facebook via the app on my phone, though. But, certain US-based news sites that I attempted to go to were blocked, and I’d receive a message on my screen that the site was forbidden.
– China was a great place to visit and the country has a lot of potential. They have a stable political system with some level of representation, as well as a growing legal system and a sense of rule by law. They also have a large, hard-working populace. I expect that over time the political system will be forced to change as the people demand more of a say in their country’s affairs.