China: What was that all about then?

16:01 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

I'm sat drinking milky tea, with Sky Sports News on the TV and rain drumming on the windows. I'm back home in England. I've survived 18 months of adventures, frustrations and life-lessons in China. Now I'm back in the land of Coronation Street and sausage rolls, I can reflect upon my experiences a little more objectively.

My last few weeks in China were pretty horrible. I hadn't seen family in over a year and I was incredibly homesick. Once, I would have laughed off the chaos, pollution and lack of hygiene but China had continually chipped away at my patience and left me with nothing. I'm not exaggerating when I say China is a difficult place to live. Even the most simple tasks are made complicated. In Jinan on my last day, I wasted over two hours of my life trying to exchange my Chinese savings for British cash (all the while being gawped at by curious Chinese) and left the bank empty handed. A currency exchange at Amsterdam Schipol airport took 30 seconds. I was just sick of everything in China. The sweat, the noise, the smells, the staring, the stomach aches. I'm a laowai, get me out of here!

There are a few different types of foreigners in China. There are some sexpats and drifters but mainly, its people who are into Chinese culture/language and people enjoying some extended travel. I moved to China to experience a different culture to my own. I wasn't particularly into China unlike friends of mine who were fluent or who had studied Chinese politics. In hindsight, I was probably looking to learn about my own culture from afar, just as much as I wanted to learn about something new. Once I'd achieved my goals in China - to learn the language, to become a decent teacher and to travel to exotic places - I no longer had the desire to live in such a hectic place and it was time to get back to Blighty.

Looking back, there are so many things I loved about China. One of my favourite things to do was go for a run in the park. The park was a pocket of green in a city of grey. At any time of day, the park would be full of people. Young families taking photos, grannies dancing and singing and a few old men doing Tai Chi with faux-swords. I'd look to my left and see a group of men playing Chinese Chess and to my right kids would be playing ping pong. Behind me people would be singing Beijing Opera and ahead someone was plucking away at a pipa (chinese guitar thingy). For me, it was a microcosm of the best bits of China.

I've never seen such a bunch of athletic pensioners. Everywhere they are stretching, walking and exercising. They are all the motivation someone needs to stay healthy. At the other end of life's scale, my students made my job funny and rewarding. It goes without saying that I loved the food, the exotic travel and the endless cups of tea. I found Chinese history fascinating (and so does George RR Martin judging by the amount of narratives he borrowed for Game of Thrones) and when I got a few hours to myself I loved to sit down and watch a Chinese war epic.

I learnt so much about China. I taught myself a little Mandarin Chinese and some Buddhism. I tried to get my head around mianzi (face) and guangxi (relationships). I even picked up a few drinking games. But there are just some things I'll never understand about China.

Treatment of Animals
Chinese culture revers animals. The Chinese calendar is divided into 12 segments each named after a different animal. The animal characteristics are used to describe human personalities. Chinese kung fu is based upon animal movement and the fighting styles are developed to mimic different animals, whether its a Praying Mantis or Eagle Claw. Yet, animals are treated terribly in China. Dogs are shaved to look like lions, cats are kept caged in car parks and baby crocodiles are on sale at night markets. Chairman Mao once blamed the famine on the birds, so everyone went out and killed them and now the skies are empty. The only time an animal seemed cared for was at the Panda Research Centre but even there, you can pay a wedge of cash and have a photo with some terrified panda cub. It's just not on.

The Chinese have developed their own medicine system (Traditional Chinese Medicine) over thousands of years. They have treatments for absolutely everything. The TCM physicians can hold your wrist for a few seconds and correctly diagnose a liver condition. The Chinese obviously care about their health. So why does the general public allow others to go to the bathroom in the street, in rubbish bins and on subway trains?

Counterfeit Culture
A quick search on Wikipedia credits Chinese inventors with hundreds inventions, including paper, the compass, gunpowder and printing. Throughout history, Chinese people have been bright, creative and industrious. But today, the Chinese economy built round counterfeiting everything from designer handbags to whole cities (see Tianduchung). If only they wanted to create something new. Even their average cities are poor rip-offs of failing western cities. From my professional point of view, I think its terrible that China just imports the worst of western City Design (highways, sprawl, towerblocks) when it has the money and power to learn from the west's mistakes. They could have done something so much better, if only they wanted to.

I'm not the first person to go to China and be baffled. I think if you're western and you think you get China, you're probably kidding yourself. And that is probably what is so great about the country. You are always going to learn something new, discover a fascinating story or just be down-right amazed.

Living in China was sometimes traumatic but always worthwhile. I could have stayed at home in my comfort zone and close my eyes to what's out there. Instead, I got involved and I've been exposed to so many things I couldn't even imagine. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I'll still watch the films, eat the food and learn the language. I'll even visit China again in the future but after everything, there simply wasn't a better feeling than arriving home.

Dancing on the streets of Jinan

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