Not my temple of heaven
Keeping the kids in line
The Soviets were here too
I wanted to write about how cool Shanghai is. How it is everything Beijing
isn’t; cosmopolitan, liberal, exciting, and filled with foreigners, but
I’m not. Shanghai is cool all right, and almost Hong Kong, almost. As it
isn’t Hong Kong, I’m not sticking around, I’m heading south to the real
deal and getting outta the PRC.
Why? Because this past week, I came to realize something that I felt
earlier but I really didn’t want to admit; I don’t like China. At first,
I though I was unhappy here because of the language barrier. In Russia, I
could do anything and go anywhere cuz I could just ask a local for help.
Here in China, if I speak English to someone who doesn’t, they show their
abhorrence to the language by making a face like I just spit on ’em as
they back away.
Of course, I felt the cultural difference instantly and I tried to
assimilate into it. I wanted to adapt to the new land so as not to be so
obviously a foreigner but in China, my Anglo looks mark me in any crowd as
the ‘laowai.’ I am excused from many of the Chinese customs that
I am ignorant of, but in exchange, I am also excluded from daily life.
Officially, I’m not allowed to live with Chinese and they are not allowed
to visit me in my ‘approved’ apartment, since doing either would
‘contaminate’ the locals.
I could breech both the language and cultural barriers if I really
wanted to, but to do so I would need to find the underlying people worthy
of my efforts. Unfortunately, I don’t. A complete lack of independence,
individualism, and independence here conflicts with my basic Western
values. Chinese love to do things in a group, and with 1.2 billion people,
ya kinda have to, but that doesn’t mean I like it.
Every Chinese will tell you that they always follow their parent’s
lead, never thinking of rebelling like I did and any good Western teenager
will, and take this obedience to authority into every aspect of their
life. After the freedoms of America and the lawlessness of Russia, I find
the blind submission to the Man incomprehensible. Finally, my ideas of
independent thoughts, travels, and actions get nothing but looks of shock,
head shakes of disagreement, and on a few occasions, screaming police.
I could forgive the people for all this, and continue to spread my
corrupting ideas, if anyone would listen. I am an extreme extrovert,
loving every second of my interactions with peoples everywhere, well,
everywhere there are other extroverts who wanna play too. China, I feel,
is a nation of introverts. Always looking inward, they want the outside
world to leave ’em alone. In 5,000 years of history, when did they ever
build a boat and go check out the rest of the world?
The Turks walked from Istanbul to Beijing on the Silk Road, but the
Chinese stayed home. The Mongolian Kublai Kan rode with his horse army to
Hungary before invading China and inviting Marco Polo to wander around his
kingdom. The Portuguese and British sailed all the way from Europe to
start Macau, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, the most dynamic cities in China.
What did the Chinese do all this time? Retreat into their hutongs and
wait for each period to pass. Actually, I find these hutongs to be a
perfect physical manifestation of their mental situation. Three or four
houses, all with windows and doors only facing a common courtyard and
surrounded by a thick wall with only one opening, define the classic
hutong. This inward looking domicile, stressing interaction only with
relatives and excluding any outside influences, is exactly how I picture
Chinese mentality. Yes, this is a gross generalization subject to millions
of exceptions, but probably a billion fine examples of why I don’t like
If you’re still following my thoughts, you can help me answer a
question I’m currently struggling with: Can I dislike country?
I love traveling the world, and I try to be open to all manner of new
ideas and situations, but so far, I’m hard pressed to stay positive about
China. I know there are specific people, places, and things I abhor, but
can I disapprove of an entire nation? If I really do dislike this country,
am I still a decent human? Will ya’ll still accept (and read) me if I say
that I never wish to return to the Middle Kingdom? Will I still be a cool
traveler if I don’t wanna ruin my lungs on Beijing smog? Will all the
friends I’ve made in Beijing and Shanghai still speak to me if I dis their
ancestral or adopted homeland?
I’m still wrestling with this question as I head for the only Western
outpost in the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, where people think,
act, feel, live, and breathe freedom. Email
me, and let me know what you think of my Chinese dilemma.