China was my first foray into Asia. And I must admit: I was a bit terrified. Never before had I been anywhere so different than what I’m used to. Up until this trip, Morocco and Jordan had been the most exotic places I’d ventured to, and despite being in the Middle East and Arab countries, they weren’t all too terrifying – mainly because they really appreciate the tourism, enough people speak a bit of English there, and I’m at least comfortable with the food selection (no pork, extra falafel!) But China – well, China is a whole different bag.
Despite a population of 1.4 billion, it’s a bit difficult to blend in in China if you’re white. I stood out more than the Grand Wizard at an NAACP conference… or more than a male at a lesbian bar (unless the man looks like a lesbian)… or more than me in a church. Frightening. Then, as if you don’t already feel awkward enough, add a few hazards and annoyances to the mix to make you totally paranoid. Our amazing tour guide, Deona, took a good hour+ to warn us all of the dangers of China on our first night in town. She really set the bar low.
Pollution. You hear about it, but you haven’t experienced anything remotely polluted until you’ve visited China. You know how there’s a stereotype that Asian people always wear masks? Well, many of them do – and I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with spreading germs and everything to do with trying to avoid pollution. The sky was gray/brown – sepia maybe – every day of the trip. There was no blue sky. There weren’t really any clouds up there. Everything was obscured by a thick layer of smog. Go on, look at the sun! Even use binoculars! It won’t do a damn thing to your eyes because there’s so much pollution between you and the sky. Pictures to follow. That leads me to… spitting…
Chinese people love to spit. They spit a lot. And everywhere. And loudly. It’s pretty gross to be honest. I mean, I’m totally guilty of spitting at home in the bathroom every morning – and occasionally you may have to spit on the street in dire circumstances – but you do your best to muffle the noise, right? … Wrong. Not in China. Loud and proud, baby! Hock that loogie as far as you can! One of the big campaigns to clean up Beijing before the Olympics involved a big “no spitting” campaign – of which signs still exist today – even in Shanghai too. Now, after one night of being in Beijing – the most polluted of the four mainland Chinese cities that I went to – I must say that my phlegm came up… red… and black. Pretty fucking disgusting. And when I blew my nose, my boogers were black too. Now, this may seem like way too much personal information, but I’m only telling you this to demonstrate how fucking polluted the country is. My throat was burning. I think I now know why they spit so much…
Now, spitting is one thing, but don’t rule out pissing and shitting on the streets too. Especially children. Parents love to let their kids piss and shit on the street – right on the corner – even in a busy, touristy area of Shanghai! And then they stand there, blocking the goddamn sidewalk, wiping up their child’s poopy ass. Haha…. I wish I was joking. Maybe it has something to do with the toilets.
The toilets are… not western toilets. They are eastern toilets, or squat toilets (i.e. holes in the ground). Now, there is something to be said about not having to touch anything in the bathroom, but there is also something to be said about aim. I was unfortunate enough to peer into a few squatter stalls in various locations while I was looking for that one elusive western toilet that most locations keep hidden away for the handicapped or westerners. And after seeing some of the mess, and smelling some of the smell, I must say that I don’t trust my ability to squat without falling, thus I refused to use a squat toilet. There takes quite a bit of planning around not using squat toilets – especially when a 14 hour train ride is involved – but I must say that it can be done (mainly because I’m a trooper). All it takes are a few precisely timed, small-sized meals leading up to and during the train ride. And speaking of meals…
Food! This was one of the scariest things for me as my tour book advised me that I was going to end up eating pork in China whether I realized it or not. Fun. I’m not quite sure of what I was eating some of the time, but luckily our tour guide was helpful with ordering and knew exactly what I would and wouldn’t eat. But it was tricky when we were on our own. I ordered a chicken dish the first night which I’m pretty sure ended up having pork in it. Luckily it came with steamed rice so I just ate that instead. Then we went to a noodle restaurant which had English translations, but those don’t always tell the whole story. The only thing on the menu for me was the vegetarian noodle soup. From looking at the picture, something didn’t look right. Our waitress spoke a little English and it quickly came to light that the vegetarian soup came in prawn broth. English translations and pictures really weren’t that helpful.
If the pollution, foul toilets, and food won’t kill you, then the traffic surely will. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death of people age 45 and younger in China. Allow me to repeat that: TRAFFIC IS THE LEADING CAUSE OF DEATH OF PEOPLE AGE 45 AND YOUNGER IN CHINA. Fucking crazy, eh? It is estimated that more than 600 people die in traffic accidents every day. It makes sense to me. There are really no rules on the road. Turn signal? Who needs that? Stopping at a stop sign? Pish! Obeying the lights at the intersection? Well, I deserve to go now despite it being a red light, so I’ll just drive into the middle of the intersection. And if you’re on a motorcycle, don’t dare wear a helmet. And if you’re on a bicycle, feel free to hop onto a major highway with all of the cars. And once again, leave that helmet at home.
For pedestrians, you need to look all ways before crossing the street – and then look again. If you wait for the crosswalk light to turn green and the cars to stop coming then you’re going to be waiting for a hell of a long time. It won’t happen. Just run… run as quickly yet as safely as you can as soon as you see a time when you think you can cross without getting killed. Put your hand up to alert cars to stop. That might help. Don’t forget to check the sidewalks, because cars might be coming from there too… like the one that we saw on our first night in Beijing. He just drove up onto the sidewalk because he didn’t feel like taking the road. Driving along… people running out of the way… typical evening in Beijing. And don’t even get me started on the drivers in Xi’an. Luckily, there is one thing with transport that the Chinese do remarkably well: subway systems. Despite being crowded, they are fast, cheap, and easy (insert “yo mama” joke here!) I figured out how to use the subways in Beijing and Shanghai faster that I did the first time I used the subways in New York, Washington DC, Chicago… or anywhere really. The signs were in English and it was all very self-explanatory. Ok, China – you get 1 point.
But I’ll take that point away because of the pickpockets (all surely to be Muslims as we were warned) and shifty store owners who invite you in to haggle and then lock the doors until you pay them big. Luckily, none of this happened to me or anyone else on my trip. Overall, the China trip was actually pretty incredible. The week long organized tour of Beijing, Xi’an, Hangzhou, and Shanghai was full on and I saw so many things that I would have never gotten to see had I tried to plan it on my own. Spending some additional time in Shanghai with my mates, Ross and Jonathon, allowed me to see a different side to China. And Macau and Hong Kong on my own were the perfect blends of western comforts and eastern culture. The most important thing: I held up fabulously. I ate – some meals more than others, but I ate – and I didn’t have any notable shituations with a toilet or an upset stomach (Shituations, get it? Thanks, Jenny, for that amazing word!) I had nothing stolen and I didn’t get hit by any cars. Our hotels were clean and nice (though I must say that Chinese mattresses are like big blocks of concrete) and our tour group was quite fun. So, Phill’s first trip to Asia: complete success!
I’ll be blogging more about each of the cities I visited in the days to come. In addition, I’ll devote some posts to other China-related topics like Chinglish, the world’s funniest language! Keep an eye out.
p.s. Bonus points to anyone who can tell me what the title to this post is referencing. You can use your bonus points to purchase exciting things like… my eternal love and affection… (until you inevitably piss me off).