Let’s start with some big numbers:
Mainland China has a population of over 1.3 billion. During the national holiday from October 1st to 7th, approximately 350 million Chinese traveled – that’s the same as the population of the US – many to the New York of China, Shanghai. Shanghai, the largest city by population in the world, has 24 million people. The Shanghai Metro averages around 7 million riders per day.
These numbers mean nothing until you try to step on Metro line 1 at the People’s Park stop on Saturday, October 4th. The two sides line up on opposite sides of the door as the train stops. The doors open. Nobody waits. Both sides rush each other and the impact feels like the engagement of two sumo wrestlers, pushing and jockeying for position until the door closing alarm sounds. The doors don’t wait for everyone to clear; at least one bag is caught in the gap before its owner wrests it free. Many of those trying to get on or off never made it.
The crush of people would be stressful even in Japan, where everyone is polite to a fault and knows how to queue; in China, a queue is simply a suggestion. In public transportation, public restrooms, convenience store checkout, left-turn lanes, everywhere: the rule is whoever can get there first. When walking, there’s no consideration to cutting off other people. (The same seems to be true when driving, but we didn’t drive so I’m not sure.) Nobody holds the door for the person entering a building behind them. To us, it feels very rude. But as our host in Shanghai, Angela, was fond of saying: “this is China.”
During our month in China, we were constantly confronted with cultural values and expectations totally dissimilar from our own, such as the lack of queuing. Some of the behavior we consider disgusting like spitting in public places. When I say spitting, I don’t mean nice, quiet spitting. Men and women alike hock loogies, noisily clearing their throat before depositing a hunk of phlegm on the ground. Then there’s the bathroom habits. Shared or public bathrooms, in particular, are treated with a total lack of any consideration toward cleanliness; in one guesthouse, the men would stand in the door of the bathroom and pee in the general direction of the squatty potty rather than walking two steps in and aiming properly. Potty-training children wear pants with a slit in the crotch that leaves their little butt hanging out. When they have to go, their parents will find them a place right on the sidewalk or in a trash can – either #1 or #2. A small boy almost peed on Jacque’s feet in one town square. (His mom did warn her, to be fair.)
Other Chinese cultural foibles are more endearing. Our first night in China, we bought two bananas from a street vendor for breakfast. Elsewhere in Asia, everyone uses two hands to indicate numbers 1-10, but the vendor held up his right hand with index finger in the shape of a hook to tell us the price. We were dumbfounded and stood gaping. We had no clue what he was trying to communicate. I hadn’t learned the words for numbers in Chinese yet – it was our first day, after all – and here he was, breaking every rule of international sign language that I knew. A friendly passerby informed us that he was asking for nine yuan. It turns out that the Chinese have entirely different hand symbols for the numbers 6-10 that use only one hand. Surprisingly, the hand symbols vary by region of China as well, which led to several confusing exchanges when we left Shanghai for the southwest part of the country.
Beyond the hand symbols, the Mandarin language is different than ours on a very basic level with its four tones. Although we use tones in English – think of the way you say “what?”, a rising tone, versus “stop!”, a falling tone – we use them in different ways. If English were widespread in China as it is in India, there would be no issue. But few Chinese speak English. The practical upshot of this is that learning and using the tones whenever possible is critical for communication. Forcing my brain to think about words in a new way was a challenging mind-bender. Every once in a while, I would get it right; the reaction from Chinese when I did was gratifying as they don’t expect Westerners to speak their language at all.
The directness of the people in China can also be surprising. In the West, we generally attach a lot of niceties to our interactions with, for example, checkout clerks at a store. We may ask how their day is, say please and thank you, or talk about the weather in addition to asking the price. In China, the interaction is much simpler, with only the necessary words to complete the transaction. The same is true of waiters, ticket sellers, and taxi drivers. This frankness in interactions extends to people on the street; often, we would receive stares from those walking the other direction, without so much as a smile to soften the stare. This doesn’t seem to be considered rude in China. Some people would even take pictures of us with their smartphones without asking, although many did ask permission and step in the picture with us. A young woman once took a picture of Jacque as we passed each other in opposite directions on the escalator. Jacque kindly gave her a smile and a peace sign.
The food was the most fun cultural experience in China, as it usually is in any country. There were, of course, totally strange foods – chicken feet, sea cucumbers, donkey soup, or fish eyes, anyone? – but mostly there were normal ingredients prepared in different ways. By the end of our time in China, we craved the local breakfast food, bao zi. Bao zi are steamed-bun dumplings filled with pork, cabbage, and sometimes other vegetables. The best ones we found were in Xiangcheng, a dusty, out-of-the-way town in Yunnan province. My favorite discovery, though, was the numbing Sichuan peppers. It’s rare to have a completely new sensation when eating after 31 years on the planet, but these were unfamiliar. The peppers were about the size of a black peppercorn; eating one or two by themselves numbs the mouth in a sensation similar to a shot of novocain. When prepared in a dish, the peppers lend a unique cooling feeling that I’ve never felt before or since. Sichuan cooking was a treat beyond the numbing peppers, too, with flavors that Chinese restaurants back home can’t reproduce. Going out for Sichuan hot pot with a big group is an experience any visitor to China should have.
When traveling, we tend to remember the big events. The long hike, the beautiful temple, the elephant preserve: these are the highlights that our brain seems to naturally consider important. Oddly, though, the big events are not where the magic of travel exists. The magic of travel exists in the microscopic daily interactions with a set of cultural values and expectations completely unlike your own. In the struggle for basic daily needs, we are forced to deal with the mental equivalent of Sichuan numbing peppers. There is a new set of assumptions that underlie every interaction, giving our brains a shakeup after a lifetime of the same assumptions, pushing our lazy mind into a state of flexibility like a child’s. We begin to approach each day with a fresher slate, allowing room for the unexpected. And in China, a place with which we have very little shared cultural history, the unexpected is everywhere. Yet the mind adjusts, revealing its amazing adaptability, and the unexpected slowly becomes the daily routine. As we left China, we pushed our way onto the crowded Beijing metro like locals and craved bao zi rather than an omelette for breakfast. Travel worked its magic, as always, finding ways to pull our brain in new directions by a thousand small tests of our basic assumptions.