Category Archives: China
Half a world away, across 13.5 time zones, enduring 18-20 hours of flight time and a layover, endured four straight airplane meals, I have arrived. Mumbai. Formerly Bombay. The airport was a good welcome to the country. Hot, sticky, dusty, loud, smelly, crowded, and chaotic.
As someone told me before I left, India is an assault to the 5 senses. That’s not always a bad thing – sometimes the combat does you well. For example, the smells of a very spicy curry wafting from a roadside stand. Or the overpowering taste of some new and unknown fruit. Or the shocking blast of air conditioning upon stepping out of the sweltering heat. Yes, India is a land where your senses will be overwhelmed. The whole country seems to live like that, going from one extreme to another.
India’s clash between its history and its future is also a contrast. In many ways it still operates in its historical pattern and in some ways it has left that behind. In India much moreso than in any other place I’ve been, people still wear the traditional dress. Sarees, Bindis, Kurtas, are everywhere. Traditional garments seem to outnumber western ones, even in the cities. And bureaucracy reigns supreme in most places. At the airport going through security I was stopped because my ticket wasn’t stamped. It was one guy’s job to simply stamp the ticket at the counter. Even though I’d used the automated kiosk a red mark needed to be put on it for it to be valid.
India has a large upwardly mobile population, as well as a large population stuck in poverty. Still somewhat stuck to its old ways, India’s caste system is still somewhat in place, though on shaky ground. This also means that the tradition of servility is in place. Many of the wealthier Indians and foreigners hire full-time servants for things like driving, cleaning and cooking. I’ve been told these salaries may range from $40 to $250 per month. But that is changing, too; as opportunity comes to India money and business success is becoming the new caste structure. Some formerly from the lowest caste have become multi-millionaires.
And India can be very confusing. For example, Mumbai has two airports separated by 7 km – both with the airport code BOM. So if you’re flying into the country there, then on to another area keep this in mind. Nothing like getting caught at the wrong airport and wondering where your flight is. By the way, the going rate for an autorickshaw (also known as a tuk-tuk) ride from one to the other is about 100 Rupees – $2.50. Learn how the Indian drivers haggle.
India reminds me somewhat of China. And that’s not surprising. Both countries are climbing their way from third-world to first-world status seemingly in a generation. The pace at which each country is modernizing is shocking. And with that modernization come the natural byproducts of construction, squalor beside luxury, cultures intermingling, over crowding, breakdowns in etiquette, etc. It’s very much the feeling of a runaway train going at full speed. You’re going somewhere really fast but staying on the tracks is problematic.
In India this is more of a problem than in China because India is a democracy. Whereas China can shut down production in one area and relocate it overnight, India must nudge the free market. And controlling the direction of the economy means that bribery and corruption are natural outgrowths. This is something both countries have been struggling with in recent years; trying to get it under control. China simply executes those it deems guilty, but India cannot take such a harsh stance. From the feel of things, India seems to be doing a better job of reigning in corruption. China seems to be paying lip service but only needs an occasional scapegoat.
But despite its current challenges, India is a great place. It’s a country moving upward in the world. Quickly modernizing and becoming connected to the rest of the world.
Friend of mine is going to China for the first time. I wrote him some tips and I figured I’d share.
Take your guidebook to learn things like “Hello” “Goodbye” “Thank you” and other simple stuff. They’ll do a better job teaching that than I would. But you won’t learn some essential things there. Like:
-Bu Yao – don’t want; use this when getting harassed by street vendors. A good quick “Bu Yao. Bu Yao.” will send them scurrying. If not, be more forceful with the words.
-May Yo – none left, we’re all out; you’ll hear this in restaurants or other shops when they don’t have any of something you’re looking for.
-Fu Yuan – waiter/waitress; you have to call them over
-My Don – check, please
-Everybody knows basic 1-5, most know 1-10, please, thank you, etc in English.
-Whenever you get a first price from a street vendor, drop off a zero and counter with that. That usually gets closer to the real price. Don’t worry about insulting them, instead it makes you seem like you don’t care. Most of the stuff isn’t worth 1/10 of what they’re asking anyway.
