November 06, 2008

10 things I learnt about China

The Forbidden City, Beijing

1- The People

The habits and ways of the Chinese people are by far the most intriguing aspect to me. Squatting and spitting are as common as tea and flavoured hard-boiled eggs. Added on to this is the tiny-dog fetish (really a limit on dog size imposed on residents within the 3rd ring road in Beijing) who are treated like the little kings and queens (refer: one child policy) of the family. These pets are fattened up with so much goodness that their bodies tilt from side to side when they trotter on the streets. Let us not get started on the culinary version of dog hotpot and dog on a stick/in a meal all over the country.

I immensely enjoy listening to the verbal banter on the streets even if Shanghainese is still inaudible to me. And of course there is the ‘stop & look’ phenomena similar to KL where crowds gather in an instant upon smelling the chance of a potential verbal/physical fight on the street, or if an old peddler spreads out his admittedly shoddy goods on the steps and attempts to promote each item as ‘useful or ‘valuable’ with much vigour.

Street Market, Old Shanghai ; Puppies for Sale, Yanchang Road, Shanghai

2- Vibrant Nightlife

It’s like seeing a different side of China after the sun sets; no longer do you see the conservative-looking office workers scurrying off with oversized bags on the streets, but beautiful ladies decked out in classy/skimpy outfits complete with booty shaking moves, and a whole load of hormone-raging men who dress up but let a few buttons down the front loose. Night lights line the popular streets and provide scenery for leisurely strolls and snap-worthy shots.

Enter many bars and don’t be surprised to feel like you’re not in China at all, with large crowds of obvious laowais dominating the space. The local clubs, however, are full with underaged girls and boys who are up for a good time.. and more. Have to say that Sanlitun in Beijing is still tops for cheap drinks at places like Nanjie, Tun bar, Bar Blu and the like (RMB 10= RM 5= AUD 1.2 for a cocktail and RMB 100= RM 50 = AUD 16 for 12 shots), while Shanghai is the place to be for ladies with free drinks every single day of the week if you know where to go. For the alchoholics, open bars (all you can drink for RMB 100) are common in Muse, Bon Bon or Mural.

Bar-hopping in Sanlitun, Beijing ; Landmark Building on Nanjing Road, Shanghai

The Bund, Shanghai ; Old School Beats at Windows Bar, Shanghai

3- Glorious Food

This has to be one of the biggest treats that China can give you. . The people from Guangdong province are said to eat everything under the sun, "广东人什么都吃,天上只有飞机不吃,地下只有板凳不吃",and I have to say that an inate part of me still remembers my ancestral roots.

My favourite cuisine in particular (we’ll exclude my lifelong love with anything Indian) is Xinjiang for its ample portions of meat and its Muslim tastes that distantly remind me of Malaysian spice, Guangdong for its light and fresh tastes especially in Cantonese 点心(dimsum/yumcha), YunNan for its generous use of mushrooms and exquisite flavour, Machuria 东北 for its handmade jiaozi dumplings, Mongolian hotpot 蒙古火锅, Shanghai for its 小笼饱 (steamed dumplings with soup to suck out) and 生前饱 (same deal but pan-fried) and all the Street food 小吃 like 前饼 (flour packaged with deep-fried tofu flake), chinese pancake, 肉松饱 (meat floss pastry) found in any reasonably local area that makes for the best breakfasts!

I’ve also recently taken a unbreakable affinity to bread made of wheat/yam with a sizable piece of butter/blueberry cake nestled right in the middle of it. Unfortunately, the opportunity to sample authentic Hakka cuisine has not materialised.

Wangfujing Night Market, Beijing ; Xinjiang Noodles Maestro, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province

4- Crowd Ethics

Much like squeezing the pulp out of an orange to get its juice, taking the subway during peak hours is not for the light-hearted. I’ve slowly learnt to take it with a pinch of amusement, but sometimes I do get aggravated to the point of insanity and resort to the occasional swearing and 不要推!only to regret my outbursts afterwards. But still, where else can you see people dodge swinging armpits LOL, reading newspapers at 6cm proximity, and use their elbows for such aggressive purposes? Some youngsters practically jump into a packed train even when it is bursting at the door seams with people. There is never a lack of company anywhere in this country.

