China 2006

Content

Why China?
the travel guide says
Emotions and Expectations
First impressions
China is big!
The Capability
To Study
Tea
Food
Religion
Chinese language
Chinese are Germans
sum up
Thanks to Nanfen

  

Why China?

Well, what made me go to China? China is emerging as one of the big global players and so at least German newspapers are full of China here and China there. Everyday there’s a story: “China the tough market”, “Red Dragon attacking German companies with its cheap goods”, “Experiences of a German who moved there for some months”, “Growing economy destroys nature”, “China – where all sheep are black”, “Best shopping malls in Shanghai”, “Hottest tourist spots in China”, “China conquers: in economy, in science, and with its army”, “Communism = Capitalism = China?”
But on the other hand I know pretty few people who ever went to China for a deeper insight. I was very curious: How is China? How does it smell? So? Let’s go there and have a look!
In addition to that I have my good friend Nanfen living over there – and that’s always a good reason to go there! :-)
  

the travel guide says

It’s really going to be an intense experience. The book confronted me with some facts like:

  1. Chinese only accept foreigners, because they want their money. (Obvious, but one can put this in a nice and a not so nice way. Obviously I don’t want to be seen as a walking wallet.)
  2. Some things are just strict and unfair (Hotels don’t accept you for the cheap room as long as not all expensive ones are sold out. Some hotels are just not allowed to take foreigners. etc.)
  3. Unfortunately complaining in an outrageous way and getting angry makes you loose your face and then you’ve lost any chance.
  4. According to the book you either accept the difference and make the best out of it, or you will not enjoy it at all, be angry and return very frustrated.

It’s the first time I am going to far east Asia and as it seems it will not be too easy to get along. Even more than before I am now looking forward to this trip. How challenging will it be?

  

Emotions and Expectations

This week was really packed with work. Last night I’ve been dreaming about how to improve the performance of an application I just test in the office. I think now it is obvious that I need holidays.

after I read a bit in the travel guide I collected some feelings about China:

  • Maybe my first contact with China was at the age of 10 when small Flo was sitting in his room and listening to the stories of “Jim Knopf und Lukas dem Lokomotivführer”. In one of their adventures they are heading to China and meet the Chinese emperor. Actually I remember it as if all Chinese are actually young girls of maybe 12 years. And all happens in a pretty pling-pling, soft, fluffy, white and airy atmosphere.
  • Another emotion is from the point of a spectator, admirer and adventurer – from the point of view of Marco Polo. A couple of years ago I read two books about his trip to China where he was out in the country as well as a friend of Kubilai Khan. I read about his adventures, his meetings and discussions, him admiring the fireworks, the astronomy, the strict organisation and many other things.
  • Actually since I read about it in the newspaper I don’t like Chinese for their unfair knowledge-soaking if somebody wants to enter the market. I mean the joint-ventures foreign companies have to set up which have the goal of transporting the knowledge into the Chinese company to first copy the product and later become a full competitor of the foreign company.
  • And as it seems right now it’s going to be the same money-soaking if a foreigner wants to travel around in China. Turbo-capitalism at its best.
  • The last two points raise the question if and what there is still left of the Chinese culture. Oh, and what the Chinese culture exactly is. I mean apart from not loosing once face – what for sure is not my favorite part.

Actually I already thought what happened to me to be so stupid to just book a flight to China. Maybe I am not going to like it at all. Maybe it’s just too much. I could have chosen to go to Latin America again – enjoy the nice people, the nice beaches and the good weather. But now I fly to China with a weather even worse than in Germany and the experience probably going to be a nightmare?

  

First impressions

The very first thought when leaving the anonymous airport was: “Oh man! It’s much too cold here! Why didn’t I go to a warm place on holidays!?” But, hey, I am here because of the culture, because I want to get to know China, the people, the ideas and anyway feeling cold is just a matter of wrong cloth! Ah, yes, ok, got it.

So my second impression was that China is a pretty developed country. Everywhere there are many cars in good shape, well kept roads and highways, busy people in nice dresses etc. I was staying in the Haidian district of Beijing and I was kind of shocked: There are 4 lanes for cars plus on full-sized lane for bicycles for each direction. The entire street is full of cars and busses a few bicyclists and some people walking around. Next to the road, glass-and-steel skyscrapers complete the scenery.
Where is the communism? Where is the gray and dirty underdeveloped poor China? Where are the 5000 years of tradition?
Later I found relicts of all that, but nevertheless I was a bit surprised.

  

China is big!

