Eight Observations About China

I was in China back in May on a trip to visit my brother, who was living in Xi'an at the time. Here are a few of my observations about my travels.

1. The smog is real

There is no doubt that the environment in China is being destroyed by the process of industrialization. Perhaps some of this is inevitable, but I think a lot of it is preventable. I’ve heard that the leadership in Beijing is afraid of sacrificing economic growth for clean air because they believe that lower economic growth will lead to political unrest. I just can't imagine that to the average Chinese person the small economic cost of installing more filters on their coal-fired power plants would outweigh the improvements in the air they breathe and the water they drink. In effect cleaning up the environment is substituting a bit of wealth for clean air and water. If anything people will be happier and less likely to demand a change in leadership with more of the latter than the former. The math just isn't adding up and I want to know why more isn't being done here.

2. The food is worth the trip alone

I ate an incredible amount of food. Some of the highlights include a 30 course meal in Xi'an, eating 40 soup dumplings in one sitting in Shanghai, and eating an entire duck in Beijing that normally would feed a family of 5. Yes, I made sure to stuff my face with as much food as possible. I also made sure to try everything, including a durian pastry at my brother's urging. It was all worth it though. Through thousands of years, the Chinese have perfected the culinary arts and created some of the world's best cuisines and dishes. I'll be back next year, and am already looking forward to the food!

3. People largely don't care about politics

In the West, we have the idea that the people in China are somehow trapped in a communist system and are not free. I've known for some time that China is communist in name only, but what I didn't know was how people felt about it. I just assumed that, more or less, there was a strong desire for democracy. But what I found was that people are extremely apathetic to politics. It reminds me of a conversation between Dany and Ser Jorah Mormont in George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones:

"Magister Illyrio says they are sewing dragon banners and praying for Viserys to return from across the narrow sea to free them.” “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends,” Ser Jorah told her. “It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace.”

To the Chinese people, there have been dynasties, emperors, and rulers over a few thousand years. But to them, it doesn't really matter what goes on in Beijing -- they could almost care less. What they do care about are their families, face, and maybe getting the latest iPhone.

4. There is basically an America within China (plus another billion poor people)

The Chinese middle class is about as big as the entire population of the United States. They are educated, reside in apartments with all the amenities, live in cities bustling with activity, go out to eat and shop, have families, etc.

I realized how similar things are when my brother took me to the local Wal-Mart in Xi’an to pick up some food and housing supplies. This is the epitome of modern day consumerism -- and it’s alive and well in China. Sure, the product marketing and contents are geared towards a Chinese audience, but besides that it’s all the same. They still work at the same kinds of jobs so they can go to the same store (Wal-Mart) and buy the same things (food, kitchen supplies, and toys for their kids) as we do.

5. I will never fully grasp the concept of face

Try as I did, I just couldn't understand face. Is it about pride? Not getting embarrassed? Family honor? Is it cumulative, or just in the moment? Can you ‘save’ and 'spend' face? Do you give face to get face? No matter how many questions I asked or how hard I tried to understand the concept of face, it just never clicked for me. At one point I turned face into a game, and tried to give the maximum amount of face possible. I think I was successful, but in the end I'm a foreigner, so apparently my face doesn't even count!

6. The infrastructure is outstanding

The Chinese leaders have done a wonderful job of investing in long term infrastructure. I think this may have to do with many of them having engineering backgrounds, but it could just be that they are highly rational actors. In New York City, it’s taken nearly a century to bore a mile of the 2nd avenue subway line. In China, they are adding entire subway lines every few years in each of their major cities. I rode on a recently completed high-speed train that made a nearly 700 mile journey in around 5 and a half hours. This same trip in the United States would easily take double the time and probably include multiple transfers. The world should be emulating China in this regaurd.

7. Children Are Under Immense Pressure

It boggles my mind how much pressure is put on children in China. Due to the one-child policy many children don’t have siblings, and neither do their parents. This means two parents and four grandparents doting over each child. People pour all their hopes and dreams of success into that one child.

Furthermore, there are so many people in China that you have to be fiercely competitive to get ahead. Average is nowhere near good enough, and every parent wants their child to be ‘the best’ -- adding on even more pressure to succeed. Parents therefore enroll their children in cram schools that can add an additional 4 hours of schooling per day. The educational system is not unlike the ancient imperial examination system, and emphasizes rote memorization and extreme hard work over all else. As a result, children in China are forced to go to school all day, go to cram schools in the evening, and then do homework until they fall asleep at night. This seems like a recipe for disaster, disappointment, and depression.

8. Smoking is Everywhere

The worst part of China by far is the ubiquitous smell of smoke. Not only do a high percentage of people smoke, but it is perfectly acceptable to smoke everywhere. It was rare that I would complete a meal in a restaurant without having to inhale the cigarette fumes of a nearby table. On a flight from Shanghai to Guilin, a passenger in first class smoked four times. No one dared say a thing, even though it’s illegal -- presumably that person had lots of connections. In the past 25 years the US has been able to reduce the percentage of people who smoke, while also making many of our public places smoke-free. It’s time for China to do the same.

Overall I had a good time and came to a greater understanding of China and Chinese culture. It really helped to have my brother, Coco, and her very gracious family there to guide me along. I’ll be back in China next year for my brother’s wedding and will be sure to eat even more delicious food and possibly visit Chengdu.