National Holiday 84,000-strong crowd per day, Summer Palace, Beijing ; Beijing Subway Station

5- Laowai Adoration

Or it may just be condescending inclinations. Always thought to be the one with the deep pockets, the whites are assailed relentlessly by beggars, peddlars, and even the regular Chinese who jump at the chance to have a piece of the foreign-looking high nose.

"Sir, you want lady?", " Lady, you want watch/handbag/wallet?", " Sir/Lady, can I have a picture with you?"

Open Market, Yanjiao, Hebei Province

6- Powderful English

People here are so modest about their proficiency in English that it amazes me. Most are competent in language, if not fluent. The lack of English interaction could be the main barrier, but even then most Chinese students are more than willing to speak out in public using a language other than their mother tongue. There are notable differences in Beijing and Shanghai, with the latter enjoying a higher level of proficiency probably explainable by the larger manifestation of foreigners in the city.

7- Travelogue

With 56 ethnic groups, differing temperates, cultures and ways of life have sprung up from the 23 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, 4 municipalities and 2 specially administrative regions (lets be nice and assume Taiwan and China have held hands). My regret is not being able to travel to 4 other parts of China: Guangdong/Fujian to reconcile my ancestry roots and see the habitat genius of the tulou 土楼,Xinjiang to experience the distictly un-Chinese culture and spice-worthy Muslim food,Tibet for the Potala Palace and to make a trip up the highlands for a grasp of tranquility and Sichuan to see the aftermath/recovery of the province and maybe to hug a baby panda.

Horse-Riding in Inner Mongolia ; Desert Boots in Inner Mongolia

AIESECers at the UN-Habitat World Urban Forum, Nanjing ; Music Concert at the top of Yuejiang Tower, Nanjing

Camel Throttle, Inner Mongolia ; Yungang Grottoes, Shanxi Province

8- Organic Growth

How far and fast China has come since the Cultural Revolution (which is another story altogether). It is the only place that warrants a visit every year because so much would have changed in that short span of time. 6 months is enough to build an edifice of 40 floors, complete with retail and recreational facilities. The Olympic Park, amongst other things, is a testament to this. The cost of living has also been accelerating in urban cities, and most will not be able to survive on less than RMB 25 a day. However, the toilet works, while immensely improved, may reek of 'smells' because toilet paper cannot be flushed down the bowl. Baby steps.

Bird's Nest the National Stadium, Beijing ; Water Cube the Aquatic Stadium, Beijing

9- Government Regulation

The Great Firewall has toned down on its operations of late, but there are of course sensitive issues that will not turn up on your search engine such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The media has opened up bit by bit, and officers who receive bribes hit the headlines in no time. Traffic lights are not meant to serve any purpose, and peeing is encouraged at the scene of crime (refer to left picture). And despite the outright ban on the presence of NGOs, AIESEC in China as a company is still one of the fastest-growing LCs in the world with a growing base of dedicated and skilled members.

10- Working culture

Sensitive Asian values coupled with crude bigtime bosses magnifies the need to be gentle but firm. Employees work to get through the hours, and the minority who dream big dreams limb the ranks. Unproductivity is quite the norm, motormouth business clinchers (没问题,没问题!) are aplenty, and the same can be said for the sometimes unintentional afternoon naps and apple breaks. Definitely an experience to take away from working in 2 of China's major cities. Event volunteers are on the other end of the sprectrum though; selfless and ever ready to help, I have always wondered how they would withstand the pain of standing the whole day while being treated like slave labour. Turns out that voluntary contribution to a large event, say Beijing Olympics or the recent UN World Urban Forum, will not only impart intrinsic pleasure, but also add value to your CV.

World Urban Forum Exhibition Centre, Nanjing ; Sitting Volleyball Work Station, Paralympic Games, Beijing

In conclusion, being an overseas Chinese with fairly near blood ties (grandpa is a Taipu Hakka that came from a certain Fuliao village in GuangDong/Fujian), I see many cultural similarities and differences between the Malaysian Chinese and Mainland Chinese. Subtle inclinations still hold strong, such as the proper respectful way of addressing elders in your extended family, and the emphasis on education and eating customs. Meanwhile, there are tangible differences moving down south.. during Chinese New Year for example, jiaozi (dumplings) is not a mainstay dish but instead we have yeesang, a communal and celebratory dish where all members of the family gather around to toast (by using chopsticks to mix the ingredients) outloud in Cantonese to the new year. Originally Malaysian.

San tai gin hong! cheong meng bak sui! lin lin gam leng!:)