I mean it is really big. It is not a country. It is a continent. It is almost as big as Europe and has almost double the amount of inhabitants.
You can feel this when walking around in Beijing too: One block is about 3 kilometers long – in Munich its maybe 100m. From Haidian which still is in the city of Beijing you enjoy a one hour bus ride to the center – in Munich it would be 15 minutes. You drive around in Beijing and it’s full of houses and skyscrapers and houses and office blocks… imagine how many people you need to fill all these houses – yes, 15 million people.

China has its famous great wall (actually it’s not one wall, but maybe 5-10 walls connected or in parallel). This wall is 10.000 kilometers long. How many soldiers do you need to defend such a long wall? Millions! I was shocked and Nanfen said “Well, Flo you see in China we never had a problem of too few people.”

But what does it mean to be one of 1.300.000.000 people? It means you’re never alone. It means you have to queue – for example for half an hour in the train station at 6 am in the morning. But it also means that you are tiny and unimportant. For example when looking for a job. Or when you just want to break out of the system. The market is big enough to replace you in a second. The person is nothing – the group, the company, the country is everything. Sounds like a good communist plan.

  

The Capability

Where for one person it might be hard some times to have so many countrymen, for companies and for the government it opens many opportunities.
Let’s say we want to build a 100 km watering channel. No problem, put together some 500 engineers and 50.000 construction site workers. What? There are no machines available? No problem, so we add another 50.000 workers.
Let’s say we are Beijing and will host the Olympic Games in 2008. To do so we should have a complete metro system. Now we only have two lines. Ok, so we just build another six new lines in the next couple of years. We need 100 engineers per line so 600 in total. Ok, no problem, here you go.

Of course huge amount of cheap workforce is not the only thing you need to get something done. But for some parts you can easily replace other resources (machines or knowledge and experience for example) by manpower. Another thing which helps to get things done is a strong lead and few protection rights for the people.
This brings for example the government in the position to just say: Let’s build the biggest dam in the world! Put together some 1.000 engineers to make a plan. The people in the to be flooded area protest a bit, but in the end will just be moved. And in the end they just send out some thousand construction site workers and soon it’s just done. In Germany first there will be 15 years of public protest in demonstrations and all sorts of courts. This is not only time consuming but also very expensive. As a result of all that you end up changing your initial plan to have a much smaller dam which now includes a bridge for the fishes to bypass it and the people who lived in the to be flooded area end up with golden roofs on their new houses. After 20 years you finally start with the construction. This means there will be 100 machines on the site and 10 people – and in the weekends there will be nobody. Of course this has advantages too and I don’t want for example a highway to be constructed just next to my house.
So to sum all this up: This is the most impressing thing for me about China: The capability to realize something. Today we decide something, tomorrow we think on how to do it the best way and the day after tomorrow we just get it done. The pure power to do things as you want (if you’re the government).

  

To Study

In German universities if there are Chinese students they typically sit in the first row. Then there are 1-3 empty rows and then there are the German students. I always thought about what makes the Chinese sit there? And why do they copy down every single word the professor says? Why are they so focused on their studies?
Here are the reasons I found:

  • Sorry, if I bore you with the topic, but once again it is because there are many people. And many people means many competitors.
  • To make this above even worse there are many rankings. In particular there are state and countrywide olympics for the different subjects (Math, English, Spelling, etc). Plus there are rankings within your class/grade. So your actual marks are not that important. What is important is if you’re in the top 10%, 20% or at least in the upper half. If you are at the lower end, you and your parents will be in trouble. Fortunately there another ranking comes in handy: The ranking of those who increased the most.
    In all schools I attended there was no official ranking. In Germany they’re even discussing to get rid of the marks till the 4th grade. And, at least in high school and college, to be cool you had to have bad marks. In students end-of-year parties those with the worst marks got free drinks. Having good marks most of the time was something you don’t really mention loud.
  • Many families in China only have one child. So this one child has to be their star. Has to fulfill their dreams of a perfect child. All their love and all their hope go into this one single child. In case there is more than one child in the family typically still only one child can be sent to the university as of the costs. So the family does an internal ranking of the children and the most promising one is sent to the university. Sometimes even entire villages put their money together to be able to send one child to the university. If I imagine that I am the hope of my entire village, I will sit in the front row of the class and closely listen to everything the professor says. I will study 24 hours a day.
  