-If you can, watch what the locals pay. Get used to the currencies and watch what is handed over and what is given as change. That’s your price. If you don’t see the locals buying it, you probably don’t need it anyway. If you think you do then ask how much for the thing the local bought and see what price the vendor gives you. You now know the ratio from real price to the tourist price and can gauge your purchase
-Never be afraid to walk away. There’s a dozen more little shops around the corner. Odds are the guy will call you back and give you whatever your last price was.
-Know how to tell genuine from imitation. Nearly everything is fake there. But many times the legit vendors will have the real stuff too. For example, jade supposedly never shatters, but glass does very easily. Ask if you can test the “jade” by hitting it lightly. If the guy says no, walk away. But more often than not he’ll smile, say no
and pull out something different from under the counter which he will let you test. Now he knows you’re not a sucker and you’ll get a better price as well as the real stuff of whatever you ask for.
-Many people will treat you like a visitor in their home. Often people will go out of their way to help you or to at least make sure you get where you’re going. Smile and be friendly to everyone and they’ll likely reciprocate.
-You’re not very likely to get ripped off, though there are some scam artists out there. Each locality seems to have their own scams and there are some well known nationwide ones (like the art student scam). Look these up and be wary. Women are especially vulnerable to scammers and pickpockets.
-If you look different than they do, expect to be the star of many photographs. You’re the freak show come to town, get used to it. They’re just being friendly.
-Don’t drink the water unless you’ve sterilized it. And even then be wary.
-Watch out for medications. Many that look the same may behave much differently. Case in point I took a cold medication there that made me vomit all night.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the building in Shanghai that collapsed, as well as a bridge that partially collapsed. Today on the radio they said that the building developer’s license had been expired since 2004. This obviously does nothing to bolster the peoples’ confidence after last year’s Sichuan earthquakes where several schools collapsed (while other buildings still stood) and thousands of children were killed. This tragedy was linked to corruption in the construction and approval processes.
Also from the recent news, the Chinese government wanted special censorship software installed on all computers in their country. Called Green Dam-Youth Escort, the government eventually backed down after its citizens and PC manufacturers protested and after several vulnerabilities were discovered. But it turns out that the company hired by the government the software stole much of the code from a US software developer’s freeware version. Now that US developer is being attacked with custom written malicious code and phishing attacks, tenuously linked to Chinese sources.
When we were in China, Brian and I joked that “Chinese engineering will save us!” But that’s clearly not the case as this past week has shown us. No doubt that these are exceptions to the rule, but they are very public embarrassments for a government which tries to avoid them at all costs.
I think I’ve said before that English is the universal language. Well I think it is better said by Jay Walker here in this TED talk, which is both a little scary and a little inspiring.
His point is that the local language will always be the first one learned and the primary one used amongst people. But English is quickly becoming the world’s second language.
To use an example to drive the point home, China will next year become the world’s largest English speaking country. Every year 80 million Chinese students will take a test for which they have spent 12 hours a day for three years studying – and 25% of it will be scored on their mastery of English.
I was checking out my Google Analytics stats (it’s not that I care about tracking you, I just like the pretty graphs) and noticed that in the last month I’ve had 4 views from China. That is 4 more than I’ve had since June when I turned on the feature. I’m not sure if the Chinese have begun to allow blogspot through their Great Firewall or if these viewers have found a way around it.
Interestingly, from looking at the data it appears to be three different people. There are three browser languages, none of which are Chinese – all western European. All four views have come from Yahoo or Google on keyword searches, three about Shamian Island and one about the Kunming Cloudland hostel. Three of the hits came from a Mac and one from Windows.
So welcome, viewers from China! If you have any questions that the blog posts don’t answer, feel free to post a comment here or email me at the address in the upper right of the page.
PS. To the person who appears to be looking for a way to get to Shamian Island from the metro, it’s not that far as I recall. Wikipedia gives some more detail: “A metro station (Huangsha) is located within a short walk from the island.”
