Monday, February 18, 2013

Ni Hao China - Part 2

With all the restart activities and Valentine's Day prep behind me, I can get back to my China travel blog.  Now where was I...

It’s been a few weeks since I returned from China, and if I’ve seen you, some of my stories may sound familiar, so apologies in advance if I repeat myself. A lot of people have asked me ‘how was it?’, and it’s hard for me to just say, ‘it was awesome, unbelievable, amazing’ without a little bit of hesitation. My trip is settling in nicely as time goes by though, and it's now approaching awesome status in my mind.  When I was there, it was hard to not feel at least a little bit on edge most of the time. China is just so different. Signs looked like ancient hieroglyphics and words coming out of people’s mouths had about the same meaning as a dog's bark to me. There was no way to blend in. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being the only non-dark-haired non-Asian in a crowded subway car. I consider myself fairly well-traveled and even got to live in France and the Netherlands for months at a time back in my corporate days, but I’ve never felt so illiterate and an island as I did in China. Things I took for granted, like taxi drivers speaking English or understanding the specials your waitress is describing, were just not going to happen, and I quickly realized that the sooner I accepted that, the more I would enjoy this little adventure on the other side of the planet. 


I also realized adding international data roaming to my cell phone service and the Google translate app to my Iphone might not be a bad idea.

While getting into a taxi with only my passport, phone, a stack of Yuan, and a taxi card with my desired destination written in Chinese on it became an adrenalized-infused adventure, both for the fact that I never really knew if I was going to end up where I planned and that driving in China was absolute mayhem, such challenges turned out to be the defining experiences of my trip and the most memorable.   Especially since I lived to tell the tales.

Sure, it was amazing to see the giant pagodas at the Ming Tombs and walk through the Forbidden City in Beijing, and I will get to all that, but it was the feeling of being immersed in a culture so foreign and far away that really made it for me.

One of the biggest eye-openers was seeing how most Chinese people actually live. It’s pretty well known that China has been enjoying a huge trade surplus for a number of years and been floating us loans to cover our growing debt. It wasn’t hard to notice they are definitely spending some of their cash on improving their infrastructure. New highways, vast arrays of high rise apartment buildings, airports and train stations could be seen in varying states of construction everywhere I went in China. From first glance, it seemed China really was in a state of unabashed prosperity. Not to mention that a good portion of the Shanghai skyline is less than twenty years old!

The part I wasn’t expecting to find was that the majority of the population lives in what you and I would call poverty. It’s difficult to know how accurate statistics are but World Bank estimates 70% of the population lives on less than $5.00 per day. For most, this means living in an unheated house with no kitchen and a bathroom they share with their neighbors. My brother has a housekeeper who takes a shower in their house, because she doesn’t have one at home. I will say, though, I rarely saw a homeless person or a panhandler. The government supports their citizens in need, but there are no free lunches.  Everyone gets a job to earn this support, even if that job may involve sweeping a fifty foot swath of sidewalk with a hand-thatched broom all day long.    Poverty rates are definitely declining, but there still exists a large gap between lower income and upper.   In fact, one of their major challenges is trying to create a real middle class.  It will be interesting to see how they do at that.    Obviously, there's a lot more to this, but in the interest of your time, I'll leave it there for now.

The first day my brother took me on a little bicycle tour of the local neighborhood near his home.  The interesting part, and it’s hard to say without sounding condescending, is I never felt unsafe. A similar neighborhood in the U.S. would definitely not make me feel that way, even on such a Sunday morning. We visited a ‘wet market’, appropriately named for the liberal use of water to hose down floors, keep produce wet, and of course have tubs for the live fish to swim in.

My brother picking out some fresh edamame.

This first immersion excursion also included my first taste of ‘street food’. A tasty, crepey thing with egg and some mystery sauces from an old plastic bowl and painted on with an even older paintbrush, cooked to crunchy perfection on a big flat hot plate. A good friend had warned me it wasn’t an ‘if’ but a ‘when’ I’d get sick from the food while I was there, and I was fairly certain her prophecy was about to come true.

Darned if it wasn’t some of the best food I had the entire trip, and it passed through me without a hitch. I think it cost about a buck, and I split it with my brother. A definite confidence builder for my street food adventurousness. Bring on the stuff on sticks!

Much more to tell, stay tuned..

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