Tea

One might think that in China each and everybody is drinking tea. This is wrong! At least in Beijing people, students in particular, drink HOT WATER. Tea is more from the old traditions and therefore for the old people. If drinking tea they put the leaves and stuff directly into the hot water and don’t use teabags. This makes you have some of the ingredients in your mouth later on and makes me think that I prefer it with the bag. And in addition to that I must say that I also prefer the flavor of the teas back home in Germany, so for China: Long live the hot water!
Anyway Chinese love tea/hot water so you usually see them with a big thermos flask walking around on the campus or sitting next to the thermos flask in their shop or just walking around in the streets with a marmalade glass on a rubber band containing water with the leaves. But where does all the hot water come from? In the renmin daxue (Peoples University) there are some hot-water-rooms with a couple of boilers in there where all the students come with their thermos flasks to refill it. In trains next to the toilet there is a room with a coal fired boiler and an already filled thermos flask in every compartment.
  

Food

Be prepared! Be prepared to be surprised! Be prepared to be shocked!
You can find everything on the plate: pork, beef, dog, turtle, small birds, chicken, rabbit, tails, claws, everything. Not all of it everyday and some things are rated as delicatessens so hard to find in the eating place around the corner. Yes, “eating place”, because usually it’s just one room with some oven in one corner, some vegetables and meat next to the entrance and some table in between. To order your dishes you would then go to the food area and tell the waitress what you like and how prepared.
In the city they usually of course have a menu and if one is very lucky than the menu has some pictures. So you at least can have some kind of clue what you order. Normally you order different dishes which will be put in the middle of the table and everybody takes from them, drops the thing on his/her rice bowl in front and then moves it on to the mouth. In case you ate up all what was there – you ordered too few. It is supposed to be much more than what you can eat.

Chinese make sounds when eating. Actually for a German this can be quite shocking. Well, it is only shocking until there are some bones in the food. Chinese put the meat with the bone into the mouth and after some seconds they just spit the bone out – either on the table or on the floor. At some places the floor was even a bit slippery due to this. This is definitely the thing I like the least about China. To be honest: I was shocked and I hate it.

Most of the food I ate in China I never saw in a Chinese restaurant here in Germany. Once in China I ordered “pork in sweet-sour sauce” one of the classics in our Chinese restaurants in Germany. What came had nothing to do with the dish I expected and even the taste was different, but you can imagine that a country as big as a continent maybe has more than just one sweet-sour sauce. Hence I would say that the Chinese restaurants here in Germany only cover a very thin margin out of the dishes which are served in China. Nevertheless I like the food you can get in German Chinese restaurants, but now as I know more Chinese dishes I’ld really like to have more of them.
Anyway, the other way round, a European restaurant in Asia, it’ll be exactly the other way round – no Obatzda, no Apfelkircherl, only the famous dishes everybody knows.

  

Religion

Most Chinese don’t follow a religion. So for catholic point of view: “They don’t believe in god.” Oops, we just crashed into the first problem here: Buddhism has no god. And Daoism, I am not sure if I would even call it a religion. It has temples, but as far as I understand it’s just guidelines how to arrange your life, so nothing and nobody to pray to/for.
Anyway, some Chinese (in particular the minorities) believe in a religion (Christianity, Islam, Daoism, Buddhism, nature religions were those I saw). But a normal Chinese is pretty open and does prayers at any temple which comes along. Kind of “It can’t harm and maybe it works, so let’s try”. Or if there is a problem (like troubles finding a job) they just find the temple closest and pray there.
Number mythology plays a big role in it, so in a temple one lights as many “smoke sticks” as what you need (3 = energetic, 8 = get rich, 9 = long life, 10 = everything perfect). Most people go for 9 (so did I, when trying this out), but why not just everybody goes for 10 remains a miracle – or is it the Chinese way of being modest?
  

Chinese language

Chinese is not that incredibly difficult as I thought before. Or at least getting started is not so hard. You just grab the easier letters and learn the pronunciation and the meaning by heart. Soon you’re going to see the letters everywhere and may even understand something. So one of the 4 letters I learnt is ‘大’ = ‘da’ and means big. Some days later I wanted to go to a city called “Dali” so it started with the same letter ‘大’ :-)
Ok, well, actually for every letter you have to learn letter+meaning+pronunciation where in western languages you usually just have to learn the meaning (and maybe some pronunciation rules, for the things which are different from your language). So after you learnt this for the roughly 3000 Chinese letters used in daily life then you can go ahead and learn the meanings of the words of 2-4 letters. Somebody told you that every letter is a word for its own? Well, that’s true, actually it’s more a syllable for it’s own. Anyway this is just one half of the truth, the other half is that most words consist of more then one syllable: Exit (出口), China (中国), University (大学).