Me: I’m shopping at Aldi right now in an anti-Chinese protest.
Me: So if the boycott has less effect the Chinese will feel like the paper tiger they are.
I just saw this video over on Dan Miessler‘s blog. It’s worth a watch if you’ve got five minutes. Even if you don’t, put it on and listen to the audio. This report originally aired on Sky News, probably sometime around April 2006 judging from the posting date. It shows how the Chinese government is seizing private property (they are capitalists, not socialists, so people can own property) and giving it over to developers.
Yes, this happens in other countries, but you get the sense from the video and from visiting the country that it’s a fairly frequent occurrence. All over the country, you see signs of development, construction, buildings going up, etc. Many of the old areas of Beijing have been torn down and replaced with new construction. In many places, old looking buildings are being put up and advertised as authentically ancient.
I loved my trip through China and would also love to go back some day. But not to see an artificially managed reality of what the government wants the world to see. I want to see the China that is the people and their living culture. That is where the attraction is for me. And if I ever get to go back (Would they ban me for what I’ve written in the blog? If they know it’s out here and can connect it to me they would.), I’ll be seeking out the places where I can find it. Mostly it will be in the smaller cities (only 4-5 million or so) and villages.
I might not go there for shaolin training, but I’ll certainly try to walk the Earth a little bit there. Maybe I’ll find some of the real China lurking. I heard an interesting interview yesterday with a woman who had grown up there but said she had to come to the US to become more Chinese. She’d been indoctrinated with Mao’s rhetoric and even played his wife in propagandist movies. I know that the cultural revolution is over, but the culturecide (that’s probably not a real word) continues. Instead of being in the name of communism or Mao, it’s in the name of capitalism and money.
And I’ve changed my mind about this photo. I now think it is more accurate, as Brian described it, as a small cat seeing his reflection as a tiger. China is not the gracefully powerful nation it imagines itself to be, but it is dangerous in its aspirations. That tiger still has claws.
The National Geographic Picture of the Day is a great website for photos. It showcases their collection was taken on the Li river in China, near Guilin, in 1974. I took similar photos from there, 33 years afterward. In the National Geographic shot from 1974, the area looks clean and beautiful. My picture looks bleak and ghostly. This blanket of smog covers the entire country, it seems. It is thicker in places than it is here, but is only very rarely clearer.
The slight bit of greying of the distant mountains in the older shot is probably the grandfather of the pollution that I encountered in my shot. You can see how gorgeous the Chinese countryside was at one time and how it has been bathed in the consequences of the country’s rampantly irresponsible industrialization practices. If this is what they are willing to do to themselves, what do you think they export?
In recent weeks, some of China’s biggest problems have been given a lot of publicity. Corruption, quality control problems, toxic chemicals, rancid ingredients…these things are all commonplace in China. Part of it is a Chinese problem, but much of it stems from the global companies who insist on buying and selling things for the cheapest price possible. They turn a blind eye to the consequences of outsourcing production to China in favor of profits.
For a couple of years now, people have been talking about how China is going to own the world. I believed it might happen as well, until I actually saw the world react to the things that have been apparent for years. China is developing their infrastructure at an insane rate, thanks to cutting corners on safety and human rights. I think if anything will check this growth and put China in its place, it will be the public focus in the Western world on these issues. China considers these issues to be internal and believes that the world should not focus on them. However, when globalization causes these problems to affect the rest of the world, we should expose them.
To avoid going off on a rant that would consume several hours, but if you’re interested in finding out more about this kind of thing, do some Googling. Check out China’s newfound love for African nations who share their “anything for a Yuan, people be damned” attitude. See if you can find some reports about poor people being used as organ farms for the rich. Check out any information about what happened in Tibet during the cultural revolution and how that attitude has been turned from the culture to the people and the land — namely breeding out ethnic Tibetans and raping the resources.
update: Check out the Consumerist’s coverage of the Senate commerce committee hearings about the quality controls on Chinese imports.