If you really want to get lost, I will suggest you to walk around somewhere in a bigger city. Often there are no street names. If there are street names they’re not on your map (but there are a bunch with a rather similar name) or you can not find the street as you’re looking in the wrong corner of the map because you’re really lost walking around between houses which all more or less look the same – give the same anonymous scenery. You can not ask as you won’t understand the answer. In case you can make the people point in the direction, you’re still lost as Chinese rather send you to the wrong direction than admitting that they have no clue (what you’re talking about, or where the place you’re asking for is).
After some hours walking around you’re not only a bit worried, but hungry too. Fortunately this is easy to solve: Just go to somebody selling some food in the streets, point on something and then show the amount you want to have with you’re fingers. If you’re lucky, you’ll use the index to show “1”, in case of the thumb in the Chinese way of finger counting you actually showed 6.
Fortunately my sense of orientation so far was always good enough to bring me back home – even if sometimes I arrived an hour or two later than expected. Once I was really not able to make myself understood: In a bus in Beijing I had to tell the conductor the name of the station where I want to get off. They need this to tell you the price for the ride. After I pronounced it to different people in the bus who all didn’t understand me, then trying to show the stop on the route map where I was lost with the 43 stops of that line, in the end I found a piece of paper in my pocket with the name of the university where I lived. I was saved. And in the end the conductor even showed me when to get off (in the night I didn’t quite recognize it…)

  

Chinese are Germans

For this I didn’t find any note in one of the travel guides. I am pretty surprised that I didn’t as for me it is pretty obvious: Chinese are Germans. (Or Germans are Chinese.) Ok, we look a bit different from each other, but deep in the hearts we’re pretty equal – I mean in general, of course there’re exceptions. In particular, we are both good in technical engineering things. Germans produce highest precision products in highest quality, while Chinese (so far) copy them in highest quality. Design is where others like some French, Italians or Japanese are good in, but not us. We do reliable good work instead. In the morning we start at 8 sharp, then have lunch at 12 sharp, leave at 5 sharp, and go to bed right after the “Tagesthemen”. Well, in general we like rules and precise schedules. We’re punctual. Our both governments have a lot of bureaucracy in place which nobody fully understands. And we both are on our way to get this cleaned up. Actually China now more is in Germanys 60s – ramping up industry production, finding its place in the world, people being able to spend their first little money on luxury goods like cars.
Of course there are differences too. Maybe the biggest one is that Germans are more honest, we admit it when having no clue and we would not just copy a good product.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the relationship between Germany and China evolves. If there is going to be a special relationship. And if we’re equal like brothers or maybe my impression was just wrong. I am really curious :-)
  

sum up

So in the end China and the Chinese are in many aspects very different from Germany and Germans. In some other aspects they are just as you and me. Anyway I found a lot of very interesting things to see in China in particular in the culture and how the people behave. Also some things which just made me think about my culture. For example in China everybody has a network of “friends” – friends more in a way of somebody whom you once might ask for a favor. My first thought was that this is something stupid and bad. But thinking about it, I realized that we have the same here – being nice to people we actually don’t like (mother in law, professor, landlord) – but at least I didn’t really realize that it is just something like that.
Also, of course, I must say that I visited just a very small part of China. If China were Europe I would have seen just London and Switzerland – being a German I must insist that this is not entire Europe! So I did not see entire China neither. Means there are still many things to explore and all the above is propably completely wrong in the 99% of China I didn’t see yet.
If you’re looking for any recommendation here: Yes, I do recommend to go to China. I was very surprised by many things I saw there. And it was a lot different from what I expected and from what I read in the newspapers before. Well, I think this year will not be the last one we hear something from China so why not have a closer look? I’ld do it again :-)
But I must also say that I did not fall in love with China – it was interesting, sometimes beautiful and sometimes impressing, but it didn’t make it in my Top 5. Hey, there are over 100 countries in the world – not everybody can be in the Top 5!
By the way I did not see any of the shocks from the travel guide happen to me.
  

Thanks to Nanfen

I want to take this chance to send a BIG BIG THANK YOU to my friend Nanfen. Without all your explanations, translations and answers to my thousands of questions it would have been a completely different experience – with much less insight and understanding, but with much more problems. Yes, I was even asking which kind of bananas there’re growing in Yunnan. Now I know that this is like asking an Austrian about the types of olives they grow in Spain. Nevertheless I hope you enjoyed the journey as much as I did. You can be really proud of yourself having survived the six big adventures. Congratulations and once again THANK YOU.